I want to talk about a very interesting video by Victor Wooten called: Music theory is Simple!
In the video Wooten asks the audience this:
“…okay, how many keys are there? I say it’s 12. Good answer, but wrong. How many how many keys you’re about to say? 12 right? that was my answer. Who’s going keep your hand up, if you have an answer different from 12. What’s the answer? 24 is logical, more logical than 12, because there’s majors and minors, so we would double. It makes sense, right? still wrong. okay don’t guess, tell me if you know. One… one. One is not a good answer, but now we’re trying to be clever. what’s the answer?
30 is the answer.”
So that’s pretty interesting already. 30 keys and he’s right! Isn’t he?
How does Wooten arrive at a total of 30 keys in music?
This is the way he arrives at this number: Let’s say you pick up at random a piece of music.
The piece could be in a major key or a minor key.
There’s also a key signature in the piece, and it could have no sharps or flats. Or, any number of flats from one to seven. Or, any number of sharps from one to seven.
So there are 15 different key signatures, times two (because it could be major or minor.) That gives us 30 possible keys. And that’s the right answer. And yes, I understand that there are some enharmonic redundancies with this method. Like how Gb and F# are the same key. But there’s still a chance of you drawing either of those keys when picking a piece at random. And while playing in Gb versus playing an F# just might be a matter of perspective, as you’ll see later on, perspective can be everything!
Wooten says what?
Wooten then says this: “…most of us don’t realize that we only have major and minor keys. Is it? Dorian is not a key, it’s a mode. (True) Right? Harmonic minor is a scale not a key…”
Well! hold on just a second there!
So What by Miles Davis
So let’s say I pick up So What by Miles Davis, and I want to practice it in all keys. But which key is So What in?
There are no sharps or flats in the key signature. So it should be in C major or A minor it’s relative minor. Correct? Not exactly. The key signature in So What is the one for C major (or A minor) but So What is not in any of those keys! So What is in D Dorian (and then modulates to Eb dorian) later on. So, if we thought So What was in the key of C major or A minor, we’d be missing the point.
The Dm7 in So What is not a ii minor in the key of C. It’s a I Dorian! The entire tension release contour is completely different.
If we practice thinking of C as our tonic target, we’re not going to sound in the spirit of this song; since the melodic and harmonic rules are completely different. A great example of what I’m talking about is in the album Kind of Blue, which by the way features So What. In the album you can hear how Bill Evans and Miles Davis were already playing modal, while Cannonball Adderley was still playing bebop lines. The mood and colors in a modal tune are completely different, and require a completely different approach.
And the same goes for many other pieces , including pieces in harmonic minor which, by the way, there are tons of.
30 Keys in Music is Technically Correct
So the 30 keys assessment is technically correct, for songs that are tonal.
But if the spirit of using this perspective is to make sure we practice in all keys – in order to get better at music – then not only is 30 keys not even close to the real amount of possible keys, it might not even be the most practical approach.
If we say D Dorian is not a key, or C harmonic minor is not a key, then we would only be practicing and learning how to play tonal pieces. And we would have a sort of blind spot towards certain real world applications. When you think about how massive the world of music can be, and how finite our time is, prioritizing what should be learned now versus the more esoteric stuff that you might come across later, is imperative.
In other words: Is E# a thing? Yes!
Is it more common or practical than D Dorian? No!
So whether it’s a key or not, practice D Dorian. E# major can wait!
Having said all that, I think Victor Wooten’s video is great! We love different perspectives like this –
especially when it comes to music theory – because the more perspectives we have on a given topic, the more rounded our knowledge becomes.
If you want to learn more about music theory and find music theory resources from different perspective, like this one you can visit mDecks.com with plenty of Music Books / Course & Apps for musicians by musicians. You can also join us on YouTube and become an Exclusive Access Member for our ever expanding music resource library. We post new content every week.
BTW, here’s the original Victor Wooten’s video: