Key Issues

When I began my musical journey I used to believe that tonality is an indispensable part of music that had virtually always been with us until ‘modern’ composers tried to take it away from us.

And yet a moment’s thought would have reminded me that, until the campaign in favour of equal temperament gathered strength in around 1550 A.D., most aspects of what we understand by the term ‘key’, especially the facility to modulate freely from one key to another, would have been irrelevant. The increasing popularity of instrumental music – something we also take for granted – helped to bring matters to a head. Musical instruments tuned to just intonation were only happy in their ‘home’ key.

Orchestral music, as we now know it, with twelve major and minor scales of equal importance, did not become truly commonplace until early in the seventeenth century but keyboard instruments continued to be tuned to mean temperament (which concentrated on getting the major thirds in tune, the other intervals being tweaked to fit) for at least another hundred years. Historically, the mean system was more commonplace than the just because it was fairly accurate through six major scales and three minor. Straying outside these boundaries produced unpleasant results.

JS Bach wrote a series of preludes and fugues in all twelve major and minor keys and, because he also tuned his own clavichords and harpsichords to equal temperament, was even credited with its invention, despite the fact that the idea had been proposed circa 350 B.C. Spanish guitars built around two hundred years before the time of Bach have also been found with an arrangement of frets that provided equal temperament tuning.

What is important is that tonality, when viewed in this broader perspective, is actually fairly new!

In the previous blog I attempted to justify humanity’s propensity to identify itself with form (and order in general) on anthropic grounds and I’m tempted to go the same route with regard to tonality by suggesting that the tonic operates as a ‘ground base’ (not ‘bass’) thereby simulating our experience (what goes up must come down). There is also the idea that extended works, and even popular songs, embark on a kind of journey before returning ‘home’.

Much of what we take for granted would be impossible without equal temperament: Wagner’s wandering chromatic chord progressions ‘flirting’ with tonality; Debussy’s impressionistic use of the whole tone scale both in melody and harmony.


I believe that anthropic principles also surrounded the decision to defy tonality and that our perception of what is acceptable or unacceptable is governed by prevailing standards of physical efficiency. If I’m right, tolerance of the levels of velocity, volume and range in music, especially, is influenced by the prevailing pace of life, especially with regard to systems of transport. What goes up doesn’t always come down, nowadays and previously unthinkable speeds may be attained in an ordinary family car in a few seconds.  

It isn’t difficult to understand how composers wishing to share their New World perceptions with us became dissatisfied with creating imagery that evoked the pastoral charm of the past.

Schoenberg’s serial music represents the ultimate attempt to create purely musical forms*, devoid of terrestrial associations. Serialism is a specially designed, uncompromising case of ‘twelve tone’ (dodecaphonic) music which, in turn, is a special case of atonality. We can write music using progressions of ‘conventional’ harmonies that doesn’t possess a tonal centre.

In polytonal music, which had already existed for a considerable time, each key will negate the others and is therefore pre-programmed to be atonal in effect.

I suppose the bottom line, in this part of the discussion, is the level of acceptance by audiences. I’m not suggesting playing to the gallery but, on the other hand, composers can’t work in a vacuum. Serial music is written by and intended for the cognoscenti . Audiences have shown little interest in the genre. (Personally, I use atonal techniques for occasional effect, e.g. taking organized chaos to a new level.)

What does the word ‘Diatonic’ really mean?

This discussion would be incomplete without reference to the modes and the many unorthodox scales, all of which are entitled to be called ‘keys’, thereby widening the meaning of the term ‘diatonic’ which, to me, means that the melody and/or harmonies derive their intonations from the particular scale in use (not merely the major and minor scales).

Most musicians are familiar with the modes and pentatonic scale(s) but the number of scale structures is enormous. (I am here regarding any sequential arrangement of three or more notes to be a ‘scale’, all capable of furnishing melody, modal displacements and harmony). There are also 36 seven note scales comprising notes with different letter names (and therefore capable of furnishing a harmony scale of thirds – located on alternate lines or spaces of the stave – when expanded). They sometimes require sharp(s) and flat(s) in the key signature. One way of providing orchestral parts that look familiar is to use the closest ‘standard’ signature and insert the ‘offending’ note(s) as accidentals. The feasibility has to be assessed in each individual case. Having said this, the parts would look no more frightening than, for example, serial parts.

There is also the option to use an open key signature in cases where the number of accidentals would be less than the total number of accidentals/cancellations if a signature had been used. Please note this means an open signature, not (necessarily) an open key.


Nicolas Slonimsky gave us the name but we have to be careful when we attempt to credit an individual with any theory’s origination (science is full of occasions where the wrong person gets all the credit).

[It’s usual to give some idea of the origin of words but, although I had a pretty good idea of what the prefix ‘pan-‘ meant, I struggled through articles about gods and kitchen hardware before getting to the truth of the matter. It really does mean ‘all’ – e.g. Pan-European – and the hyphen and second initial cap are omitted as required (Pandiatonicism but Pan-European). So now we know.]

The essence of this style involves free use of the diatonic notes of a scale – the scale of C major was a favourite – in melody, harmony and counterpoint. Chords may comprise freely arranged clusters of notes which are chosen with reference to their particular effect, any similarity with more commonplace structures and their transformations being incidental.  The added sixth, seventh and ninth are common. Piano accompaniment in popular songs expressing tenderness and sadness features these types of chords, although it would be rash to suggest that the style would not otherwise have occurred. The music of Lennon and McCartney also shows evidence of this technique (which would have been entirely intuitive).  In my opinion, their Celtic/Gaelic roots would have played a part, too.

*References to ‘pure’ or ‘absolute’, as opposed to ‘program’, music oversimplify the issue. It is arguable that serial music is free from visual and other imagery but there is always the possibility that other musical forms will invoke sensory perception. Pitch and time, working together in the two-dimensional plane, create inertial effects where a melody, operating trajectorially, actually requires physical principles to be respected, one example being the tendency of inertia in a scale run to override conventional resolutions. Orchestral layering creates a third dimension, with the musical landscape receding into the background. Starting and stopping huge masses of sound in rapid sequence suggests power (overcoming inertia). Power and volume are associated with aggression and, perhaps, masculinity (better stay out of that argument, I think). Other correlations are sometimes ‘by association’; the heroic sound of brass, for example. It’s difficult to avoid programmatic references when using such instruments as castanets, chimes and gongs.

A reminder here, if necessary, that inertia, a term that, colloquially, is most often used in reference to static objects, is also a property of moving objects, which have a tendency to continue in their uniform line of motion until acted upon by an external force. Things like to remain as they are. Here, ‘uniform’ means moving in a straight line at a constant velocity.


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