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Key Signatures for Modal Pieces

Posted by harryboulton 
Key Signatures for Modal Pieces
November 04, 2015 11:03AM
I have little experience in composing and performing modal pieces so I was wondering if anyone could shed some light:

My question I am asking is what key signature does a modal piece use? Is it the key signature that the mode is based on (e.g. in F Dorian would I use F minor as the key signature) or would it use the key signature which all the notes in the scale fall into? (In the case of F Dorian; Eb major)

F Dorian: F G Ab Bb C D Eb F
In this case, would it make more sense to use the key signature of Eb/Cm rather than Fm/Ab because of the D naturals. Or is it common for every note changed in the scale (raised 6th in the case of dorian) to be notated as an accidental?

Another example if the previous wasn't very clear:

G Mixolydian: G A B C D E F G
All of these notes fall into the key signature of C major. Do I use C/Am as the key signature or G/Em and notate all the flattened 7ths? (Fs in this case)
Re: Key Signatures for Modal Pieces
November 04, 2015 02:51PM
Either.

Personally, I think the "correct" way to do it would be to notate the key signature for the notes in the mode (so the "mode signature"), For example, G Mixolydian would carry a "key" signature of no sharps or flats, and F Dorian would carry a "key" signature of 3 flats.

Obviously, if the piece stays exclusively or primarily in the mode, this would involve the least amount of additional accidentals (and this is how it was done traditionally prior to the Tonal era).

However, we are so (too) conditioned to "major/minor" thinking that many editors and publishers, and some composers felt like using a "key" signature is going to make people think "key", so they wanted to use a key signature that designated a particular note as the "tonic". So G Mix would be G Major, flatting all Fs in the piece, and F Dorian would be Fm, naturalling all the Ds.

Personally, I think the only real argument for the latter (besides people's stupidity and unwillingness to accept new (ancient) ideas) is that many composers DO in fact write pieces using a Mode but still keeping the concepts of Tonality. So in the old days, you had "Key of G, Major Mode" or "Key of G, Minor Mode" as your two possibilities. But the expansion of this way of thinking into modern music is to have "Key of G, Phrygian Mode", so it would be the Key Signature of G Minor.

There are precedents and counter-precedents throughout music history.

Even in the Baroque period, pieces in Minor used "Dorian Key Signatures", such that something in B Minor would actually have a Key sig of 3 sharps, and the G would be flattened throughout the piece. But of course, one has to remember that in much of that music, the G was as likely to be sharp as it was natural ("melodic minor" versus "natural minor"). So really it wasn't as big a deal.

But still, what happens when you're in a piece in C and it modulates to G in the middle? They don't actually change the key sig - they write in the accidental. This is even true if it's in major and changes mode to minor - they just put in the accidentals. The whole "key change" idea of putting in a new key sig is more of a Romantic Period development and even then it was only used for drastic key changes, not closely related keys.

Bartok wrote many pieces with unusual key sigs - for example, just Eb, or F# and Bb together. People seem to get this. So even thought the major/minor mentality is so (too) ingrained in people, they seem to get that a key sig represents "the notes that are going to be altered all the time" in a piece, and then any additional alterations will be written in.

If I were writing a piece primarily in A minor, and were to have a section in A Phygian, or A dorian, etc. I would write in the accidentals the same as if it were a whole tone scale on A - again, taking a cue from existing classical music, we don't change the key sig every time the piece changes key or mode (change from major to minor or vice versa).

But, if I were to write something primarily (or exclusively) in C Phrygian, I would use 4 flats in the key sig rather than "C Minor" and constantly flat the D.

Honestly, only beginners think that 4 flats means "A-flat Major". Beginners often don't realize that's NOT what it means - it means if could be A-flat major OR F Minor depending on the music - but expanding on this idea means it could also mean C Phrygian, or Bb Dorian, etc. IOW, a decent musician should not only understand that the key signature could represent one of two possible KEYS, but could represent one of 7 possible MODES.

Not all editors and publishers agree (and of course, many an uninitiated musician might vehemently take one position or the other without and real knowledge of historical evolution). But if it's something you're writing and you see a reason to lean more towards one or the other, than it's your choice.

To me, the correct way is to notate the "mode signature" when it's not treating the mode in a more tonal fashion (and mixing it with traditional major/minor).

Best,
Steve
Re: Key Signatures for Modal Pieces
November 05, 2015 02:17AM
Part of the problem is the phrase "key signature". People naturally assume it indicates the key - and it doesn't!
It should really be "scale signature" or something like that.

But we quickly get used to the idea that a "key signature" actually stands for two possible keys (major or relative minor), so it shouldn't be too much of a leap to see how it can stand for any other mode of those 7 notes.
I agree with steve that any "decent musician" should recognise that.
After all, one of the main governing principles of notation is economy: the avoidance of any excess symbols or marks in order to make the music as quick to read as possible. If you have a key signature which is constantly being corrected with accidentals throughout (to pander to those with a literal view of "key signature"), then that's wasteful as well as potentially confusing.
Except, of course - as steve says - in those pieces which do mix modes, such as many rock songs, which are "mostly major" but with plenty of borrowed notes and chords. In such cases, a traditional major key sig with accidentals may best express the nature of the piece. (Still, I have often wondered about extremely bluesy pieces in - say - E major, where there's barely any of the major quality present, and G and D natural (at least) are way more prevalent than their sharp versions. Would it be better to make it E minor, and add sharps where they might occur?)

One possible idea - when writing in a mode other than ionian or aeolan ;-) - would be to write an indication at the beginning. So if you had a 2-sharp key signature but your tonal centre was E, you could write "dorian mode" or even "E dorian mode" at the top somewhere, just as you might write a tempo indication.
ttw
Re: Key Signatures for Modal Pieces
November 05, 2015 06:03AM
Key signatures have the primary purpose of minimizing the number of written out accidentals. For historical reasons, indication of the key of the music has become another primary purpose. Not all music is key-centered in the usual manner so accidentals have to be used. The real question is how easy is the music to read.

I have no recommendations as most of what I write fits the usual key-signature scheme. The few times I write something in (for example) a Dorian mode (more Baroque than Greed or Medieval or Jazz), I end up with a key signature for C (empty signature) and write lots of D-minor chords.
David L
Re: Key Signatures for Modal Pieces
November 13, 2015 11:45AM
I believe in writing whatever the scale uses. I wrote a piece in A freygish : A - Bb - C# - D - E - F - G - A. I used the key signature of Bb and C#. There were then no accidentals used. But, when I arranged it for band I used the major key signature (transposed to Bb for concert band) and used three accidentals (Cb, Gb, Ab) throughout. Even though it went against the grain musically, I knew that the band would PLAY it better if I did.
Re: Key Signatures for Modal Pieces
November 15, 2015 01:59AM
David L Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> I believe in writing whatever the scale uses. I
> wrote a piece in A freygish : A - Bb - C# - D - E
> - F - G - A. I used the key signature of Bb and
> C#. There were then no accidentals used. But, when
> I arranged it for band I used the major key
> signature (transposed to Bb for concert band) and
> used three accidentals (Cb, Gb, Ab) throughout.
> Even though it went against the grain musically, I
> knew that the band would PLAY it better if I did.

I'm confused.

Your "A freygish" is D harmonic minor. With an A root, most would know it as A phrygian dominant (or major phrygian or Spanish phrygian).

Transposing up a half-step (why?), wouldn't your band have been happier in Eb minor? (6 flat key sig with a D natural accidental)? That would save a whole lot of flat accidentals.
Surely it wouldn't matter for them that the "keynote" was supposed to be Bb?

(The same saving of accidentals - the main purpose of a key sig - would occur for transposing instruments.)
Viz
Re: Key Signatures for Modal Pieces
November 16, 2015 02:12PM
Debussey's sunken cathedral is given the key sig of its mode, not its ionian equivalent. But The Simpsons is written such that the augmented 4th i sgiven a sharp sign. Both ways are possible.
Re: Key Signatures for Modal Pieces
November 23, 2015 10:59AM
JonR Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> David L Wrote:
> --------------------------------------------------
> -----
> > I believe in writing whatever the scale uses. I
> > wrote a piece in A freygish : A - Bb - C# - D -
> E
> > - F - G - A. I used the key signature of Bb and
> > C#. There were then no accidentals used. But,
> when
> > I arranged it for band I used the major key
> > signature (transposed to Bb for concert band)
> and
> > used three accidentals (Cb, Gb, Ab) throughout.
> > Even though it went against the grain musically,
> I
> > knew that the band would PLAY it better if I
> did.
>
> I'm confused.
>
> Your "A freygish" is D harmonic minor. With an A
> root, most would know it as A phrygian dominant
> (or major phrygian or Spanish phrygian).
>
> Transposing up a half-step (why?), wouldn't your
> band have been happier in Eb minor? (6 flat key
> sig with a D natural accidental)? That would save
> a whole lot of flat accidentals.
> Surely it wouldn't matter for them that the
> "keynote" was supposed to be Bb?
>
> (The same saving of accidentals - the main purpose
> of a key sig - would occur for transposing
> instruments.)

A Freygish uses the same notes as D harmonic minor, but is not the same.

I transposed up a half-step because concert bands play much better in Bb than A.

Freygish is major with a lowered 2, 6. and 7, so I used Bb major key signature with three accidentals throughout. Using six flats and one accidental would be less accidentals, but would impart less information to the band. I think that knowing the "keynote" would help them.

The correct key signature would be 5 flats (Bb, Cb, Eb, Gb, Ab) which are not the usual 5 flats. There would be no accidentals, but I knew that the band wouldn't read it well. Of course the transposing instruments would have the same number of accidentals.
Re: Key Signatures for Modal Pieces
November 24, 2015 03:21AM
David L Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
...
> A Freygish uses the same notes as D harmonic
> minor, but is not the same.

Sure, it's just not the most common name for that mode. At least I've not seen it anywhere before, whereas I have seen "phrygian dominant", "major phrygian", etc.

> I transposed up a half-step because concert bands
> play much better in Bb than A.

Understood, but D minor is already a pretty friendly key for Bb instruments (reading it as "E minor"). It only has one accidental, or two of course if you include the raised 7th in the harmonic minor variant.
Transposing up a half-step introduces a 3rd alteration.

It's the equivalent for a concert instrument of transposing E harmonic minor to F harmonic minor - because "C phrygian dominant" is supposedly easier to get one's head around than "B phrygian dominant".
B phrygian dominant has D# and F# - usually notated with an G key sig (1 sharp) and D# as an accidental.
C phrygian dominant has Db, Eb and Ab - usually notated with an Ab key sig (4 flats) and B natural as an accidental.

OK, not a huge difference with the latter - if you stick with 3 flats as opposed to 2 sharps - but hardly simpler, as I see it.
Or are those 3 flats easier for horns to negotiate than the 2 sharps?

I'm not criticising your choices here, just curious about them...

> Freygish is major with a lowered 2, 6. and 7, so I
> used Bb major key signature with three accidentals
> throughout. Using six flats and one accidental
> would be less accidentals, but would impart less
> information to the band.

Six flats?
Are we still talking concert here? A Bb key sig is 2 flats for concert instruments, but blank for Bb horns, and 1 sharp for Eb instruments.
Or was Bb the key they were reading (Ab concert)?
But then six flats means the key of Gb/Eb minor...

(Sorry I'm confused...;-))

> I think that knowing the
> "keynote" would help them.

OK. And knowing it as C is easier than knowing it as B? Do they naturally relate everything to a major key?

> The correct key signature would be 5 flats (Bb,
> Cb, Eb, Gb, Ab) which are not the usual 5 flats.
> There would be no accidentals, but I knew that the
> band wouldn't read it well. Of course the
> transposing instruments would have the same number
> of accidentals.

Sorry, still confused here about which is the concert key, and which the horns' key.

Seems to me the simplest key - in terms of quantities of sharps/flats - would have been concert G minor. A minor for the Bb instruments, E minor for the Eb instruments.
Modally, concert D phrygian dominant.
For the Bb instruments, blank key sig and one accidental (G#). E keynote.
For the Eb instruments, 1-sharp key sig (F#) and one accidental (D#). B keynote.
Or would that have put the range of the tune out of reach for some?
Re: Key Signatures for Modal Pieces
November 24, 2015 12:25PM
JonR, YOU suggested six flats, not me.

I've been talking about concert keys all along.

I don't know why you keep mentioning minor keys. Freygish has a major 3. If you are still thinking of freygish as just a mode of the harmonic scale, don't. It is it's own scale.

There are more instruments in a concert band than just Bb instruments. The transpositions for the individual instruments don't enter into any of this.
Re: Key Signatures for Modal Pieces
November 25, 2015 10:48AM
David L Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> JonR, YOU suggested six flats, not me.

Oh yes, so I did!

> I've been talking about concert keys all along.

OK. I'll straighten my head out. :-)

> I don't know why you keep mentioning minor keys.

I was referring to conventional minor key sigs. I realise you're not using the minor tonic.

> Freygish has a major 3. If you are still thinking
> of freygish as just a mode of the harmonic scale,
> don't. It is it's own scale.

Sure. I just hadn't heard that name before. Phrygian dominant is the more common name, in my experience.

> There are more instruments in a concert band than
> just Bb instruments. The transpositions for the
> individual instruments don't enter into any of
> this.

OK. It still seems to me that A freygish is easier to both write and read than Bb freygish. (For transposing and non-transposing instruments alike.) Simpler key sigs, fewer accidentals.
But I see your angle, that you're looking at it from the parallel major key (an alteration of that), rather than the relative minor. Encouraging the musicians to see it that way, rather than as a mode of harmonic minor.
Re: Key Signatures for Modal Pieces
November 30, 2015 06:57AM
"OK. It still seems to me that A freygish is easier to both write and read than Bb freygish. (For transposing and non-transposing instruments alike.) Simpler key sigs, fewer accidentals."

A freygish may be "easier" to read and write, but Bb freygish is better to PLAY in for band instruments. Intonation and tone are both better in Bb.
Re: Key Signatures for Modal Pieces
December 01, 2015 01:58AM
David L Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> "OK. It still seems to me that A freygish is
> easier to both write and read than Bb freygish.
> (For transposing and non-transposing instruments
> alike.) Simpler key sigs, fewer accidentals."
>
> A freygish may be "easier" to read and write, but
> Bb freygish is better to PLAY in for band
> instruments. Intonation and tone are both better
> in Bb.

Ah ha! :-)
Re: Key Signatures for Modal Pieces - Afternoon of a Faun
July 05, 2017 10:43AM
I am playing a solo flute piece based on Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun".

I cannot figure out what key and modal that I am playing in. I would appreciate it if you could shed some light on this. The piece definitely sounds hauntingly modal.

The key signature is two flats (it was transposed from the original). The piece begins on a "G" note (which is a swell and pivotal note throughout the piece. Many phrases hang hauntingly with a "D-flat" or "E-natural" note at the end. And the piece finally resolves on a "B-flat" note (consistent with the 2-flats signature).

David D.

The link to the sheet music is: 1drv.ms/i/s!ApLUUptaDUw_g3ZGt0HaYpbDmut3
(copy & paste it into your browser)
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