What Is a "Key?"
Here is a question new fiddlers often ask:
I know that guitar, banjo and mandolin pickers need to know which key songs are played in, but do I have to worry about keys since a fiddle has no frets. What is a key anyway?
Have you ever started to sing a song only to find that at a point your voice either squeaks, cracks, or you need to sing a note so low that you sound worse than a frog with laryngitis? So you try to sing the same song again, but this time you start on a different note, maybe higher, maybe lower, until you find a starting note that allows you to sing the song all the way through. You have just changed keys. A key is where a song is sung or played musically or note-wise.
There are many different keys: A, Bb, C, D, E, F, G -- to name a few. There are major keys that usually sound happy. There are minor keys that usually sound sad. There are “sharp” keys and “flat” keys. For a singer a change in key can make the difference between being able to sing the song nicely or not being able to sing it all the way through at all. For a fiddler it can mean being able to play the song easily or having to go through a lot of fingering gymnastics to hit all the notes. It can also mean being able to play the tune all the way through in first position (where beginners usually play and where most folk tunes are played) or feeling as if you've “run out of strings” at the low end or that you need to move your whole hand up the fingerboard at the high end.
In sheet music the key you should play in is marked on the staff. For instance if you see one sharp # - you will play the song in the key of G major. If you see two sharps ## you will play it in D major. Three sharps mean you will play the tune in A major. No sharps or flats on the staff mean that you are in the Key of C.
Here is something you can try with your fiddle to hear and see the difference in how the different keys are played:
Starting on the open G string - play the tune “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Now put you first finger on the G string about 1 ½” up from the nut. This will give you the note A. Play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” again. Do you see how your fingers needed to find different places on your fingerboard in order to play the song all the way through in tune? The diagrams below show you approximately where you need to put your fingers to play in the keys G major and A major.
To see and hear how keys can affect your singing, sing the song “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” but start singing it on a different note - or pitch - each time.
To hear and see how important a key is when playing tunes with other musicians find a willing picker (guitar, mandolin or banjo) and ask them to play something you both know how to play in the key of G. The picker can help you out with this. Now ask the picker to play the song in the key of A - using the chords that would be used for A - but this time you stay in G, use the exact same fingering that you just used. It will sound “off” -- or like something is just not right. Go off by yourself, start the tune one note higher than you started it in G. This should put you in the key of A. Sound the tune out until you can play it. Now try it again with your picker. It should sound better.
When we say that a person is playing or singing “off key” we usually mean that either they are playing or singing in a key that the other musicians are not playing in, or that they are playing notes that are not usually included in the key that they are singing or playing in.
So, as a fiddler, should you fret about keys even though there are no frets on a fiddle? Yes.
Copyright Beverley Conrad 2001 All Rights Reserved
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