Key Signature ≠ Key

It’s the 21st Century. We’ve had modulations and chromaticisms, bitonalities and even atonlities, and you’d think that in 2011 we’d have a modicum of sophistication regarding the tonal centres and key relationships we discover in the music we play.

But no, an insistence that the key signature tells us the tonal centre of a piece of music has gone from being an example of anachronism to being a deplorable trend in most major Australian cities (!).

To be fair, we do call those congregations of accidentals at the beginning of each line of music a key signature; that is, this term implies that the accidentals signify a key rather than simply the notes required to be played a tone or semitone higher than the straight note name pitch. But in a post-atonal, neo-modal world it defies experience to assume that an absence of key signature signifies the C Major/A minor duopoly.

Imagine my horror/bemusement/outrage/despair some 10 years ago on seeing a well-respected examination board describe a piece they’d included in their syllabus as being ‘in C’ simply because there were no flats or sharps in the key signature (and precious few in the music itself). If the writer of their teaching notes had played the music through they could surely, surely have been in no doubt that the piece began and ended on a G, and that G was ‘home’ in the way that only  tonic can be.

As egregious as this error was I’ve been noticing a far worse trend in the past twelve months: examiners who mark students wrong when they correctly identify the key of a signature-less piece of music as being other than C Major/A minor.

A teacher in Melbourne told me of a student presenting a Christopher Norton piece that is clearly in F Major (the left hand part consists of a descending F Major scale pattern, for goodness sake, played twice, and then that’s the end of the piece) whose report came back announcing that the student had failed to identify the piece as being in C Major. A teacher in Brisbane told me of a student presenting my piece, Safari, whose report came back saying that the student had incorrectly named the key as E flat minor [you’ll notice there are only 5 flats in the key signature?!].

I’ve also had conversations with examiners who think a piece with one flat cannot be in the Dorian mode, even though the first and last bass notes are G (and G is clearly the home note); examiners who think that music with uniformly altered notes are still in the unaltered major or minor tonality; and examiners who fail to notice that pieces are in the Mixolydian mode.

This is a massive problem for assessment boards, for teachers, and for students who take their studies seriously. Examiners should not be the last to the party in music education, and it’s just embarrassing to think that teachers are having to explain to young students that they shouldn’t waste their emotional energy on the ignorant comments in the General Knowledge section of their piano exam reports.

Composers are going to keep writing music that doesn’t comform to the theory exam expectations; teachers understand this, and put considerable effort into understanding for themselves (and into teaching their students to understand) the way the composer is working.

The difference for the examination boards is that, for their integrity as assessment providers to be maintained, every single one of their examiners has to be up-to-the-moment in their comprehension of contemporary tonal languages. That’s just not the case at the moment.

It’s honestly not all that hard in most contemporary pieces:

  • which note feels like it’s the note the piece started on?
  • which note feels like it’s the note the piece ought to end on?
  • are the answers to these questions the same note? If yes, this is absolutely, without doubt, your tonal centre.
  • Now you know the tonal centre, is the piece in a mode? If yes, figure out which one.
  • If the piece is not in a mode, then just leave your answer at “the tonal centre is X” – that is sufficient for 2011 music assessments.
I’d love to hear more horror stories, but I’d much prefer to hear of examiners who are leading the way in getting it right.
And piano teachers: be confident in your sense of ‘home’ in a piece, and remember to train students to explain why they are convinced the tonal centre is the one they say. Maybe we can educate recalcitrant examiners by stealth.

15 thoughts on “Key Signature ≠ Key

  1. Another thing to factor in is the penchant of Bach, Haydn and others to use one less flat than we would, so that a piece in G minor has a one flat key signature. [You could argue sometimes that the piece is in the Dorian mode, but at other times it just looks like it was notated by the famous copyist, “Lefty” Flattoff.]

  2. Goodness! I am an AMEB examiner and sax/clarinet teacher and my students wouldn’t make the ‘key sig = key’ assumption. If only because I use the Myxolydian mode to scaffold into the blues scale (which is in the clarinet syllabus). I think it would be fair to say that most teachers and examiners take a thoughtful and musical approach to these issues and your examples are an unfortunate minority.

    • It’s absolutely fair to say that teachers and examiners as a rule take a thoughtful and musical approach to these issues! What’s really not fair is when any examiner gets it wrong, and penalises a student for getting it right. If I’d only heard of one example in one geographical area I wouldn’t have felt prompted to write this post, but I’ve been contacted on a weekly basis with queries from teachers from all over Australia wanting confirmation that the key centres they’ve taught their students are accurate (in the light of examiner comments to the contrary on examination reports). The good news for Australian music education is that the teachers who’ve contacted me with these queries have always been teaching their students the right thing….

  3. Thanks Elissa. You make some very good points here. Contemporary music is something that all teachers and examiners must be more aware of. I’m pleased to say the Trinity College music examiners have a 3 day conference in the UK every year for training (the only exam board to do such long training) and I hope it reflects in the reports of candidates.

  4. I like some of Bartok’s Mikrokosmos pieces for this – the “weird” key signatures that do not translate into a key. I find students are very receptive to this as long as you hit them with it at a young enough age. It’s amazing how stuck-in-the-mud (major/minor tonality) even teen-agers can get!

    And thanks for the clarification on the whole tonal centre issue.

  5. I heard the other day of a girl, some years ago, who was not allowed to play one of her extra pieces because it wasn’t on the syllabus .. an extra piece!
    This led me to lie awake wondering in how many ways could a flawed human, set to judge you, stuff up your exam for you!
    There’s also an issue with sending children into this arena without the resources or authority to defend themselves.

    • It’s definitely in “F” and then in “F#” and then it’s back in “F” again. I’d just call it F Major and F# Major, myself! [I don’t think anyone ‘hears’ the absence of the 4th and the 7th in this piece, so calling it pentatonic seems somewhat pedantic, imo!]

  6. I think you are correct is pointing out the flaws and rigidness in how we were all taught keys and key signatures. But here were are.

    For me (an arranger/composer, but leaning more to the arranger side), I want my music to be played right on the first reading. That means considering the psychology of what each symbol on the page might suggest to the player.

    As you point out, most of us stick to the idea that 2 flats = G minor.

    I like to think that “G minor tonality” includes a number of possible modes and scales(natural, melodic, harmonic, Dorian, Phyrgian etc)

    If I’m writing in G Dorian, I prefer a key signature of 2 flats – indicating a G minor tonality, and use accidentals to clarify the exact mode.
    2 flats indicates the tonic of G and the minor third, but not necessarily all the notes that will be used in the piece.

    I think using 1 flat for G Dorian gives the right notes, but is misleading as to the tonic (At least for today’s “educated” musician!)

    The same psychology would apply Major/Lydian/Mixolydian etc.


    • The design/patttern part of my brain & aesthetic finds the notion of writing 2 flats and then spending the whole piece making one of them redundant to be messy in the extreme!!

      I also think today’s educated musician should be educated in ways that are not restricted to diatonic thinking! If we didn’t start with the premise that diatonic major and minor are the neutral options (a 19th century reality that no longer holds) the world might be a better place! 🙂

  7. One of my students played Elissa’s Blues from Getting to Preliminary ( which she loved) for her recent exam. With no key signature and looking at the harmonies I assumed it was based on a B blues structure – the examiner corrected my student that it was in E minor. I’m confused?

    • Wow. The examiner thought it was in E minor?!?!

      My collection of extraordinary general knowledge examiner comment anecdotes continues!!

      No – this is *clearly* a piece with a tonal centre of B!!! Good grief!!!

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