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.


7 thoughts on “The key-of-F bugaboo

  1. Joseph says:

    Following the post on ChoralNet, it’s clear that I’m not the first one to come up with this explanation. And there are others posting there who also posit reasons related to the voice itself–the passagio, and where “breaks” lie for various voice types. It’s an issue that fascinates me to no end.

  2. Joseph says:

    Thanks to a post on the ChoralNet thread by John Howell, I realized it might be overreaching to generalize and say that old pitch used to be roughly a half-step lower. Pitch just seems to have varied too much from place to place, and John points out that written pitch did not necessarily correspond to sung pitch. Back to the drawing board!

  3. julie says:

    After bookmarking this when you first wrote it, I finally stopped by to read the whole thing, and I can’t agree more. I must add that I had first-hand experience with this, singing in the chorus of the Messiah with Boston Baroque, which uses period instruments at period tuning. OH MAN that felt good on the voice. So don’t give up on your theory.

  4. Wow. I had never thought of this problem before, and even though you’ve nearly disproven your own theory, I still find truth in which keys are easier on the voice (and ears). Applying this to my own choral experiences, I can think of specific pieces I’ve sung this year that are in comfortable instrumental keys (C, F, G, etc), which truly didn’t sit well in our voices. The result was, more often than not, ending relatively far away from the tonal center.

    I should probably note that I’m in Dr. Kimberly Dunn-Adams’ University Chorale that will be performing “Love, thricewise” on Sunday. Your use of F-sharp major in the first movement and B mixolydian in the third certainly fits the theory, because we have yet to sway from those tonal centers. I can’t imagine the last movement in B-flat or C mixolydian, though that could also be because I’ve been overly exposed to the printed key.

    Not entirely relevant to the discussion at hand, but I am very intrigued by your works. Being that we will be Skyping with you on Friday, I believe, I will probably ask several questions about the harmonic language you use and how you have gotten to that stage of your writing. As a young composer with not much time to compose, I honestly find your works to be inspirational. It certainly makes me want to get back to writing.

    Jack Bertrand

    • Joseph says:

      Thanks for your comments, Jack, and your kind words about my music. Whatever the cause(s) might be, this key-of-F bugaboo is a very real phenomenon. Lots of people (you, now, included) and years of personal experience have confirmed this for me.

      As for “Love, thricewise,” I’m looking forward to hearing the rehearsal. It’s fascinating to me that you view F# as the center of the first movement; I’ve always thought of it as B (minor, more or less), though it does spend some time on F# in the second stanza. I’ll have to sit with it some more and think on it!

  5. Oh goodness, pardon my miscommunication! I meant to say that the middle section of “Liquor and lacquer” was in F-sharp (mixolydian as well, I suppose!), not the entire movement. Going back through my music, I notice a lot of what I hear as “D major” (note: I sing Bass I), but I just looked through the Soprano part and suddenly B makes sense as well. Really interesting stuff!

  6. Joseph says:

    Oh, no problem! F# mixo. sounds right for the middle section of mvt. 1, yes. It doesn’t spend a whole lot of time there, but F# mixo. is definitely established as governing at least the beginning of the middle section. It makes, as I’m sure you see, for a B – F# – B architecture overall.

    I was pondering your other question re: harmonic language today while I mowed the lawn, and will continue to ponder it until Friday. Looking forward to it!

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