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How many keys are there?

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by tb-player, Jul 6, 2020.

  1. 12 major / 12 minor

  2. 15 major / 15 minor

  3. Carrots

  4. Politics is not allowed on Talkbass

Multiple votes are allowed.
Results are only viewable after voting.
  1. tb-player

    tb-player Supporting Member

    Mar 6, 2019
    Maryland, USA
    I grew up playing piano. On a staff, I was taught there are 15 keys-- 7 sharps, 7 flats, and one natural (C). However, looking at a piano one can clearly see there are 12 notes. That would mean 12 major / 12 minor keys, right?

    Most guitarists and bassists I know would say that they practice in all 12 keys. I (try to) practice in all 15 keys. Granted, 3 of those keys are enharmonic, meaning they share the same notes but different names. So even though the shape is the same, the notes are called differently.

    Yeah, this is nitpicky. But I cringe when I play with guys who don't understand how keys work. It goes something like this...

    Singer on acoustic: "What key is this in?"
    Guitarist: "We're in D#"
    Me: "Let's call it Eb since D# isn't a key."
    Rest of the band: Gives me a funny look.

    I don't think either answer is necessarily wrong. But it seems 12 is incomplete. Am I wrong? Does it matter?
    rodsnhawgs, Guild B301 and Reedt2000 like this.
  2. Jazz4Me

    Jazz4Me Supporting Member

    Jan 21, 2018
    Central Illinois
    My favorite trivia question with which I've tripped up music professors. Not uncommon for musicians to forget to account for the enharmonic keys. The typical guitarist has very little music theory so not surprising. I had a worship leader/guitarist tell me the song we were doing was in the key of C, never mind one of the chords was a Bb. I think in his mind, if he didn't use his capo, it must be in C,
  3. LBS-bass

    LBS-bass Supporting Member

    I put carrots because if you're going to be that picky you really need to acknowledge atonal and microtonal systems of music that exist within and outside of Western culture.

    Personally I don't care what someone wants to call it as long as they are playing the correct parts, in the correct timing, with an ear that's good enough to know when it is and isn't correct. I'll take that all day long over the guy who has an advanced degree in music but can't hear or play. I can think of two guys like that I've worked with in the past few years, just off the top of my head; one of whom I work with currently.

    That guy keeps insisting that the notes are something they aren't because his theory tells him that's what makes sense and he doesn't really hear accidentals well. Every time this happens I have to laboriously chase down notation and videos and other sources showing the thing being played as it was written because he can't hear what I hear.
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2020
    rufus.K, megarat, Bass4Gsus and 21 others like this.
  4. Ask the guitar player to notate the Key Signature for D# Major for you.

    In Western music there are 15 keys.
  5. Malcolm35


    Aug 7, 2018
    Your first mistake is asking a guitar player. With all the special tunings and if they are using a capo, any answer about the key is suspect. If you need to ask, ask the keyboard what key they will be using, then do likewise.
  6. tb-player

    tb-player Supporting Member

    Mar 6, 2019
    Maryland, USA
    Worship leaders and capos are almost as problematic as pastors and sound boards.
  7. byacey


    May 16, 2008
    Alberta, Canada
    If you're moving through the circle of 4ths, there's all kinds of chords that can happen that aren't what one would consider "natural" to the key.
  8. I voted 15/15.

    Back in the day we NEVER had any confusion about "are we in the key of D# or Eb?"

    I blame modern digital tuner pedals, many brands of which default to sharps (not flats) for the enharmonic notes.
  9. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Supporting Member

    i'd be likely to say that there are 24 keys, but 30 ways to spell them.

    i voted the unique 'carrot option'... i hope i survive! :laugh:
  10. LBS-bass

    LBS-bass Supporting Member

    We outliers are in good company, at least!
    megarat, EatS1stBassist and JRA like this.
  11. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Supporting Member


  12. tb-player

    tb-player Supporting Member

    Mar 6, 2019
    Maryland, USA
    You're making music theory great again.
    megarat, B-Lo, Nev375 and 6 others like this.
  13. JRA

    JRA my words = opinion Supporting Member

    Alik likes this.
  14. Killing Floor

    Killing Floor Supporting Member

    Feb 7, 2020
    Austin, TX
    My dad's grand piano - 88 keys
    My less than grand old Roland - 61
    My computer - 104
    Florida has 800 keys
    My '73 P bass - 4 keys
    My roller skates had 1 key
    D Minor is the saddest of all keys
    If you ever played in a high school punk band you know there are only 2 keys!
  15. Liko


    Mar 30, 2007
    Of the two options, I would say 15. There are 15 "printable" key signatures that follow the harmonic series of the Circle of Fourths/Fifths (depending on which way around the circle you go). Of those, 3 sharp key signatures are enharmonic with 3 of the flat key signatures, so you are also correct that there are 12 tonally unique combinations of pitch steps produced by the Circle of Fifths. However, not knowing that a signature with 7 sharps sounds the same as a signature with 5 flats and v/v, or that the keys with 6 sharps and 6 flats also have identical actual pitch values (in equal-tempered tuning at least) can be a hindrance to reading music.

    However, in terms of actual "keys", as in a defined sequence of increasing pitches making up a scale between octaves, counting even 15 barely scratches the surface. The Western key signature system can, with its 15 printable signatures, define the required sharps and flats for the major and the natural minor keys. These in turn are only 2 of 7 "modes" of a key signature (major = Ionian, minor = Aeolian), produced by taking the same sequence of sharps and flats, but starting sequentially higher. The Dorian (starts on the second scale degree of Ionian) and Mixolydian (starts on the fifth scale degree of Ionian) modes are also very important to Western music, more or less as variations of minor and major respectively, and you'll hear the other three here and there in various cultural music styles. So, 12 possible starting tones times 7 modes equals 84 tonally-unique heptatonic scales plus an additional 21 ways to print them with the enharmonic signatures, for 105 printable heptatonic scales.

    These same key signatures can also be used to print music in keys that use less than 7 unique tones. The most well-known to guitarists will likely be the pentatonic scales, both major and minor (another 24 tonally-unique and 30 printable scales). You may consider these as subsets of their heptatonic keys, but there is a difference between G Major and G Major Pentatonic when you're talking about the sound of a song. There are also hexatonic scales, mostly curios of early music theory before the seventh scale degree was widely accepted, but if you're a music historian those hexatonic scales and their modes are another 72 tonally unique and 90 engraveable keys.

    So, what are we up to here, 180 tonally-unique keys, 225 printable? That's only if you religiously follow the Circle of Fifths when defining key signatures. There are a host of "non-conforming" key signatures, that don't follow the circle from C when adding flats or sharps. Phrygian Dominant, very common in Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern music, is one such system; relative to the Ionian mode, Phrygian Dominant has a flatted 2nd, 6th and 7th. C Phrygian Dominant therefore has a Bb, Ab, and Db, but not an Eb. It's tonally related to the harmonic minor scale, which with the same signature would start on Ab. This same harmonic system also produces the Hungarian minor scale and Ukranian Dorian scale, and another tweak, flatting only the second and 6th, produces the Byzantine scale, which for C as the starting note would have Ab and Db (no Bb or Eb).

    In short, in Western music notation, the only real rule defining an engravable key is that each of the seven named notes must either be sharp, flat, or natural (as any scale system requiring more than one quality of a single named note cannot be defined wholly in the key signature). Two named notes (B and E) cannot be sharp, and the next-higher named notes cannot be flat. That means, in theory, there are 432 unique ways to assign flats and sharps to the seven named notes. You can then start on any one of those seven notes (3,024 combinations), and if we really want to get crazy you can choose any combination of 5, 6 or all 7 of those named notes to form a scale, giving the Western notation system 444,528 unique "keys". The large majority would sound incomplete, broken and/or alien to Western ears, but you could write them down in traditional Western staff notation with a key signature that clearly identifies the "usual" character of each named note.

    Then, there are Middle Eastern and Subcontinental quarter-tone systems...
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2020
  16. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    Both B and E can be sharp, and C and F most definitely can be flat...

    I really don't think it's picky to acknowledge the enharmonic keys. And it is not just a question of semantics, although context is everything. By way of a valid example I offer the orchestral (or concert) harp, which by default is tuned to the key of Cb. Enharmonically this is equivalent to B, but in the case of the harp, it really is Cb. The harp has 7 pedals, each with three positions - flat, natural and sharp. The key is changed by setting the pedals. To play in G major, all pedals are set to natural apart from the F pedal, which when set to the sharp position sets all F strings to F#. The harp is considered to be in it's default tuning when all pedals are the flat position, which sets the strings to Cb, Db, Eb, Fb, Gb, Ab and Bb. A genuine Cb instrument. Like I said, context is everything, and this is pretty much irrelevant unless you are a harpist or you are writing for the harp. If the music for an orchestra is written in B major, the harp part is written in Cb.
  17. LBS-bass

    LBS-bass Supporting Member

    It's not picky to acknowledge them. But it might be picky to expect your average guitar player to understand them, depending on what you're doing and where you're doing it. If it's a reading gig, then everyone should and will probably have some basic theory. If it's a bar band, it's nice when you get it but there are some pretty good players out there who don't know much theory but still play pretty well.

    That said, the ones that play well are pretty hard to find, regardless of what they know, so I just accept them as they are :)
    SteveCS and bobalu like this.
  18. Liko


    Mar 30, 2007
    By that I meant that Cb is enharmonic with B, not B#; while C certainly can be flatted in a key signature, if B is natural in the same key, you have the same pitch twice in the scale, breaking the fundamental definition of a "scale" in that the pitches between octaves must be unique and thus playable in ascending order.

    My math already ignored the fact that, for the same reason, you can't sharp A and flat B, so it's already a bit of an overestimate. But working out dependent combinatorics like this is nearly impossible without decision trees, and I have a day job (and a side hustle) as it is that I needed to get back to.
    LBS-bass likes this.
  19. OptimalOptimus


    Jan 4, 2019
    Not enough players know basic music theory...

    which lead to renaming things and miscommunication
    SLO Surfer, DavC, SteveCS and 3 others like this.
  20. Jazz4Me

    Jazz4Me Supporting Member

    Jan 21, 2018
    Central Illinois
    Or maybe the song was just in the key of F.
    HolmeBass likes this.

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