On Shifting Keys

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Today’s reflections were sparked by a message from a friend asking the following question:

Question, how do you feel as an arranger, singer, and/or multi-genre musician about the practice of habitually shifting the keys of songs? One of my quartets casually shifts many songs up a tone or more as if it's nothing (including with little notice), and it's putting strain on me both vocally and conceptually. It's alright if the song is simple, but if there are mucho chromatics I have to perform integral calculus as I go, and it breaks my music memory. Can I put my foot down or am I being unreasonable?

It’s a good one, isn’t it? My immediate response was that there needs to be some sort of negotiation here – just because a different key is good for one or two voices, doesn’t make it good for all. And that if they are habitually picking arrangements that comfortably accommodate either low or high voices, but not both at once, they need to have a bit of a think about how they are going about this.

Which is fine as an opening bid, but there was more in there to think about than a quick response covered, and I find that not all my opinions are in the same direction.

So, as a pragmatic person who works with singers, one of the things I like about close-harmony a cappella is that it is so easy to shift things up or down a semitone or two to fit the particular voices you have in the room. As someone who once upon a time used to do quite a bit if piano accompaniment, I particularly appreciate the convenience of this.

As a scholar, however, one of the things I have long been interested in is the expressive connotations of different keys. There’s a chunk of my PhD on the subject, and about a decade ago I found myself being interviewed on the radio about the key of F sharp and synaesthesia.

Thus, as someone with both a theoretical-historical and personal-experiential awareness of the different qualities of keys, I consider a shift in key to entail a change in musical effect/meaning as well as tessitura. It may still be a good solution to a vocal difficulty, but it’s not something to do without thinking through the implications.

As an arranger, both of these positions come into play. I spend a good deal of time thinking about the right key to pitch things in. Much of this is about how the tune fits on the voice, and about the voicings are likely to work around it, but the expressive connotations of the key are also part of that equation. On the other hand, I sometimes find myself quite consciously arranging within the expected range of an ensemble so as deliberately to give them room to shuffle up or down a bit if they need to.

Overall, it looks like my pragmatic streak tends to win, though not without having to answer to my expressive-idealist streak.

The other thing that I thought this question drew attention to that merits discussion is the effect of changing keys on singers. Whilst it can solve some problems (such as ‘this bass line is too low for me’), it also presents challenges. And not just to the pressure it puts on the other end of the range from the one being molly-coddled by the shift.

One of these is to muscle memory – which is why indeed I like to use shifting the key about as an exercise to challenge a group to listen anew when for example they have a well-practised slump in tonal centre. People get used to a song sitting in a certain part of their voice, and whilst alienating them from that can be a valuable thing to do when trying to address unhelpful habits, it can also be expensive of rehearsal time if people then have to relearn their embodied relationship with the music.

Another is the cognitive overload caused by someone having to do mental transposition at the same time as learning a song. What is interesting about this challenge is that it is one that only afflicts those with the musicianship to have a strong sense of key and a confident and fluent relationship with notation. Someone who only ever learns by ear may not realise how central knowing what key you’re in, and what note of which chord you’re singing is to the internal musical landscape of the literate.

Thus, the experience of performing music in a different key from the one you’re reading it in becomes rather more like it is for a pianist. Probably okay if it’s only a semitone and you can read the same notes just with a different key signature (D to D flat etc), but an increasingly analytical process the further you transpose, and more cognitively demanding the more harmonically complex the music is.

So, if you have a good sight-reader in your midst, it is kinder to do the negotiations about key ahead of rehearsal so they have a chance to get their head round it in advance. You know, much as you wouldn’t spring a new song on an ear-singer without giving them the chance to prepare.

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