Life in the Keys of Songs

I recently wrote a song called Atonement Blues. It’s in the key of C, although it passes thru all 12 7th chords. It got me thinking about whether I favor different keys in my song writing. So I went and made a list of all the songs I’ve written and performed or put on a records.

It’s interesting because different keys have different sounds. To me the higher keys and the sharper ones tend to sound brighter and the lower ones, as well as the flatter ones, darker. When you’re in a given key your mind and hands tend to run in certain patterns, especially on sax. Sometimes when you’re writing a song, changing its key can alter the whole character dramatically.

It turns out I have a pretty good spread:

C: 3 Cm: 4 7
Db: Dbm: 2 2
D: 2 Dm: 2 4
Eb: Ebm: 1 1
E: Em: 2 2
F: 3 Fm: 1 4
Gb: 2 Gbm: 2
G: 2 Gm: 2
Ab: Abm:
A: 3 Am: 4 7
Bb: 1 Bbm: 1
B: 1 Bm: 1

It looks like I favor the keys of C and A (both Major and minor). C generally sounds neutral to me, while A is bright, although A minor sounds neutral too. There are some gaps in the low major keys and high minor keys.

C is the default key for writing on piano and a good jazz key. Of the seven songs I have in C and C minor, most are jazz numbers, or jazziod rock numbers, and only one, Touch the Ceiling, is a straight-ahead rocker. It was co-written with my drummer Mark who chose the key. Three of these are recently written numbers I’m doing in my jazz originals group.

I have two songs in Db minor. Both are kinda funky/jazz and both began in C minor or D minor and I shifted them a half-step. For a while I really got into writing on the piano in keys that use alot of black keys, after noticing that guys like Stevie Wonder and Donald Fagen tend to do alot of that.

D is a pretty versatile key, low but bright, good for jazz or rock. I have four songs in D and D minor. All of them are strident and uptempo.

Eb minor is a fun and weird key, very dark. I have one song in that key, Ghost in the Machine. I don’t have anything in Eb major.

In my mind E is the default rock key. Interestingly, both of my songs in E-minor are non-jazz instrumentals that have a single chord and mostly are about exploring out time signatures.

F is another versatile key, higher but darker than C. Of the four songs I have in F, two are uptempo and two are ballads.

The two songs I have in Gb is actually in F#. F# is higher and brighter then E. Both are rather cosmic sounding. One, Angel or Alien, was and was written on the bass and is mostly a ballad with an uptempo middle section. The other, Seventh Sea, is a jazz ballad that spends alot of time in other keys and plays with the idea of shifting tone centers.

I have 2 songs in G but none in G minor. Both are are up and bright

I have no songs in Ab. Maybe I should try writing one.

I have seven songs in A and A minor. Most of the A minor ones were written a long time ago for Event Horizon. Of the ones in A major, Rocket to the Moon is one of the few songs I’ve written on guitar. Black Swan was written mainly on bass, and moves thru several keys, including a big part in E minor.

Bb sounds lower and darker than C to me. Great jazz key. The one song I have in Bb, Your Dancing Shoes, is a soul/funk/blues number that I’ve done both a rock and a jazz version of.

The only key that’s brighter than A is B. My only song in B, Heat Wave, is very uptempo and in 7/8. It modulates to G# minor for the verse.

Through with Buzz

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the passing last week of one of my musical heroes Walter Becker of Steely Dan. He was a big influence on my sound and by all accounts a great guy. I saw Steely Dan live three times, going back to their first tour in the 90’s and twice more at the Beacon in later years. Each show ranks up there with the all time best shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve been taking time this week to work my way thru the Steely Dan songbook, concentrating on the more advanced stuff in the back half from the records The Royal Scam, Aja, and Gaucho.

In my own musical world things are happening again after the summer hiatus. The LEFT HOOK is back in rehearsal. We did a bunch of Steely songs just to jam, including My Old School, a bit of Babylon Sisters and Hey Nineteen, as well as Kid Charlemagne and Rikki from our regular set.

We’ve been adding in new songs at about the rate of one a week before we went on break and are back at it. We’re up to twenty-five songs or so, almost enough to play a whole show. We’ve started adding some of my rock originals. Everyone in the group enjoys playing them, which is a good sign.

We’ve also been dusting off the whole list to get them back into working muscle memory and see how they sound as a quartet. Overall really sounding good, even things we haven’t played in six months or more. Only downside is because I’m singing alot more we had to drop a lot of the sax songs. I’ve gone from playing sax on about half the songs to about a quarter. So I’m looking for more sax songs that we can do with our setup. In the weeks ahead we’ll pick four or five songs to record to use as a new demo so we can get back to playing out.

In jazzland the originals project has broken off from the jam sessions to become its own thing. It was clear for some time that our old Mike wasn’t really into it, and everyone was getting pretty frustrated with the situation. We got a new drummer Dan, who fits right in and has the sound we’re looking for, as well as the technical precision, versatility and imagination, and a great guy to hang around with. He cites Bill Bruford and Tony Williams among his influences. So now we’re back at it, crafting our arrangements and the goal of making a record is back on.

I’ve brought in two new songs. One is actually an old song called Son of the Sun, that I used to do in Event Horizon. (I had a lot of songs from Event Horizon and I brought a few into this group, but most didn’t really work so I started writing new songs instead.) It’s mainly in 5/8 with the bridge in 7/8, so it wasn’t even worth attempting before. Of course with the new group I expect it’ll sound pretty different.

The other is an all-new song I’m calling Atonement Blues. It’s based on the idea of a tone row, which is something I’ve been playing with for a year or so since Michelle came home from school one day having learned about them and all excited. The idea of a tone row is to construct a melody using all twelve notes of the chromatic scale without repeating any until you’ve used all twelve. Technically this isn’t so hard, the real trick is coming up with something anyone would want to listen to!

In my case I applied the idea to a chord progression rather than a melody. It came about almost by accident. I was playing around with another songwriting idea, trying to make a blues/soul number that used only dominant seventh chords a la Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I got a fair way along and noticed I had only repeated one chord, and I wanted the turnaround to reverse the harmonic motion, essentially wrapping around the cycle of fifths. A couple tritone subs and I was there. Here is the progression:

C7 | E7 | F7 | D7 |
G7 | B7 | F#7 | A7 |
Bb7 Eb7 | Ab7 Db7 | Cmaj7 | (Cmaj7) |

It turns out to be a great vehicle to solo on, reminescant of Giant Steps.