A month ago I had posted the introduction to Robert Fontana’s “The Key To Music“, a research project on the musical formulas that have made up the industry’s pop trends throughout these past decades. To read the introductory post, please go to: gigdoggy.wordpress.com/2009/03/03/the-key-to-music-a-study-on-industry-pop-trends-and-their-musical-formulas-by-robert-fontana
Now Robert has sent us Part 1 of his study which focuses on the keys that dominated the 50’s rock era.
“How appropriate is it that the first song of the Rock Era opens with an A (440 Hz), the standard for tuning and pitch?”
I’m a music geek
I’m a music geek. When I hear a song, I dissect it as if it were a frog in a high school. I listen for chords and progressions, meter, structure, instruments being played, the arrangement, drum patterns and fills, lyrics and rhyme schemes. Imagine a theoretical bubble over my head with notes, roman numerals, symbols and time signatures all swimming around in sine waves. Sometimes I wish I could just simply listen to a song and enjoy its aesthetics like most people.
I was once sitting in traffic on a sweltering hot day with a friend in the passenger seat. A nearby car honks. The truck in front of it honks back. I mumble to myself “Major third.” My friend says, “What?” I reply, “The two honks are a major third apart.” I mimic the honks. The enjoyment I got from explaining it was quickly crushed by the frazzled eyebrows of my friend. FYI: a Trivial Pursuit card once informed me that the most common note for a car horn is F.
You can see how I’ve come to this project of analyzing the keys of all the #1 songs from the Billboard Hot 100. I can’t help it. I wanted to know the trends of keys during the Rock era. Maybe when I’m finished, I could even predict which key the next #1 song would be!
It all started in the 50’s
The 50’s were the birth of rock. I started with Bill Haley & His Comets and their #1 hit version (they weren’t the first to record it) of “Rock Around the Clock” which reached the top in July of 1955. It’s not the first rock song to be written or recorded, but it’s widely considered an unofficial starting point. If we’re going to be technical, the Billboard Hot 100 and the Top 100 weren’t even invented yet. Listen to the original version of “Rock Around the Clock” by Sonny Dae & The Knights, along with some interesting trivia about the song:
To make it easy, I have every Billboard #1 as mp3’s on my computer. With a finely tuned guitar in hand, I find and click on the song. Haley opens with his first vocal note: an A, which I quickly hunted down and found on the guitar. How appropriate is it that the first song of the Rock Era opens with concert A (440 Hz), the standard for tuning and pitch? I know this song fairly well, which I won’t be able to say for every song that will follow. It’s a 12-bar blues progression in the key of A. I know there aren’t any key changes, so I quickly skip forward in 5 second intervals just to skim over it and check. In a spreadsheet, I record the result. I continue in this same process for the next 60 songs to complete the decade.
Here are some results from the 50’s:
• 79 total keys were found from the 61 songs.
• Most used key: E-flat – 11 songs or nearly 14% of all keys found
• Number of songs that use a minor key: three; two of these stayed completely in the minor key
• Number of songs that employ a key change: 13 or about 21% of all songs
• The least used major key was G-flat which was used only in “Honey Comb” by Jimmie Rodgers; the song only stays in G-flat for 43 seconds before changing keys
• Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” changes keys the most with a total of five times; it begins in the key of B-flat and chromatically modulates up through E-flat. Have a listen:
My initial prediction was that B-flat would be the most used key for this shortened decade. I figured the 50’s would have many horns arranged in those songs and I know that key is easy for them to play. But then I considered that trained musicians wouldn’t be limited to easy keys, so I settled with E Major – the quintessential rock key. E-flat emerged victorious. Could it have been due to the fact that it’s another easy key for horns to play in? I was a little surprised at the lack of minor keys, although I anticipated it being low. Most early rock songs were simple or utilized the 12-bar blues pattern, which typically is played in a major key.
Results for the 60’s will be posted next week. Hope there are other fellow music geeks lurking around interested in this stuff!