About Keys

In the simplest terms, a key is a group of notes that sound well together. A scale is a successive ordering of the notes of a key. Keys and scales are named after the note (called the tonic note) about which the other notes tend to gravitate (ie. A Major). There are two basic types of keys and scales -- Major and minor. In distinguishing between the two, it may prove useful to consider that music in a minor key tends to sound reflective and mournful in comparison with music in a Major key, which tends to sound more spontaneous and cheerful.

Although music in minor keys is generally less prevalent than music in Major keys, this is especially true of popular music. The 82 individual titles which comprise the four volumes of arrangements of popular songs included in the Core Catalog (Noel, Children's Songs, Traditional I, and Traditional II) were chosen solely on the basis of their familiarity and recognizability. As it turned out, all but 10 were in Major keys, which somewhat overstates the actual overall percentage of music which is of a Major persuasion. I tried to compensate for this imbalance, and therefore achieve a better balance in the Core Catalog as a whole, by including a somewhat greater than normal percentage of pieces in minor keys (38 of 108) in the six other volumes.

In theory, the guitar is capable of playing music in any of the two dozen or so keys in common use. In practice, however, there are 8 keys which are best suited to the guitar. These are A Major, a minor, C Major, D Major, d minor, E Major, e minor, and G Major. Melodic guitar music in these 8 keys tends to call for the frequent use of open notes, thus making it easier to play. Further along in the study of the guitarist's art, when chords and rhythm guitar techniques are considered, it becomes even more evident that these 8 keys are best suited to the guitar. This is so because the most basic and most manageable guitar chords are, with only a few exceptions, the very chords used to accompany simple music in these 8 keys. As a rule, accompanying music in other keys requires the use of barre chords, which are considerably more difficult to execute.

Since these 8 keys are therefore of great importance, and especially for beginners, they are employed more or less exclusively throughout the Core Catalog. In a great many instances, the original key of a piece is not the same as the key in which that piece is notated in the Core Catalog. I changed (transposed) the key of a number of Classical pieces so as to simplify the fingerings, thus making the level of skill required more easily attainable. I chose a key for each of the selections in the four volumes of arrangements independently of any consideration of the original key, and in fact do not even know what the original key was for many of these songs.

I determined the keys for these selections by experimenting with each of the 82 melodies in each of the possible keys (five for melodies in a Major key, and three for melodies in a minor key). After deciding on the key and fingering which made for the easiest possible rendition of a melody, I made that the melody part for the arrangement for that song. In some cases the melody part was high-pitched (played only on the first and second strings), and in the process of arranging the song, the other parts were all placed beneath the melody. This is an integral part of the Classical model of musical composition, which is clearly demonstrated in the Bach Chorales, in which the melody is always in the uppermost (soprano) part. Most of the selections contained in the three Classical volumes (I, II, and III) are of similar construction.

For a good many of the 82 songs contained in the four volumes of arrangements, however, the most easily mastered rendition of the melody utilized a lower register and made use of the interior strings of the guitar. In the arrangements for these songs, the melody is not the highest-pitched part (although the melody is nevertheless always notated on the top line of a score). This format allows the uppermost part (or parts) to fill in and harmonize above the melody, and creates a rather different sound than does the Classical model. This is another important way in which as much variety as possible was built into the Core Catalog.

The manner in which the arrangements themselves were created represents another significant departure from the Classical model. In Classical composition, the melody (top) and bass (bottom) parts are the basis of the music's structure. The interior parts fill in the harmony (by creating chords) and are fashioned according to strict rules of motion and usage. Given a melody and a bass line, it is possible to construct interior parts in a totally theoretical fashion, and without even hearing the notes of which they are comprised (in fact, this is a commonly assigned exercise in college music theory classes). The approach I took to constructing the four volumes of arrangements was considerably less theoretical in nature.

For each song, I first recorded the melody on one of the channels of a four channel cassette recorder. Then I played it back, and played along with it, experimenting until I was satisfied that I had successfully devised a second part (usually, but not necessarily, the bass part). Then I recorded the second part. Then I listened to both parts while deriving a third part, and so on. In a handful of instances in which ideas for a part did not readily present themselves, I used my knowledge of music theory to good advantage. For the most part, though, the various parts which comprise these arrangements were derived entirely by ear (although, in truth, many of the harmony parts and bass parts were undoubtedly reconstructed from memory).

In creating these arrangements, since I was guided solely by what sounded good and by what sounded interesting, I expect that I have repeatedly broken numerous rules of Classical composition. Come to think of it, I recall that I was guilty on occasion of the same offense when I was a student in a college music theory class, and probably for the same reason. In any event, I have always been somehow attracted to the logic of the maxim that rules are made to be broken. And at the risk of shamelessly exploiting still another cliché, I can only hope and trust that, in this case at least, the end justifies the means.