The key-of-F bugaboo

I thought I’d make an entry out of a response I wrote to a question I recently saw posted on ChoralNet.  The question (from fellow composer Paul Carey) concerned what he calls the “key-of-F bugaboo” — that is, the fact that when most choirs sing in the key of F major, they almost always have difficulty tuning and tend to veer off-key.  Paul asked if anyone could explain this phenomenon.  While I make the enormous caveat that I am not a musicologist or music historian, I have a theory that might help explain it.  I welcome corrections, suggestions, and comments.

My general understanding is that, over the last several centuries, pitch has risen.  I recall learning, both in college and in grad school, that the pitch standard actually varied quite a bit not only over history, but even from place to place.  However, my impression is that the preponderance of physical evidence (surviving instruments, tuning implements, etc.) shows that pitch was roughly a half-step lower in older times.

Here is where I swerve into the thicket of speculation: My theory is that that pitch standard of yore came about precisely because of what was comfortable in the voice.  We must never forget that the voice dominated music long before the rise of instruments.  If we could travel back in time and hear performances of music written in F major by Lasso, Bach, or Mozart (I acknowledge or course that Lasso would have been thinking in terms of modes, not major/minor tonality; I just use the term “F major” for convenience), AND if pitch were roughly a half-step lower in their times, such performances would strike our modern ears as actually sounding like E major.  Their performances of C major music would sound like B major to us.  The performances of G major music would sound like F# major to us.

Fast-forward a few centuries to the present day.  The pitch standard has risen to A440.  Instruments, by and large, kept their design over the years while keeping up with the rise in the pitch standard; playing in F major, C major, and G major is no problem for them.  They are terrible keys for today’s voices, though.  The voice has not changed over the centuries along with pitch standards.  It is stuck loving the keys that now get called E major, B major, and F# major, despite the fact that they are rotten keys for instruments!

I know loads of fellow conductors who have also found that their choirs do much better in E major, B major, and F# major than they do in F, C, and G.

This is obviously NOT to say that there’s no choir out there today that can hold pitch in [today’s] F, C, and G.  Likewise, this is not to say that any choir is magically going to hold pitch in [today’s] E, B, and F# (or in other voice-friendly keys, for that matter–for example, I’ve heard a recording of Poulenc’s Vinea Mea Electa [written and sung in C# major, which to old ears, would sound like D major–a “friendly” key] conducted by Robert Shaw, which flatted about a quarter tone over the course of the piece).

If I’m right, my theory explains why 1) the set of good keys for the voice contrasts so starkly with the set of good keys for instruments/visually pleasing keys, why 2) these keys are half-steps apart (B=good for voices, C=good for instruments and good to read; E=good for voices; F=good for instruments and good to read; etc.), and why 3) you rarely see old vocal music written in forbidding keys.

I would parenthetically add Bb major to the list of keys today’s choirs find rotten to sing in but that are decent for instruments.  Again, I know lots of conductors who drop Bb music to A or take it up to B; 99% of the time, it holds much better in those keys.

Paul also asked about extending the problem to minor keys–i.e., does F minor, the parallel key, pose a problem too?  Or is D minor, the relative minor, problematic?  My experience suggests that it is the *relative* relationship, not the parallel relationship, that holds sway, since relative minor keys are drawn from the exact same set of pitches as their relative major keys.  Thus, I find voices tend to do very well in E major/C# minor, B major/G# minor, and F#-Gb major/D#-Eb minor (what was the last time you saw a piece written in D# minor? 😉 .  I find D minor, A minor, and E minor tough for the voice because they draw from the same pitches as F major, C major, and G major respectively.  Bb minor, though, seems to sit well, as it is the relative minor of Db major, a very voice-friendly key (which again, in old times, would have been produced by music written in D major).

I know that much of what I’ve written here rests on conjecture.  But it’s the best and most unified explanation I’ve been able to come up with over the years of observing the key-of-F-bugaboo, as Paul calls it.

You can follow the thread on ChoralNet in which I responded to Paul’s question here.