Life in the Keys of Songs

I recently wrote a song called Atonement Blues. It’s in the key of C, although it passes thru all 12 7th chords. It got me thinking about whether I favor different keys in my song writing. So I went and made a list of all the songs I’ve written and performed or put on a records.

It’s interesting because different keys have different sounds. To me the higher keys and the sharper ones tend to sound brighter and the lower ones, as well as the flatter ones, darker. When you’re in a given key your mind and hands tend to run in certain patterns, especially on sax. Sometimes when you’re writing a song, changing its key can alter the whole character dramatically.

It turns out I have a pretty good spread:

C: 3 Cm: 4 7
Db: Dbm: 2 2
D: 2 Dm: 2 4
Eb: Ebm: 1 1
E: Em: 2 2
F: 3 Fm: 1 4
Gb: 2 Gbm: 2
G: 2 Gm: 2
Ab: Abm:
A: 3 Am: 4 7
Bb: 1 Bbm: 1
B: 1 Bm: 1

It looks like I favor the keys of C and A (both Major and minor). C generally sounds neutral to me, while A is bright, although A minor sounds neutral too. There are some gaps in the low major keys and high minor keys.

C is the default key for writing on piano and a good jazz key. Of the seven songs I have in C and C minor, most are jazz numbers, or jazziod rock numbers, and only one, Touch the Ceiling, is a straight-ahead rocker. It was co-written with my drummer Mark who chose the key. Three of these are recently written numbers I’m doing in my jazz originals group.

I have two songs in Db minor. Both are kinda funky/jazz and both began in C minor or D minor and I shifted them a half-step. For a while I really got into writing on the piano in keys that use alot of black keys, after noticing that guys like Stevie Wonder and Donald Fagen tend to do alot of that.

D is a pretty versatile key, low but bright, good for jazz or rock. I have four songs in D and D minor. All of them are strident and uptempo.

Eb minor is a fun and weird key, very dark. I have one song in that key, Ghost in the Machine. I don’t have anything in Eb major.

In my mind E is the default rock key. Interestingly, both of my songs in E-minor are non-jazz instrumentals that have a single chord and mostly are about exploring out time signatures.

F is another versatile key, higher but darker than C. Of the four songs I have in F, two are uptempo and two are ballads.

The two songs I have in Gb is actually in F#. F# is higher and brighter then E. Both are rather cosmic sounding. One, Angel or Alien, was and was written on the bass and is mostly a ballad with an uptempo middle section. The other, Seventh Sea, is a jazz ballad that spends alot of time in other keys and plays with the idea of shifting tone centers.

I have 2 songs in G but none in G minor. Both are are up and bright

I have no songs in Ab. Maybe I should try writing one.

I have seven songs in A and A minor. Most of the A minor ones were written a long time ago for Event Horizon. Of the ones in A major, Rocket to the Moon is one of the few songs I’ve written on guitar. Black Swan was written mainly on bass, and moves thru several keys, including a big part in E minor.

Bb sounds lower and darker than C to me. Great jazz key. The one song I have in Bb, Your Dancing Shoes, is a soul/funk/blues number that I’ve done both a rock and a jazz version of.

The only key that’s brighter than A is B. My only song in B, Heat Wave, is very uptempo and in 7/8. It modulates to G# minor for the verse.