Composing : Keys by Joel Irwin

Joel Irwin


Haven't posted in a while but here are two questions:

1. Do you have a favorite key - a key you go to more often than any other , do you pick a key based on the instruments being scored/performed, or is you choice of a key random

2. For live performance, do you pick a key based on the expertise of your musicians (minimal number of accidentals), based on the request of the singer or chorus (if there is one), or do you expect your performers to play whatever key you give them?

My answers:

1. G

2. I try to pick a key that works at the level of expertise of my target performers and try to limit accidental key signature for all instruments, transposed or otherwise to 2 accidentals.  My performers also prefer a score mainly in flats and not sharps.  However, if my singer needs to change the key, I defer to them though I question their key if the score signature ends up mostly in 4 or 5 accidentals and I ask the singer to adjust a half step to an easier key.  Except for well accomplished jazz, big band or classical performers, I generally leave out the key signature and put in all accidentals (no key signature).  I find that intermediate level musicians are less likely to make errors that way.  On the budgets I have, I often take whatever I can get.  So I write to the level of my performers.

Toby James

Great question, Joel. I’m my world, the answer to both is: The music and instrumentation dictate the key. If the performer is unable to play in certain keys due to expertise, then they have no business being there. Harsh, but fair.

Joanna Karselis

Definitely a good question Joel! I absolutely agree with Toby. It does all depend on the project and what the music needs, though I do find myself writing in D, C or F minor quite a lot (D is great for orchestras as the double basses can be right down in their register but still use vibrato- learnt that from Hans Zimmer!)

I do generally expect my players to play whatever is given, regardless of key, but am aware that I have the luxury of pro players or self recording which not everyone does. There does need to be common sense applied within that though. As a recent example I was doing an orchestral session for a library trailer project with a fairly tight recording schedule. I chose to use relatively straightforward keys as it wasn't to picture, and choosing say C# major over E major would've unnecessarily held up the session. It's all about making sure you're writing well for each instrument too, e.g. considering string fingerings, breaks in wind/brass instruments, harp pedalling, finger stretches on piano, etc.

Morgan Aitken

Interesting: a fusion of orchestration and performance. I suppose, digital and sample libraries (Steinberg, Spitfire, East West, et al) put paid to performance considerations. Or do they? I love the gem from Zimmer re cellos & bass (of course, can't vibrato an open string). I wonder if that's the case with VSTs and sound libraries. Anyone?

Toby James

@morganaitken Definitely one of my pet peeves - people not learning even the ranges of instruments, let alone the idiosyncrasies of the instruments. Fortunately most sample libraries build in the ranges. On the other hand, some wonderful hybrid scores have been made by ignoring the rules. I suppose everything must be justified by its context?

Vedant Namdev Dighe

I will just say go with the vibe that you are feeling. I am probably not the type of person to limit myself to keys/scales for composition. So yeah... As a composer, you are music.

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