Musicians use the term “key” to specify the pitch center of a particular piece or passage of music. In this respect, the concept of a key is closely related to the traditional Western system of major and minor scales, and indeed, the twenty-four major and minor scales are identified by their 24 major and minor keys (C major, C minor; C-sharp major, C-sharp minor; D major, D minor; etc.) Most importantly, the concept of a key implies a certain hierarchical relationship between the notes of a major or minor scale. In this hierarchy, some notes are more stable and final-sounding than others. The most stable note of the system, called the “tonic,” is the designated center of the key, and it provides the label by which the key is named. Thus when musicians say that a piece is “in C,” or “in E-flat,” this means that the notes C or E-flat are the central, stable notes of the system; the note we hear as carrying the greatest sound of finality and therefore on which we expect the musical work or passage to end.

Yankee Doodle in C Major.  Hear Audio File

In the “Yankee Doodle” example above, the melody uses the notes of the C-major scale, and revolves around C as the central note. If we transpose this melody (i.e. begin the tune on a different note than indicated here, that is higher or lower than C) such that the notes are changed but the relationships between them (i.e. the intervals) are not, we have changed keys:

Here is “Yankee Doodle” in E-flat; notice the visual and audible similarities and differences between this version in E-flat and the previous one in C

Yankee Doodle in E-flat.  Hear Audio File

Key designations often include “major” or “minor” to specify the scale involved. “Scale” refers to one of the standard linear arrangements of the seven pitches of the most commonly used scales. Two pieces, one in C major, the other in C minor, share C as their respective central (“tonic”) notes, but differ with respect to the scale used. Musicians sometimes only add this specification to indicate a minor key; when there is no indication, major is typically assumed. For example, if one describes a piece as being “in C,” musicians usually assume this to refer to the key of C major.

Keys, like scales and intervals, are basic musical parameters that are not in themselves copyrightable.  As we see in the Yankee Doodle example, the melody’s unique characteristics are preserved regardless of key; as such, key does not have much bearing on questions of infringement.  Similarly, re-casting a major-key melody into a minor key, or vice versa, is most likely insufficient to ward off the charge of infringement, though such a change could conceivably be an element of musical parody.  Here is “Yankee Doodle” in a minor key.  It has more lugubrious sound than when heard in a major key, thanks to the flatted note on the syllables on “Doo DLE went TO town” and “on A pony.”

Yankee Doodle in C Minor. Hear Audio File


References to other Glossary terms: