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A key is determined within the framework of the major-minor tonality, which has been established around 1600, by determining the key gender (in European music mostly major or minor) with its preliminary drawing and the keynote of the scale used and thus the harmonic relationship.

Example: Tongeschlecht major with keynote D results in the key of D major .

The conceivable alternative definition of the definition of the fundamental tone and the type of scale used would be problematic, because the three different forms of the minor scale (natural, melodic, harmonic) correspond to only one minor key rather than three. The tone gender is more important than the structure of the ladder.

However, this only applies as long as the traditional major-minor system is not abandoned. If you refer z. B. modal scales with one, the relationships change.

Key relationships in pieces of music

Tonal pieces of music are in a certain key, that is, their most important sections (especially the end, often also the beginning) are composed in this key. Using methods such as modulation and shifting , the keys can change within a piece; usually at some point there is a return to the main key. As a rule, this dominates within the piece and thus determines its character.

The key of a piece can be transposed as a whole by choosing a different fundamental tone and shifting all tones of the piece at the same distance from the original tones, so that their intervals from one another and thus the tone gender remain unchanged. This does not change the essential character of the piece. Transposing is common and legitimate, for example to adapt a piece to the pitch of singers or the basic tuning of instruments. In art music , however, on the one hand, the key has often been expressly specified since around 1700 and mentioned in the name of the piece; thus the specified key is essential for the character of the piece desired by the composer and thus for its performance. Accordingly, different tunings that are not of the same level are used up to the pre-classical period . In the baroque age, several treatises on the respective key character were also published.

Signed notation

The usual European notation is based on the seven root tones of the C major scale (a, h, c, d, e, f, g) and denotes all deviating pitches of the desired key with the help of accidentals (sharp or flat). With the key of a piece, the pitches that are offset in relation to C major are also determined from the start, so that they are noted as accidentals at the beginning of the staff of each line and thus mark the regular, constant offset of these pitches for the entire duration of a piece or section . In connection with the final note and / or final chord, these accidentals give an indication of the key in which this piece or section is located.

The type and number of accidentals results from the distance of the respective key from the starting key C major, as can be seen from the arrangement of all keys in the circle of fifths. Each accidental variant denotes a major key and the corresponding parallel natural minor key . An unsigned piece can be in C major or A minor; a piece with a cross in G major or E minor, one with a Be in F major or D minor, etc. A reliable decision can usually only be made with a view to the final note (and / or final chord), which is almost is always identical to (or contains) the root note.

The modes are also noted with the help of a sign; here, however, certain accidentals can denote different modes depending on the fundamental tone of the same set of tones. For example, a scale with two sharps that contains the notes of D major, starting from the root e E Dorian, starting from the root a A Mixolydian, and from the root g G Lydian.

Other scales than major, natural minor and church modes - such as harmonic minor or scales from Eastern European, Jewish or Arab music - not through regular sign at the beginning of the grading system, but by each set before individual grades dislocation or natural sign noted that the pitches deviate from an underlying major or minor scale. This reflects the fact that major and minor are viewed as the rule in modern Western music, other types of scales as exceptions.

In free tonal and atonal music, a global indication of accidentals at the beginning of a piece is usually completely dispensed with.

Arrangement and relationship of the major and minor keys

Keys and their accidentals
Sign : 7 + fes
C-flat-major a-flat-minor.svg
6 + ces
G-flat-major e-flat-minor.svg
5 + total
D-flat-major b-flat-minor.svg
4 + des
A-flat-major f-minor.svg
3 + as
E-flat-major c-minor.svg
2 + es
B-flat-major g-minor.svg
1 b
F-major d-minor.svg
0 /
C-major a-minor.svg
1 f sharp
G-major e-minor.svg
2 + c sharp
D-major h-minor.svg
3 + g sharp
A-major f-sharp-minor.svg
4 + dis
E-major c-sharp-minor.svg
5 + ais
B-major g-sharp-minor.svg
6 + ice
F-sharp-major d-sharp-minor.svg
7 + his
C-sharp-major a-sharp-minor.svg
Major keys: Ces Ges Of As It B. F. C. G D. A. E. H F sharp Cis
Minor keys: as it b f c G d a e H f sharp cis g sharp dis ais


Cross - ( ) -Tonarten (right side of the circle of fifths):

B ( ) keys (left side of the circle of fifths)

In order to remember the order of the keys depending on the accidentals, there are memos like the following:

For keys that contain :
G eh, D u A lter E sel, H ole Fis che.

Or keys that included:
F iebrige B exert There sen As pirin, Des semi- Ges and.


F innovative B rötchen There sen As se Des Ges angs

The keys of C sharp major / A sharp minor, C flat major / A flat minor, each with seven accidentals, are rarely used in compositions. The keys of G sharp major, D flat major, A sharp major, D flat minor, G flat minor, and C flat minor are usually not used because their notation would require more than seven sharps or Bb. Instead, they are set with the aid of enharmonic confusion with an equal-sounding, but less accidental, abbreviated or sharp key. For example, C sharp major (seven crosses) becomes D flat major (five Bes), D flat minor (eight Bes) becomes C sharp minor (four crosses), etc. The enharmonic differences cannot be represented on keyboard instruments, so the equation the key is absolute. This does not apply to tone generators such as B. String instruments or the human voice.


The spelling of the key signature varies with regard to:

  • Upper and / or lower case of the note name (a or A),
  • with or without a hyphen,
  • Upper and / or lower case of the tone gender (major or major)

The influential German dictionaries - such as the Duden or the Wahrig - recommend an upper / lower case spelling of the pitch name with a hyphen and capitalized pitch type, for example: for major keys A major and for minor keys A minor . The capitalization of the gender names emphasizes that these are often used as nouns (e.g. " modulation according to minor"). This means a departure from the earlier view, according to which one understood major and minor rather than adjectives afterwards and accordingly preferred to write A major and A minor . The different upper and lower case of the root names ( A for major, A for minor) corresponds to the major major and minor third and was established as a convention at the beginning of the 19th century. The advantage of this convention is that you can write a shortened Sonata in A (for A minor) and Sonata in A (for A major), which is particularly common in English-speaking countries.

Today's standard notation - A major and A minor - was used consistently by Arnold Schönberg in his theory of harmony as early as 1911 . The » Duden , however, only changed from the previously represented lower case to the“ major major ”in the improved reprint of the 14th edition in 1958.

Before and next to it, however, alternative spellings were and are also in use, such as:

  • A major and A minor . This spelling was considered the standard before 1958 and was recommended in Duden as well as in other spelling dictionaries, such as the one published by Lutz Mackensen in 1954. Even after the Duden switched to capitalization of the tone gender, the old spelling was often retained, e.g. B. in the music encyclopedia Music in Past and Present (1st edition 1949-1986), in the 1976 published harmony by Diether de la Motte and in a 1996 concert guide published in the second edition. The Henle Verlag they still used deliberately in the sense of publishing tradition and sees embodied in the old spelling also a piece of "original text".
  • A major and A minor (without hyphen), found for example in an edition of Mozart's piano sonatas published around the middle of the 20th century .
  • A major and A minor . These designations, which are formally identical for major and minor, can be found in the factual part of the Riemann Music Lexicon from 1967.
  • A major and A minor . This notation, which adopts the upper and lower case of the basic tones for the tone genders, is used e.g. B. the harmony theory by Lemacher and Schroeder (1958).

Even today one encounters varying spellings, which can have various reasons (including following a certain tradition or aesthetic preference, following foreign spellings or ignorance of the rules).

Differentiation of keys

Although the term key is mostly used in the strict sense described above, it is also a more comprehensive term for the harmonic context in which a piece moves.

Keys have no sharp boundaries. So you couldn't say exactly which notes belong to a key and which don't. It is the harmonic and especially the melodic context that makes the difference. This is especially true if there is no specification by means of a musical notation and you have to decide based on your hearing.

Although keys are clearly distinguished by the use of their scales, tones outside of the scales appear in every more demanding piece, without one already talking about a key change.

A key is determined to a large extent by the occurrence of characteristic twists in the form of progressions , melodies and cadences , which together point to a tonal center .

The key term outside of the major-minor tonality

Modal scales

Since about 1900 in addition to the major and minor scales in resorting to the old ones are Kirchentonarten again reinforced modal scales such as Dorian, Lydian u. a. used. The keys formed with their help cannot be identified by simply specifying the key type and root, unless these scales are understood as key types that are added to major and minor.

This view, which is sometimes held, is forbidden, however, because in the system of church tones these were understood as keys ( species ), while cantus durus and cantus mollis were regarded as tone genders ( genera ) . Just as one does not understand the harmonic minor as a pitch different from the natural minor, one can e.g. B. to grant the Doric, which also differs from the natural minor by only one tone, its own tone type. Doric and Phrygian both belong to the minor key (because of the minor third above the root), Lydian and Mixolydian (because of the major third) to the major key. The key designations C-Doric or D-Lydian are made up of the indication of the basic tone and the type of scale used, with a small letter indicating the minor and a capital letter indicating the major.

Free tonality

The detachment from the traditional major-minor tonality that began around 1900 led not only to the atonality of Schönberg and the Second Viennese School , but also to attempts to create a new basis for the tonality. One of these attempts was the free tonality propagated by Paul Hindemith . There is no distinction between the sexes or diatonic scales because the entire chromatic scale is used as the sound material. Tones are only created when individual tones, due to their interval relationships, push themselves to the fore, so to speak, and thus become “tonal centers”. A key specification in the sense of free tonality contains neither a reference to a pitch type nor to a scale, but only specifies the root note, i.e. instead of C major or C minor only C (without everything and always capitalized). (see Ludus tonalis )

See also

Web links

Wiktionary: key  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Lemacher-Schroeder: Harmonielehre , Cologne 1958, p. 27
  2. Wieland Ziegenrücker: General music theory with questions and tasks for self-control. German Publishing House for Music, Leipzig 1977; Paperback edition: Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag, and Musikverlag B. Schott's Sons, Mainz 1979, ISBN 3-442-33003-3 , pp. 79-100.
  3. A major at Duden online.
  4. A minor at Duden online.
  5. ^ Arnold Schönberg: Harmony . 3. Edition. Universal Edition, Austria 1922.
  6. a b cf. A major or A major? Big questions about a small “d” with photographic evidence for earlier spellings.
  7. ^ Lutz Mackensen (ed.): German orthography . 7th edition. Bertelsmann, Gütersloh 1954.
  8. Dieter de la Motte: Harmony . 16th edition. Bärenreiter, Kassel 2011, ISBN 978-3-7618-2115-2 .
  9. ^ Attila Csampai, Dietmar Holland: The concert guide . 2nd Edition. Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg 1996, ISBN 3-8052-0450-7 .
  10. ^ WA Mozart: Sonatas for piano for two hands . CF Peters, Frankfurt.
  11. ^ Willibald Gurlitt: Riemann Music Lexicon . Ed .: Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht. Material part. B. Schott's Sons, Mainz 1967, p. 270 .
  12. Heinrich Lemacher, Hermann Schroeder: Harmonielehre . 3. Edition. Hans Gerig, Cologne 1958.
  13. Paul Hindemith: Instruction in clay composition (theoretical part). Mainz 1937.