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Songs in no particular key
February 18, 2005 3:23 PM   Subscribe

Is there a technical name for a song in no particular key?

Here are two examples:

1. Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman". It sounds like it begins in the key of F, but it almost resolves to D, then B flat, then C. It doesn't really resolve to any key.

2. Chicago's "Colour My World". This one is more definite. F is its home key. It starts and finishes in the key of F, but it wanders all over the circle of keys in the meantime.

If there is no technical name for such songs, I'll give them one: Meandering songs.

They're still good songs.

Steve E
posted by StephenE to Media & Arts (21 answers total)
 
If it doesn't have any key, then it's atonal. I'm not sure whether there's a term for songs with many key changes, though.
posted by heatherann at 3:35 PM on February 18, 2005


Atonal, or twelve-tone music. Schoenberg did a lot of that, IIRC.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 3:44 PM on February 18, 2005


Wichita Lineman is definitely not in the Schoenberg category though.
posted by inksyndicate at 3:52 PM on February 18, 2005


It's possible (in fact, common and, dare I say it, even desirable) for different parts of songs to be in different keys. Simple, accessible example: "I Want To Hold Your Hand" - the verse is clearly in G, despite the presence of a B dominant 7, which leads to E minor, the relative minor of G. For my money it's safe to say that this is all essentially in the key of G. However, "and when I touch you" - the D minor 7 chord brings us out of G into C, where we remain until "I can't hide" - the D MAJOR puts us back in G, definitely not in C anymore. Not bad for a couple of kids in their early 20s.

I'm unfamiliar with the examples you cite, but suffice it to say that there is a WORLD of difference between songs that are in many different keys (at any given point in time, they are definitely in a particular key) and pieces of music that are truly in no key.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 4:19 PM on February 18, 2005


There is no technical name for a song in a succession of keys, which is really what you're talking about. If a piece starts and finishes in the same key then it's in that key. Eg, most classical pieces of any length, particularly from the Romantic period, contain passages in several keys, but they are still referred to as "in C minor", as long as they start and end in that key.

Looking at the chords to Wichita Lineman here, and thinking about where feels like "home", I would argue it is in Gminor. The Bb at the end is what the classical bods call an "interrupted cadence" - basically a surprise change from the chord on the 5th to the chord on the 6th note of the scale - and is not a real key change (proof is that the song does not then continue in Bb).

A song can be highly chromatic (ie modulates a lot, uses altered chords with notes that don't come the scale of the home key), but it's still in that home key. In fact, "chromatic" is probably the word you're after.

Atonal is genuinely in no key, using all 12 notes equally with no sense of home or tonic, but that's not what you're asking about.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:20 PM on February 18, 2005


self-correction - now that I've looked at Wichita Lineman, I would say it is not in fact in a succession of keys. It is a tune in Gm that uses a lot of chords from outside Gm , modulates to the dominant major (D) in the middle, and returns to Gm.

Now Pinball Wizard, on the other hand...
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:24 PM on February 18, 2005


In fact, "chromatic" is probably the word you're after.

Polychromatic or polytonal, actually.

That's what we called it in composition class, anyway. Generally it meant that we were more than one key at once, sortof. Charles Ives kindof stuff, but serial polytonality sounds way bona fide.
posted by weston at 6:02 PM on February 18, 2005


Yeah, you're talkiing about Wichita Lineman's "modulating"...there's a Web site devoted to songs that just keep going up in keys, it's called "gear shift" or something like that.
posted by inksyndicate at 6:43 PM on February 18, 2005


There are National Health songs in more than one key at once (apparently). I think Schönberg initially preferred the term "pantonal", too.
posted by kenko at 6:49 PM on February 18, 2005


inksyndicate, it's called the Truck Driver's Gear Change, and they have a hall of shame.
posted by WhiskeyTangoFoxtrot at 6:54 PM on February 18, 2005


Well, no. The TDGC is a lame key change at the end that never resolves. Note: There are *no* songs by The Beatles that commit this sin -- but there are four that sound like they do. fingers_of_fire alludes to the very astute use of modulation by Mssr. Lennon and McCartney.

Modulation tricks like the above are not new. J. S. Bach's Muscial Offering has a canon, the 5th, entiled a 2 per Tonus, with the notation Ascendenteque Modulatione ascendat Gloria Regis -- " As the keys ascend so may the glory of the king also ascend". It has the lovely trick of seeming to modulate a whole step after each repetition, theoretically, if played long enough, you return to the original key, but with the fundamental an octave higher.
posted by eriko at 7:27 PM on February 18, 2005


weston, you might want to check your notes, in that case. "Polytonal" is several keys simultaneously (think Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, think Poulenc).

If you have a home key, just with a lot of foreign chords, then I'm pretty sure chromatic IS the word.

I deny that Wichita Lineman modulates to any great extent - in fact the modulation to D I alluded to could be analysed as an imperfect (I-V) cadence in G, coloured by the use of a major I rather than the minor we expected.

And I must disagree with all of you on the TDGC definition. The point of the TDGC is that the key change just happens WITHOUT modulation. Properly, modulation is when one or more chords that share notes from BOTH keys are used as a "pivot" - the ambiguity allows you to switch keys without jarring the listener too much. A TGDC doesn't bother with the pivot, producing a jarring effect.

Show me the TGDC in Wichita Lineman. There isn't one.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:15 PM on February 18, 2005


If those chords are correct, the song moves between G minor and G major. Although I'd have to hear it - it might be more like Bb major and G major.

"Polytonal" means more than one key at the same time. You'll be hard-pressed to find a polytonal pop song.

A cadence which moves from the V (dominant) to anything besides I (the tonic), although it's usually vi (submediant) is called a "deceptive cadence," and it's not clear that that happens here.

"Atonal" means lacking a key center, but it does not mean serialism, or 12-tone music. That's one kind of atonality. Schoenberg was writing atonal music before he invented serialism.

"Chromatic" is not necessarily a good description for a song that has many keys. Plenty of classical pieces have modulations, but you wouldn't describe them as chromatic. Chromatic implies repeated half-step movement, using the chromatic scale. Most pop music is not very chromatic, but jazz sometimes is.

There isn't a term to describe a piece which moves through more than one key. The word for the shift itself is "modulation," as was already pointed out.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:22 PM on February 18, 2005


ludwig_van, I learned the English terminology. "Deceptive" is the American term for a V-VI, but in the Commonwealth we call it "interrupted". Yeah, it's not clear that that's happening, and I'm not sure that describing this song in terms of classical harmony is a smart move, but if you agree with me that Wichita Lineman is in Gm, then a wrenching change to Bb is indeed an interrupted/deceptive cadence.

I learned "chromatic" as a term for describing the music of (for example) Richard Strauss, or Wagner, or indeed J S Bach in his fruitier moments - a catchall term for any harmony which doesn't stick to chords that actually come from the home key. Yes, chromatic != modulation, but in this case, I think it's the right word.

I cannot believe you do not know Wichita Lineman. I'm sure you'd recognise it if you heard it. It's actually one of my favourite C&W songs, partly because it is so harmonically out there compared to yer usual three chord number.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:41 PM on February 18, 2005


Schoenberg was writing atonal music before he invented serialism.

As was list—"Bagatelle ohne Tonart".
posted by kenko at 5:49 AM on February 19, 2005


if you agree with me that Wichita Lineman is in Gm, then a wrenching change to Bb is indeed an interrupted/deceptive cadence.

No it's not. Bb is the III chord and the relative major of Gm. If it went to D7 at the end of a phrase and moved to Bb instead of Gm, that would be an interrupted cadence, but I don't see that. I'd have to listen to the song though.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:42 AM on February 19, 2005


weston, you might want to check your notes, in that case. "Polytonal" is several keys simultaneously (think Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, think Poulenc).

Or Charles Ives, as I mentioned. I threw in the term "serial polytonality" as sortof a joke -- you could probably use it in composition circles and get away with it, at least until they heard examples. ;)

Polychromatic, though... I don't know that it has the implication of simultanaeity that polytonal does. It may actually work as a legitimate term. Though "chromatic" can work as well.
posted by weston at 12:01 PM on February 19, 2005


I threw in the term "serial polytonality" as sortof a joke -- you could probably use it in composition circles and get away with it, at least until they heard examples. ;)

I don't think so - serialism and polytonality are by definition mutually exclusive.

Polychromatic, though... I don't know that it has the implication of simultanaeity that polytonal does. It may actually work as a legitimate term.

That might be a useful term to apply to something (polychromatic literally meaning "many colors"), but I don't think it's a standard term for anything musical, so I doubt someone would know what you meant if you used it.

As for "chromatic," I really don't think that's the right usage of the word, just looking at this chord progression. Those chords are all easily analyzed as functional harmony. Chromatic is a more appropriate term for things like Romantic and 20th century music, as joe's_spleen alluded to. A Mozart piece, for example, may move through many keys, but the chord relationships are probably going to stick to standard tonal harmony and circle-of-fifths type relationships, so you wouldn't describe it as "chromatic" music. Now, a particular musical idea in a more classically structured piece can certainly be called chromatic if it chiefly uses the chromatic scale, but to label a piece as chromatic because it changes keys is inappropriate.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:11 PM on February 19, 2005


I don't think so - serialism and polytonality are by definition mutually exclusive.

Although, as mentioned above, Schoenberg thought of what we call his atonal music as "pantonal" music; he said that rather than being in no key, it was in all keys simultaneously, so there is a connection to be drawn between the two terms. However, the common usages of the two don't really combine in a meaningful way.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:14 PM on February 19, 2005


ludwig_van - you got me there. My bad.

I'm still rooting for "G-ish" though.

:-)
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:27 PM on February 19, 2005


Yes, G certainly looks like the tonal center. It appears to mix G major and G minor, as many good pop songs do.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:35 PM on February 19, 2005


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