Tonal Trends Pop Music Theory for Songwriters

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"Keys Musicians Use Most Part 1"

  Hi there, and welcome to the Spotter Stats blog.

  This video’s called “Keys Musicians use most, Part 1.”

  In this video and then the next one, we’ll be taking a look at what Keys people use the most, or the least, when writing pop songs!

  Alright, now I know I gave this spiel in the last SPOTTER STATS blog, but it bears repeating, that this is a study of Musical Keys used in POPular music.

  By pop music I mean to say, that the data I used for the graphs came mostly from the Rolling Stone Magazine 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time survey, and from some songs I teach my students.

  So yeah, Rolling Stone—Rock, Blues, Pop, Alternative, Funk, Hip Hop, Metal, Folk, and all their subgenres—-but not Classical and not Jazz so much, cause I guess for some reason RS Mag, most pop culture critics, and most of the kids I teach guitar to, aren’t really interested in Classical or Jazz, so…classical music trends, jazz trends, you’re on the back burner for now.

  Alright, first, we’re gonna take a look at Keys used overall based off of their Roots--that’s Roots across all songs studied, no matter if their tonality was Minor, Major, Phrygian, or whatever. We’re talking like, their letter names, their tonics, their 1^, their “doh” in the do-re-mi’s...

  And, this leads us to our most Important distinction. See, most of us use the word "Key" to also mean the specific Tonality of a tune, but we gotta be careful, cause it can get confusing when you’re separating the ‘collection of notes’ you use to play a whole song, from the ‘one note’ that all the other notes hang from. So yeah, in other words, there’s a difference between the Root, or tonal center/tonic, and the Key/Tonality, which refers to the collection of that note, and the next most important, trendy notes you’re gonna hear in the song!

  So take the Key of G# Locrian, G# isn’t a key itself, it’s a root--it isn’t a Key until it’s been assigned a bunch more notes that give that specific tonality or Key its character.

  OK, after we’ve looked at Key Usage across ALL KEYS, in Part 2, we’ll break down Key usage--also by Roots verses #’s and b’s--as separated into the three most common tonalities. Major, Minor(s), and Blues/Rock--just like we did for CHORD USAGE blog, video blog.

  If you don’t know what Blues-rock is, go back and watch that one, I talk about it in there a lot, some day I’ll do a Spotter SMARTS Video devoted entirely to the subject as well.

  Speaking of that last blog, this is only about half as much to take in: we’re only talking 12 keys, as opposed to the 24 chord triads we were looking at.

  So, yeah, if the last chord blog really left you scratching your head, I hope this video will be a little lighter on the noggin.

  OK, so lets Look at the charts!




All Keys concerning Letter Name/Root

  -OK first chart: Keys used based just on their roots, across all tonalities.

  -First thing to notice—is that E&A, and then G right here, are the gold, silver and bronze finishers in the survey.

  -And I’ll just give you a minute to ponder why that probably is...

  -That’s right—guitar strings.

  -Turns out, People tend to write a lot of pop music on the guitar--and the bottom two strings on the guitar, are E and A!

  -For this reason, E and A chords, whether major or minor chords, or even dominant blues-rock chords, are relatively easy to play on the guitar. In fact, they may be the easiest.

  -And this may be the probable cause for these spiking key root biases.

  -What do you think?

  -Alright, Next. Let’s look at the last place finishers, Ab, F#, B—now, these right here by contrast, are the roots of some hard chords to play on the guitar, major or minor…

  -But I want to be clear though—I’m not suggesting that these last place guys are the hardest chords to play on guitar, like I’m suggesting that A and E are the easiest.

  -Personally I think Eb is the hardest most frustrating chord to play on a guitar. But more on that later…

  -I guess for now all I’m saying, is the fact that they’re not easy to play, can’t have helped their score on this graph. There are other factors at play here, and we’ve always got to remember that we’re tonal trend spotters, not tonal rule makers! No rules, just trends.

  -OK, Let’s dig a little deeper--what are the rest of the Open String chords on guitar? And what are the open chords built on top of’m?

  -Oh BTW—saying “Open chord” simply means that the chord has an open, or non-fretted, string in it somewhere.

  -That’s how guitarists talk anyway. When a piano player uses the term Open Chord, they mean how the notes are farther apart from each other on the keyboard. That’s an important distinction; it’ll be on the test later, J/K…

  -OK—the rest of the Open chords:

  -G’s an open chord, and was the third place finisher, and then C, and D are the other major open chords, both with above average showings.

  -If you want a cool Mnemonic device for this, check it out:

  -C-A-G-E, and D, spell the word ‘caged,’ so, if you want help remembering the Open chords on guitar, and you like hippie-love type stuff and motivational posters, just think of like-- OPENing the door for something that’s CAGED, like maybe a dove or something, or like a bunch of birds…like “OPEN THE CAGE” [sound effects]…there they go, they’re free! Flap flap flap …isn’t that nice?

  -Or maybe if you’re a star wars fan it can be like when Jabba the Hut opens the cage door and releases the Rancor and he eats that green pig dude, and then Luke throws that rock and the cage door crushes the monster, and that other fat shirtless dude cries about it.

  -But yeah anyway, C-A-G-E-D, caged, the open chords…  

  -Alright, Now let’s consider Keys with F for their root…some of you may have noticed the fourth place F column on our graph is the only exception to the Trend that Open guitar chords, whether major or minor, make for more popular keys to play pop tunes in.

  -I mean, what’s going on here? F’s just as hard a chord to play as Ab or F#...

  -Hmm…I’m gonna let you mull that over on your own for a bit--why F had a high showing.

  -We’ll come back to it in a minute when we move on to the sharps and flats graph…

  -OK. So, What can we learn from all this easy-chord hard-chord business?

  -Well, the main thing—is that sometimes the tools we have to make art, directly affect the art itself!

  -It’s like when Picasso went to the paint shop, and blue paint was on clearance, so he bought like 50 gallons of it, and only painted mostly blue stuff for like three years…

  -nah JK, I… just made that up, but seriously, some painting materials were, in olden days--and are still today--more expensive to make than others, or at least harder to come by. Or like for sculpture: Sculptors are more likely to sculpt out of the rocks and stone and wood that’s more plentiful in their region. So, in the same way as it can be easier to make art with certain colors or materials—it can be easier to make music with certain chords!

  -And, I know all this sounds kinda like, “no-duh,” or like obvious--but really, how often do we think about this stuff? If we’re being honest—we almost never think about this stuff.

  -So, what I’d like to say about it is--Just because your instrument is easier to play in certain keys, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment with harder to come buy…um, stuff, materials.

  -So...Maybe use a capo, or devote some time to practicing the chords and the scales in keys that are harder to play. Or tune your instrument all weird and see what that does! You can even try recording your music in one of the easier, more trendy keys, then slow down the tape, or digitally shift the pitch to one of the harder keys, and force yourself to relearn it and work with it in that new key!

  -The results you’ll get from monkeying with your source materials might be Super mind-blow Awesome, or they might crash and burn. But regardless, you’re gonna come up with stuff you’d never have thought of if you'd stayed in the safer, more tonal-trendy keys!

  -OK, So I know that’s a lot of commentary so far with a guitar and rock bias. It is what it is.

  -If that’s frustrating to you now, just know that in the Part 2 video, we’ll not only look at data separated out into major, minors, and bluesrock, but we’ll also look at the keys of songs written exclusively by piano players. So yeah look for part 2 coming up this fall or winter.

  -One last thing about easier to play in keys based on roots: almost all the most popular Keys in this graph correspond with the white notes on the keyboard, or the non sharped or flated notes.

  -Only one Key that starts on a non sharped or flated note, B, doesn’t fit this trend, most likely because the tonality of B Major, uses all 5 black notes--that’s the most black keys possible for a white note root! And also, again, B is not an open chord, and so it’s hard to play on guitar!  

  -Now, Speaking of black notes, or more specifically, of #’s and b’s…

  -Let’s move on to the next graph…


All Keys concerning Sharps and flats. (B/R excluded)

  -All right, "Keys used based on Sharps and Flats"…

  -OK looks like we’re a little more top-heavy now that we’re viewing the data in this way---that’s better! More predictable right?

  -More predictable in that there’s an overall, noticeable decline among the bars from no sharps and flats to lots of sharps and flats, the major exception here being EbM and Cm.

  -Hmm—I wish I had a better theory for this, but for now--remember how I think that Eb is the hardest, most frustrating, chord to play on guitar? This graph may be where this opinion comes into play…but it might not be, I dunno, could be a fluke.

  -Um…The other obvious exceptions to the downward slope are in the guitar-string governed spikes we saw earlier--here, here, and here. Though it’s of note that now A is winning when compared to E… we’ll save conjecture over why that is for the Part 2 video.

  -Oh, also remember the “Root F” exception from the last graph? Well look here, the key of F major only has one flat, so that may just be the reason it beat out some of the guitarists’ open chords in the previous chart…

  -Another question that deserves time is---Why aren’t CM/Am-—or the main two keys with no sharps or flats--at the Top of the pack? Why are they only in second place to GM/em?

  -Well, first thing we could do is fall back on the Guitar tuning theory thing again. I mean, it’s true that the trendiest chords people play in CM/am are harder than the trendier chords in GM/em— Namely the F major chord is what I’m talking about---so…there’s that.

  -But I think I may have another theory that helps explain why C comes in second place:

  -And that is Piano fingerings:

  -See, when piano players get better, at lease better to the point where they’re good enough to get their songs in the RS Greatest 500, or good enough that they write songs that the Kids I teach want me to show them how to play’m…

  -When a piano playing songwriter gets this good at their instrument--by then they’ve realized that a black note or two makes it easier to play, and memorize, not harder!

  -Why? Because-Black notes can act as pivot points, or as points of reference!!!

  -Think of it this way—it can be hard to memorize a password that uses only numbers! But throw a letter in there, like Z or Q, and it becomes a reference point for memorization. Or like when you give directions it’s helpful to throw in a Landmark among all the lefts and rights. It’s just how our brains work.

   OK last, just for fun, let’s put these two graphs together, side by side!!!


Roots and Flat&Sharps next to each other.

  -Allright, Keys based on roots, and sharps and flats side by side!

  The order is in alphabet pitch order, and since pitch order is different than number of sharps and flats, the sharps and flats have been reordered to fit next to Major key roots, only because Major is a much more common starting point, that’s the only reason I didn’t do it by minors…

  -So yeah, here you can see that when you switch key roots to be with their major key signatures, it makes a pretty big difference--for most all the columns, doesn’t it?

  -Oh, incidentally, if you want to know some fancy music words for what I’m talking about there, I’m talking about Relative keys and Parallel keys-

  -So what are those?

  -Well, the First graph deals with Parallel keys, where you got the same tonic root, but different key signatures. That’s the blue bar in this third graph.

  -The previous graph, or Second graph we looked at, was all about what are called Relative keys, which have same key signatures but different roots or tonics. The Red bars right here are the Relative keys.

  Also-You may have noticed this in the last graph, but look how there’s no seven sharps or flats and only one with six accidentals:

  -for the six sharps or flats column, I chose flats over sharps because F#M and D# minor are just, less commonly used, in my experience anyway, it was a choice I made, and by no means is it like, standard. Some other people might have chosen 6 Sharps, and I got no problem with that.

  -OK, That’s really all I have to say about this chart for now, gotta save some stuff for Video 2, but I at least wanted to show it to ya...

  In the meantime--if you spot a tonal trend that I missed in this video, please drop me a line or post it in the comments section on youtube! I’d love to hear what y’all think!

And…thanks for watching a Tonal Trends dot com Spotter Stats video blog, stick around for another if you got the time…