The Most Popular Keys of All Music on Spotify
Each day, approximately 20,000 new songs appear on Spotify, which now has over 30 million tracks. As the Beastie Boys maintained, there are “only twelve notes, well a [hu]man can play.” They were right, at least when it comes to Western music at least (rock, rap, classical, country, and many or most other genres).
Guest Post by Eliot Van Buskirk on Spotify Insights
Unless you count the microtones between what the notes in the genres many of us are most familiar with, there are only 12 notes in all of music.
That’s over 30 million songs, the vast majority with various combinations of the same 12 notes. In addition, every song in western music is based around only one of these notes, as well as a mode — almost always major, which sounds happy, or minor, which does not. These two elements determine what key a given piece of music is in, and are known as the “key” of the song.
Spotify data analyst and jazz pianist Kenny Ning took it upon himself to analyze the key of every track on Spotify, to determine how frequently they appear, and we turned the result into a chart.
“With regard to Western contemporary music (which dominates our catalog), instrumentation is largely based around guitar, piano, or both,” said Ning. “So, the hypothesis here is that the key signature should be a convenient key for both guitar and piano.”
Let’s find out:
Overall, major keys (the “happy”-sounding ones) are way more common than minor keys. Some songs straddle the line, including both modes, but on the whole, this makes sense. People like happy-sounding music, and even listen to music in order to feel happy, in many cases.
More mysterious, at first glance anyway, is the order of the notes. Why is G Major the top key on all of Spotify? And why is C Major number two?
Much like electricity going through a circuit, songwriters often take the path of least resistance. On a keyboard or a guitar — both incredibly popular instruments for composing western music — that path is through G Major.
We saw a similar phenomenon with minor keys. A minor, the relative minor of C major, is the easiest minor to play on a keyboard. It’s the also the most popular minor key, with 4.8 percent of all the music on Spotify.
Kenny Ning explains:
“E is convenient for guitar, but not piano.
C is convenient for piano, but not guitar.
G is convenient for both guitar and piano.
So, why is G major the most popular key signature in Spotify’s catalog? It’s likely because most popular Western contemporary music instruments are biased towards certain keys.
When people talk about the ‘key signature’ or ‘key’ of a song, they are referring to the tonal center of the song. The key signature will also determine what notes and chords your song should use if you want it to sound consonant/pleasant.
The guitar and the piano are probably the two most popular instruments in modern Western music history. So I would assume a lot of composition today begins on one of those two instruments. And for those who have ever studied guitar or piano, they quickly learn that certain keys are easier to play than others.
Black keys on a piano are thin and somewhat hard to strike accurately, and the player/composer has to remember where they are. Thus pianists will stick to key signatures that are largely composed of white keys, such as C major, G major, or F major.
For guitar, there are certain chords that are naturally easy to play given the standard tuning of the strings. There’s a reason the first chords you learn in guitar are E major, G major, A major, and D major.
Combine these two sets of ‘easy to play’ keys together, and you’ll see that G is the common denominator between guitar and piano. So it’s no surprise that songwriters would write their chords in these keys so they could focus their energy on more important things… melody and lyrics.”
In order to correct the chart, here’s a lesson in basic music theory”
The following major keys in the chart above DO NOT EXIST in western music (as they would all require a double sharp in the key signature):
“G sharp major”, “A sharp Major”, or “D sharp Major”.
Furthermore, while it is technically possible to write music in the key of “A sharp minor”, and “D sharp minor”, those keys would also require the use of a double sharp, written as an accidental in the “harmonic minor” scale.
In fact, the keys of “A sharp minor”, and “D sharp minor” are commonly expressed as “B flat minor”, or “E flat minor”.
If your interested in understanding basic music theory, you can watch some of my videos online:
Incidentally, I think this information would be more useful if it were broken down by style. Conflating thousands of simplistic songs with relatively few complex compositional forms gives the reader a distorted analysis.
He should conduct a time signature analysis as well.
The key is integral to the composition. It is not less important than the melody, lyrics, etc.
Also, an harmonic minor scale (the one that is used in western music to write in a minor key) is NOT considered a mode. It is an artificial scale. However, the notes of the “natural minor scale” can be considered as one of the Greek modes which is called, Aolean.
P.P.S. Regarding a time signature analysis:
What’s the most common time signature? Answer: Common time or 4/4. No big surprise.
However, ask the same question in Eastern Europe, and that answer might be more interesting. That’s where Dave Brubeck got some of his rhythmic inspiration.
The thing I’m always looking for with time signature is when is it not 4/4 and why?
The other thing would be really interesting an analysis of tempo.
First question, how many of these songs have only one machine based tempo? (Remember this is now possible with live kits as well drum machines.)
Second, question of the songs that have a tempo map, a tempo that changes, how do those tempo changes happen with in the context of the song?
Then of course of the third question is what are some of the popular tempos and why do most of those fall between 80 and 120 bpm?
Interesting. With the advent of equal temperament, how much does choice of key (in the same mode) matter? Are keys in the really significantly different in equal temperament?
One aspect that would still matter is that certain instruments (including voices) vary in tone and timbre in different ranges, so the choice of key would matter there.
Another possibly consideration is that absolute frequency might affect us differently, psychoacoustically and emotionally. If so, then again the choice of key matters.
G Sharp Major, A Sharp Major and D Sharp major do exist in Western music. They just aren’t on the circle of fifths and therefore are much less common.
My theory teacher would have failed you for saying they don’t exist buddy
We are speaking of PUBLISHED music.
The sharp keys in question are commonly known as A flat, E flat, and and Bb. You probably already knew that.
There is not a single composition in western music that is published in G” Major, D” Major or A# Major. That is because there is no practical “KEY SIGNATURE” for those keys in a published composition.
Yes, these sharp keys exist in theory, and we might even modulate to them briefly and notate the double sharp as an accidental in the body of the composition.
However, there’s not an educated musician in the world that would begin a composition by writing in those awkward sharp keys, because it would require a DOUBLE SHARP in the KEY SIGNATURE. Get it?
While Ab is the same key ON THE PIANO as G#, it is not necessarily the same note, but the is the subject of another conversation.
I sincerely appreciate the great effort that the authors made to present these data. Still, it would be REALY NICE if the chart were CORRECTED by a literate musician (not by a computer) to reflect the practical realities of music notation.
This type of error is symptomatic of the enormous problems in PRINTED music today. I coommonly see these errors in printed music sold over the internet. Please note that, this article was recommended for me to read by, ASCAP: The American Society of COMPOSERS, AUTHORS, AND PUBLISHERS!
It would be better if ASCAP scrutinized the articles that they recommend to their members. Otherwise, they should expect some HEALTHY CRITICISM.
Furthermore, there is NO SUCH THING as an, “A sharp trumpet”, or a “D sharp sax”. They are B flat and E flat transposing instruments 🙂 Right?
I begin to understand why producers frequently try to change a songwriter’s product to that which is more easily played/sung by artists and musicians. I was amazing to me when I first learned that most musicians in Nashville don’t read music. They all operate with charts. Maybe that’s why so much of country music sounds the same. DeNeece
Actually, a lot of people in Nashville don’t read at all …
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