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Music Therapists Do It Differently: Key and Range

In this series, we are exploring how music therapists do live music differently than other musicians, even though it may not be easy to see. This is part three of a ten-part series. You can find an introduction and links to all ten posts here.

Music therapy sessions may sometimes look something like a concert. Even if it just looks like the music therapist is singing a nice set of songs, though, there is a lot more going on in that therapist’s head. So far in this series, we’ve talked about the importance of clients’ goals and in-the-moment needs in shaping the structure of a music therapy session. Now, let’s get a bit more technical with some of the musical choices we make.

#3. Key and Range

First, key. A key is the musical scale that a song is based on. The key includes a tonic note, which provides a place of rest in the music, and other notes in relation to the tonic that provide a sense of movement from and returning to the resting place of the tonic.

You have probably heard of major and minor keys. These are most familiar to those of us who listen to Western music. We often think of songs in major keys as “happy.” Think “Happy Birthday” and “Walking on Sunshine.” On the other hand, we think of songs in minor keys as “sad” or “serious.” Examples include “The House of the Rising Sun” and “Eleanor Rigby.” Most songs include shifts from major to minor sounds, but those of us who’ve grown up listening to Western popular or classical music generally get a certain feeling based on the major or minor key of the song.

Although we talk a lot about songs in major or minor keys, the better term to use in describing the difference in sound between songs in different keys is probably tonality. Tonality refers to the character or feeling of a piece of music based on the relationships between the tonic note and the other notes of the scale. This is true for major and minor scales, and it is true for the modes.

Here’s where we get a bit more technical. There are seven modes – three in a major tonality and four in a minor tonality. Each has a different feeling or flavor to lend to the music. If you really want to dig deep, you can find different modes at work in lots of songs, but for the most part, the three major modes and four minor modes will more or less fit the pattern of sounding “happy” and “sad/serious” respectively. (In my experience, music therapists and jazz musicians talk about modes more than anyone else.)

Music therapists consider key (and tonality and mode) when choosing, writing, and improvising music.

"Is that John Denver's original key?"

“Is that John Denver’s original key?”

We’ll continue more with that, but first, let me clarify something else that may be confusing. Sometimes musicians perform songs in a different key from the original version. For example, I would probably sing “Sunshine On My Shoulders” in G instead of Bb. Sometimes this is a function of playability. (It’s much easier to play guitar in the key of G than the key of Bb.) Sometimes, though, it has to do with range.

Range is the distance between the lowest and highest notes in a song, on an instrument, or in a person’s voice. The range of the song has to match up with the range of the performer, or you can’t play the song. So, if you (or your client) can’t sing a high Eb, then you need to play “Sunshine on My Shoulders” in a lower key. Or, if you’re playing the piccolo solo from “You Can Call Me Al” on an oboe, you have to drop the melody by a couple of octaves, to match the range of your instrument.

Music therapists consider range when singing, playing, or facilitating music-making.

Range is especially important when we’re facilitating music-making with other people, because everyone has his/her own range to work with, whether singing or on an instrument.

How are music therapists different?

All musicians think about tonality and range, but music therapists think differently than musicians performing for an audience.

How performers think:

  • For tonality: stay true to the harmonies and scales chosen by the composer or change a chord or two for variation or dramatic effect.
  • For range: stick with the original, or choose a new key based on what sounds best on their instrument or voice.

How music therapists think:

  • All of the above, PLUS…
  • Choose songs by tonality based on the goals of the music experiences.
  • Choose tonalities for composition or improvisation experiences based on clients’ goals.
  • Change keys to match participants’ vocal ranges.
  • Play or sing music in a particular range based on clients’ goals or needs.

Here is a more concrete example:

I have a higher singing range than most of my older adult clients. (Your vocal range drops as you age.) My voice is more aesthetically pleasing and carries better in keys that may be too high for my clients to sing along. So, when I sing “Over the Rainbow” with clients who I expect to sing with me, I sing in the key of G. It’s a bit low for me, but it works for them. When I’m singing for clients though, providing some beauty while they listen, or look at photos, or practice breathing techniques, I sing in the key of C. It’s more comfortable for me, and I sound better. That’s how I adapt range for my clients.

As for tonality? This comes into play with the songs and other musical material I bring into a session. I might choose songs in a major tonality when I intend to support a brighter mood or increased level of energy. I might choose improvisation in a minor tonality to support a more introspective feeling.

As it goes, though, I often consider tempo alongside tonality when choosing music for my sessions. That is the musical aspect we will explore in the next post. Stay tuned!

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