Is there a correct key to write dance music in? The short answer is yes.

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When you’re bashing out (composing) your next dance floor smasher, should you be concerned with what key it is in?  The answer is yes, and for more than one reason.

You have to consider two things, firstly:

1. What key are other tracks written in?

This question is asked because, with a dance track, the music often needs to be harmonically matched to the other tracks the DJ is mixing it into.  This is especially the case when more and more DJs are using Mixed In Key, which essentially dictates which tracks will sound good together (harmonically, not necessarily rhythmically).  If I was to go making a track in Abmin when most others are in Dmin, then it is not likely to get played as often.

So what is the most popular key you ask?  Well, I used Mixed In Key to look at the key of my 1500+ dance tracks from the past five years (when I made the switch from vinyl) and got the following results…

I’ve included the relative major keys in with each minor because dance music is mostly minor.  I tested this with random subsets and the broad results are consistent: Amin is the most popular key.  And do you know what the relative major is? Cmaj.  The one with no black notes.  This is my conclusion for why Amin is at the top of the popularity list – because it doesnt involve the black notes.  Now there’s nothing racist about this (!), it is just that Cmaj is the first scale learned and one that most people are comfortable with.  When people start playing around on the keyboard most will naturally gravitate to these keys.

The numbers at the bottom of the chart show the Mixed In Key reference numbers.  In that system you can mix with the same number or +/- 1 for decent harmonic results.  Amin is 8, and it is interesting that both Dmin and Emin (7 and 9) feature in the more frequent key signatures.  Both of these only contain one black key each – the least of all the minor key signatures, after Amin.

So Amin is the key to yield best harmonic mixing with the most tracks – based on my genre-bending collection of house, tech house, prog house, and trance.

I thought there might be some pattern emerging in the frequency of the root note here as well, so I plotted frequency (Hz) of the 0th and 1st octave.  Those results are below.

I found no clear correlation between root note frequency and the popularity of the key (the chart is ordered by most frequent key signature, as before).  To be honest, I think relatively few producers go to this level of technicality when making a track – I do know some that do though.  A veteran music producer friend (and king of making things sound LOUD) never writes stuff in Cmin, Dmin or Emin – the 0th root note is just too low in the register he says (you can find out who he is here).

But keep the frequencies on this chart in mind –  it could make the difference between it sounding good or immense on that Funktion One club sound system, which brings us to point two…

2. What sounds best on a sound system?

There are a variety of sound systems that people listen to dance tracks on: in-ear headphones, home hi-fis, car stereos, and clubs.  The last is possibly the most important when it comes to whether a DJ will play your track and whether clubbers will be compelled to go buy it.  It is also important to consider what they’ll be listening on at the point of sale too – probably headphones while shopping on the online download stores.  The frequency reproduction in a club and in headphones can be completely different – figuring out what is the best frequency for bass is not easy.

So I looked what the big producers were doing.  Here is a collection of spectrograms for eight big big tracks (from producers Pryda, Steve Angello, Mark Knight, Gareth Emery etc).  You might have to click on it to get a good look.

The most common feature is the bass always sitting around 45-55hz.  This is probably the ideal found from years and years of producing and DJing.  You want a bass that will rumble the Funktion One bass bins but also be audible in a pair of tiny in-ear headphones.  Just out of curiosity I took a photo of the back of the Funktion One speakers when I was playing for Forward  at Stinky’s the other month.  Here it is:

Heavy beasts arent they!  Considering the best clubs in the world almost all have Funktion One systems it is important to know what these speakers excel at.  The primary range of these specific bass speakers is 45-80Hz, so ideally you want a bass note sat nicely in that region, preferrably towards the bottom end for that inside-your-belly bass that people love so much.

Most standard headphones will claim a response down to 20Hz, but in all likelihood this will tail off quite a bit earlier, especially in the ones that dont form a seal in your ear canal.  So, to get that earth shaking bass, but also something that sounds decent on headphones we need something around say…  55Hz.  And if you look back at the frequency chart you will see that the root note of Amin is in fact at 55Hz.

Ok, I could have picked anywhere between 45 and 55Hz really.  But considering the fact that this is a sweet frequency for both club and headphone sound reproduction, AND that 30% of tracks are being written in Amin or keys that mix well with Amin, it seems like a good place to start.

By all means, experiment and find what works best for you – a world without black notes might get a bit dull and I dont really want to be responsible for that

If you have a preferred key for composing other than Amin let us know why in the comments…

p.s.  Here is the ‘Circle of Fifths’ that Mixed In Key based it’s system on…

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  1. #1 by Milan on April 11, 2011 - 9:19 pm

    Thanks for shining a light on this. If I look at my collection I 100% agree on the 8A tunes. They are abundant. I just started producing and the hz of a bassline you described help me in my struggle. Keep it up, you got a follower!

  2. #2 by lostinmusik on April 12, 2011 - 12:37 am

    Dankuwel!

    Glad you found it useful – it’s not a hard and fast rule, but definitely something to keep in mind with your productions. Good luck on the road to making massive choons, feel free to send them through to us :)

  3. #3 by mkb on April 12, 2011 - 5:32 pm

    The correct term for “equivalent major” is “relative major”.

    • #4 by lostinmusik on April 12, 2011 - 5:34 pm

      Thank you – that has been updated now :)

  4. #5 by sarah on April 14, 2011 - 9:56 pm

    Wow, fascinating and useful in equal measure. Thanks so much for this!

    • #6 by Darzh on April 15, 2011 - 3:28 am

      You’re welcome, glad it helped in the search for production perfection :)

  5. #7 by Kenny Da Funk on April 16, 2011 - 9:00 am

    Surely the peak at about 55Hz in these tracks is the kick drum, not the bass? The bass will be playing different notes in the scale of Am or whatever, so some might be the same as the root note and some different. Most tracks I have analysed the kick is around 55Hz and the bass is between there and just over 100 Hz or so. And the shape of the kick itself is a bit like the shape of the track, except it usually is smoother and less mid.

  6. #8 by Kenny Da Funk on April 16, 2011 - 9:06 am

    Interesting article, I just think you need to check whether it should say kick at 55 Hz instead of bass

    • #9 by lostinmusik on April 16, 2011 - 5:51 pm

      I can see where this is confusing – maybe we should have said subbass. This is often separate from the kick and can roll on considerably longer than the kick. If you remove the subbass from the kick you’ll generally find the tonk of the kick is around 100Hz. And yeah – the bass notes will generally move around between 50-100Hz but have to work around the subbass. Sorry for the confusion, thanks for your input!

  7. #10 by Kenny Da Funk on April 17, 2011 - 11:09 am

    Ah, see what you mean, a sort of bass component of the kick, or sub bass underlying the kick. Makes sense.

  8. #11 by Alex on May 27, 2011 - 7:56 pm

    Good read, thanks. I’ve also noticed that most pro kicks have their sub around 50hz.
    Looking at those funktion one speakers, are you saying that they are the only subs? I remember reading somewhere that their speakers were made to give full clear response across the whole bass spectrum, so i thought they would go lower than 45hz.

  9. #12 by drum bass vinyl records free cheap on September 3, 2011 - 9:25 am

    Its like you read my thoughts! You appear to grasp a lot approximately this, such as you wrote the ebook in it or something. I feel that you could do with a few percent to pressure the message house a little bit, however other than that, that is magnificent blog. A great read. I will definitely be back.

  10. #13 by Zink on January 16, 2012 - 3:33 am

    Brilliant! Thanks. I’m still not quite sure what the distinction is between the kick/bass/subbass discussion in the comments… Maybe somebody can explain this a bit further?

    • #14 by Dave on February 24, 2012 - 11:52 pm

      Hi Zink,

      In the article the kick is considered to be the hit on the 1,2,3,4 of a track in dance music. Often this comprises of a click, a thud around 100-200Hz and also a sub bass around 50Hz. If the track has a powerful deep bassline then often the subbass on the kick will be minimal. If the bassline is higher in the frequencies and more staccato the producer will often use a subby kick to fill the lower frequencies (~50Hz).

      I hope that helps.

      We have a book Complete Music Producer coming out next month that covers all this and loads more :)
      Dave

      p.s. we’ve moved to http://www.lostinmusik.net now

  11. #15 by MsTris Beats on May 10, 2012 - 9:45 pm

    very nice study and article thanks much ..I’m going to find your new spot and subscribe

  12. #16 by Mack on October 17, 2012 - 8:01 pm

    Hello, its nice article concerning media print, we all understand
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  13. #17 by Cody d on January 17, 2013 - 11:48 pm

    Apologize for the novice question as I am somewhat new to creating tech house and dance music , I just created my First tech house track and have a well understanding of mastering etc, (eq frequency range , compression) my question is when samples are root noted mostly to c2 or c3 on some and most samplers (like mine) , what is the distinction btwn minor and frequency range being that I have most samples already root noted on my sampler to c3 I think, if I filter/ eq a sound like a lead, say in mid range to sound like its in minor? Apologize if i sound dumb i am still learning theory and would like to go by a proper key for the genre

  14. #18 by Cody d on January 18, 2013 - 12:11 am

    Just seen the graph relation but would like to kno if I could just eq a sound to sound like minor according to frequency?

  15. #19 by dark virus on February 9, 2013 - 4:48 pm

    Very interesting reading. But I have a question: in the frequency spectrum pics, the bass area seems really louder than the rest of the frequencies. To my knowledge, the spectrum should be more or less “linear”, with the bass area just a little “higher” than the rest. So, for EDM, is it acceptable to have such a high bass area, without making the track too bassy and/or muddy?

  16. #20 by Sendy on February 10, 2013 - 5:21 pm

    Just a note – key signature has no bearing on tonal colour in todays 12-tone equal temperament system. So colour wise Amin and Bmin are exactly the same, except one is obviously higher in pitch. This is good news because we can keep A and related keys as our base note, and derive colour from what mode we use, microtonal variance, timbre, etc.

  17. #21 by Mike on July 31, 2013 - 4:58 am

    d minor is where I am this summer.
    This article is great.

  18. #22 by Paul Wong on March 12, 2014 - 2:33 am

    F*ck men your blog is f*cking awesome and informative dam definetely book marking this page =) thanks bro

  19. #23 by RShaw on March 22, 2014 - 7:33 am

    I found another site by someone who looked at 1300 pop songs…and found that the most common key was Cmaj ;) Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but I know for me, the key I’m most comfortable singing in is C#maj…which would normally be simplified as Cmaj. I’m sure there are many reasons for the prevalence of Cmaj/Amin, although not having to use black keys might be one for people who create using keyboards — for other instruments, that’s not a factor. And what’s black isn’t always black, and what’s white isn’t always white — it’s all relative. Anyway, interesting read.

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