Sharps or flats?

Sharps or flats?

A couple of days ago, I was transcribing some piano parts for a client. After submitting the final files, I was told that the client always thought of a certain piece as a ‘flat’ piece, and could I write it as such? (I’d written it in an equivalent sharp key)Interestingly, as soon as I received the message, I began thinking of the piece of music in a different way. It no longer sounded quite the same in my head. I’m not sure I can describe how it differed – but yet it wasn’t the same.

Why do certain people prefer flats, and others prefer sharps? I tend to be a sharp fan, and have been since I begun playing. Two of the pieces I’m currently in the process of writing, both for keyboard instruments (piano and marimba) are in C sharp major and G major respectively.

Despite mulling over this topic for the last few days, I can’t find any substantial research. I have found an article from The Musical Times in 1927 (Vol.68, No. 1015, p.840), where someone states that 99% of people prefer to sight read on the piano in flats rather than sharps – obviously I’m the exception! The writer – Walter Weekes – suggests that it may be because a modulation to the dominant in a flat key involves moving to a key with one less flat, whereas in a sharp key, it involves moving to a key with one more sharp. I’ve heard it’s easier to play sharps on string instruments due to finger positions, which makes sense.

I wonder if key signature preferences on all instruments are down to ease of playing, or if there’s a deeper reason related to equal temperament, just intonation and the harmonic series. Are certain keys preferable because of the fact their notes ‘sound’ more correct – perhaps with the equally tempered notes falling closer to their just intonation equivalents? Please let me know if you can shed any light on this – or if you know of any interesting research pertaining to it!

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