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Musings On Key Lifts

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If my mother were writing this post, it would be tagged under my Soapbox category, and it would be a vehement denouncement of the use of the semitone key lift as a device for adding interest to repeated material. There would be particular attention to the work of John Rutter, in which she contends that it is a formulaic trick, so over-used that instead of perking up her attention it makes her heart sink with a feeling of ‘Oh no, not again’.

However, I have not yet entirely turned into my mother, so I am not going to be quite so doctrinaire. But neither am I resisting the inevitable process of family resemblance, so I’ll say she does have something of a point.

I spend rather more of my time in a cappella, as opposed to accompanied, choral worlds than she does, and so my reservations about semitone key lifts are more based around how badly they are often sung. The standard quip is that their main function is to allow a flatting ensemble to end in the same key that they started in.

This is why they often feel a bit self-defeating to me. The point, expressively, in leaping into a new key is to get a wholesale contrast of tonal flavour. So if the ensemble doesn’t have a secure enough grasp of tonality to stay in the first one reliably, they’re not going to get the benefit of another one only marginally higher.

But I’ve been thinking more widely about key schemes, and I wonder whether another reason semitone lifts are variable in their effectiveness is because it is a device that seems to be predicated on the idea that all keys are equivalent.

This is an idea that, historically, could only emerge post equal temperament of course. Prior to the mid-19th-century, there were strong traditions of expressive associations for different keys, generally understood in terms of the different flavours produced by tuning systems and/or construction of instruments. Interestingly, the expressive traditions for many keys are more stable than the ‘causes’ attributed to them, so we can assume that the associations are actually self-perpetuating compositional habits, sustained by continued usage over time, rather than any kind of objective facts about the acoustic qualities of the instruments they were written for.

And of course, a cappella genres have an even more flexible approach to keys than this. For, while they do not actually use equal temperament to sing in, they have no predetermined tie to fixed reference pitches. A cappella groups commonly shift their music up or down a bit to sit more happily on their voices without thinking twice about it. In that world, a key a semitone up is exactly the same as your current key, except a bit higher.

But I’m not so sure that the old traditions of key association have died out. For sure, they’re not part of our general explicit understanding of music any more in the way they once were, but we still hear a lot of music from the past that was written in those traditions. And so we are used to hearing martial music in D, pastoral music in F major, pathos in G minor and heavenly or ecstatic experiences in E major, even if we don’t consciously connect the tonality to the emotional world.

And two central factors in this older tradition of key characteristics are that (a) sharp keys and flat keys represent contrasted expressive dimensions, and (b) the busier the key signature - the more sharps or flats involved - the further removed from ‘normal’ the expressive world is. Both of these factors mean that keys a semitone apart may be close in pitch, but distant in expression. Moving up from D flat to D (five flats to two sharps) moves you from the world of Clair de Lune to that of Zadok the Priest.

Now, sometimes, you might want that change of flavour. But if you do, you’re probably doing something a bit more daring that ‘up a semi, rinse and repeat’. Up a semitone for normal usage is both too close from a pitch perspective (too easy to slide back to where you started) and too far from a tonal perspective.

For practical purposes, my current instinct as an arranger is thus to prefer a whole tone lift if what we’re after is the extra-shot-of-caffeine-in-the-back-end-of-the-song function. It’s still arguably a standard trick, but sometimes you still want to use a well-known gesture.

And the tone lift has two advantages, First, it gives you that extra kick of the double espresso rather than the single. Clearly, as a long-term solution this leads us down all kinds of dangerous roads of addiction and expressive inflation, but for now it sounds fresher than a semitone lift. Second, the two keys are have a more realistic expressive relationship to each other, as they are tonally nearer. The higher one is always going to be perkier, as it is two steps sharper round the circle of fifths (and perky is good for a device intended to lift), but it is not so very distant as to feel like a completely different world.

I’m also thinking about using key schemes that exploit these traditional expressive flavours. This would tend to be for the more ambitious and emotionally wide-ranging projects - your major show-pieces rather than your happy-boppy sing-in-the-afterglow tunes. But I’ll write about that another day.

Of course, I couldn’t finish a post on key lifts without linking to the song that uses them to the point of subverting their meaning.

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