Sharps and flats; Survey results

Sharps and flats; Survey results

A brief introduction
Musicians encounter key signatures constantly, yet it’s a staple of music that we rarely think much of, over and above the accidentals we must remember throughout the piece in question. We take them for granted, and each tend to gravitate towards certain keys in our various musicals roles.

I’ve had many discussions with friends, colleagues and students about favourite notes and keys, which inspired me to ask my first questions about sharps, flats and keys in a blog post a while ago. While we each have our preferences, are there any similarities? Do we all prefer keys that fall more naturally under our fingers on our respective instruments? Is it something to do with gender, age, or which musical roles we work in?

Earlier in the week, I launched a brief online questionnaire using Google Docs. I deliberately kept it short and sweet, to encourage people to answer and help further my curious mind! Questions included the following:

– Gender
– Age (ranges)
– Musical categories (Composer, performer, teacher, for instance)
– Keys preferred (major and minor)
– Do you prefer sharps or flats?
– Why?

General

65% of respondents were male, and the majority fell in the age range of 22-29.

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D is considerably more popular than the other keys. I wonder if there’s anything in the fact that the first two keys are both keys with sharps, as is the fourth (B major being the least popular ruins the effect though!).

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D minor emerges as the most popular, once again by quite a distance. The minor keys with relative majors which are more sharp/flat infested seem to be considerably less popular – something that rings true throughout the majority of these results.

Male vs female

While trends within males’ favourite keys follow the results above (largely because, making up 65% of the sample, their weighting is quite heavy!), the most popular minor key for females was E minor.

Major Minor
Most pop Least pop Most pop Least pop
Males D Db Dm Bm/Bbm/Ebm
Females D F#/Bb/Db Em G#m

 

Instruments

Not enough data was collected about orchestral string players, singers, percussionists and players of ‘other’ instruments (mainly electronic) in order to fully analyse the data. However, we had plenty of respondents that played guitar, woodwind or keyboard instruments.

Major Minor
Most pop Least pop Most pop Least pop
Keyboard D G Dm G#/Bb/Ebm
Guitar D Db Am G#/Ebm
Woodwind C/D/E Bb Dm G#/Bb/Ebm

Intriguing that the least popular key for keyboard turned out to be G – I wonder why?

I haven’t yet broken this down into respondents who played more than one instrumental category – do those who play keyboard and woodwind instruments prefer specific keys? Another area to analyse for another time!

Musical roles

Major Minor
Most pop Least pop Most pop Least pop
Composers D A/B/Db Dm/Gm G#m
Performers D B/F#/Db Dm G#m/Bbm
Teachers C n/a Gm G#m/Bbm/Ebm

I find it quite interesting that the most popular major key with teachers came out to be C. Is this something to do with the process of teaching, and the fact that any other key signature means ensuring the student remembers his/her accidentals throughout the rest of the piece?

Do you prefer sharps or flats?

Out of all the categories explored, most had a relatively even number of sharps and flats lovers. However, below are the more interesting statistics that emerged:

Prefer sharps Prefer flats No preference
Men 21% 43% 36%
Keyboard players 14% 36% 50%
Woodwind players 67% 0% 33%

A large majority of men prefer flats. The fact that keyboard players prefer them concurs with the thoughts of Walter Weekes in The Musical Times back in 1927 (mentioned in a previous post), who suggested that 99% of people prefer to sight read on the piano in sharps rather than flats, due to the fact that a modulation to the dominant involves modulating to a key with one less accidental. In comparison, woodwind players clearly prefer sharps. I know that on some of the woodwind instruments I play, sharps fingerings come more easily (and more naturally) to me than flats; is this a general trend, instead of just one of my quirks?

Comments on favourite keys

I won’t focus on specific comments here, although I will definitely follow up on it later. However, a lot of them boiled down to the same sentiments – the key just felt right, fitted under the fingers well, and was a key they felt familiar with. Some respondents felt it may relate to favourite pieces (either current or from their early days as musicians), or that they just liked their sound.

Further notes

Overall, this research has shown that there’s something about D – whether major or minor. I didn’t think there would be a global trend – ok, it’s not an overwhelming one, but it’s still big enough to be present. A large proportion of us like D.

What I want to know though, is is there anything deeper than that? Why D major and D minor? What is it about that sequence of notes? If I had included modes in the survey, would D Dorian have emerged as just as popular? Is there something in particular about the note D – is it something to do with our upbringing (solfège?) or something innate within us?

I’d like to quickly say thanks to all the lovely musical peoples who took the time to answer my questionnaire – thank you, I really appreciate it. A special thanks goes out to those who retweeted the link to the blog post/questionnaire too!

One Response

  1. Really useful survey Jenni, thanks a million; I’m orchestrating a piece for amateur orchestra at the moment and was thrilled to find this information.
    All the best,
    John

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