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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…