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Some Thoughts about Keys

An Essay by Brian Maag

In the past, it has been common practice to define a key by its diatonic minor
or major tonality. I find this to be limiting to the thinking process since it requires
one to think of chords relative to their diatonic origin. The music being composed
and performed now, in the beginning of the 21st century, doesn’t sit pretty within the
theory of diatonicism, but rather exists within an expanded diatonic framework.
This expanded diatonic framework suggests the inclusion of not only diatonic
functions, but anything outside of that framework as well, even the use of non-
functional devices derived from a completely atonal origin. It is my intent then, to
suggest that a shift in the understanding of the derivative of tonalities occur to
account for the modern usage of an expanded diatonicism.
In the traditional practice of diatonicism, every function is looked upon in
relation to a specific tonality, maybe being dominant, major or minor or otherwise.
This practice suggests the inclusion of specific tones from the framework upon which
a key is structured, and the avoidance of certain chromatic tones which would clash
with the harmony suggested by its diatonic tonality. In the current practice of music,
these chromatic tones are not seen as “clashing” with the harmony, but are
considered to “color” it. Because of this, much music of the current period includes
these chromatic tones which would otherwise clash with a purely diatonic harmony.
The use of these tones can be explained within the principles of diatonicism, though
not without creating a number of exceptions to the guidelines (which is the current
It is not my intent to discredit this approach of “ammending” the guiding
principles of diatonicism, seeing as how it has been the common practice of music
theorists since the Common Practice Period (circa 1700 – 1900) forward and has
obviously gained wide acceptance and has become hugely popular since then. I do
feel that this approach is acceptable, though I do not find it very efficient in relation
to music of the current period. In order to attain a certain amount of efficiency in the
mental processes involved in this practice, it is necessary to apply a different
understanding of what it actually means to be “in a key.”
Instead of thinking of a key as being derived from a specific tonality
developed around a tonal center, our understanding must be shifted to thinking of

music of an atonal origin has its place in expanded diatonicism. His thinking process is greatly simplified because he now has immediate access to any and every tone in the chromatic scale to color the chords or melody without having to first relate the tones to specific diatonic keys and then alter them to fit. we can consider the terms major and minor to represent “colors. Also. The seven modes of the natural major scale. This way. This is of immediate concern to the improvisor composing in the moment. etc. however I assure you that it is not. This removes the limitations of thinking primarily about diatonic function. so that a harmony or tonality can be defined. and not represent the key itself.” or sounds of the same key. unless of course that is not the desired effect. This paper is meant to be . rather than a harmonic basis. or shadings that can be applied to them.the tonal center itself as being the key. We shall refer to this practice as Expanded Diatonicism. they are not necessarily related to their diatonic function. and other situations) This approach may appear to be chromatic in nature. This needs to be understood without thinking of major. however. more focus is aimed at thinking in terms of chord progressions and the different colors. we must remember that we are trying to be musical. A chromatic system implies that equal weight be placed on all twelve tones. as in the individual note that constitutes the tonic. Anyway. even in the same composition. can be quite useful in shading the tonality in different ways. however these tones can vary within the same key. The system I am suggesting is actually closer to being diatonic in nature in that there are certain tones which carry more weight than others. for example. (of course. in that there is no longer a need to think in terms of being diatonic or not. This is different than the way they are examined in diatonicism. as you may have already discerned. At this point it is important to take note of the fact that even though every note is present in every key. In the practice of expanded diatonicism the key is not relative to a particular scale. Modes. When using modes in expanded diatonicism. Instead. as he no longer needs to think of specific tones from a diatonic framework that need to be altered in order to fit over the chords. could each be thought of as a different color. In that respect. we must be aware of the situation or chord progression within which we are traversing. in which each mode has a different root within the same diatonic scale. and each should be examined from the same root. minor. this implies that practice and experimentation has occurred in discerning what kinds of colors work within various chords and progressions. these are just some thoughts to consider. though it is to be considered more of an effect.

If you don’t feel that the information given here conforms to your view of what music is or should be. There are no rules in music other than what sounds good or not and that is different for everyone. Feel free to add to or take away from it in order to conform with your own thoughts on the subject. so find your own way of thinking about it. the better the understanding of the whole can be achieved. . The ideas presented here are derived from my personal approach as a result of my own studies in music. Remember that music is only relative to itself. After all. then just ignore everything you just read. The ideas are presented for the purpose of providing a different vantage point on a subject which already has many. art is a personal expression. because there can never be too many ways of thinking about something. The more ways one has of conceptualizing something.a point of departure. and maybe even present an element of clarity that might not have previously been realized.