Switching a song into a different key can entirely change the way that song feels. So what does this chart, which shows which musical keys are most commonly used, tell us about the way we actually like to listen to music?
Spotify’s Kenny Ning put together this chart of the most commonly used song keys using over the over 30 million songs in their database. More than a third of all songs are in one of four keys: G major, C major, D major, and A major. That all of these keys are major keys is unsurprising — with the exceptions of A minor, E minor, and B minor, none of the minor keys were even able to break 4%. And each of those minor keys is actually closely related to one of the four major keys: A is the relative minor of C major, E is the relative minor of G major, and B is the relative minor of D major.
So what does this all mean? Well, in part it reveals the kinds of sounds that we tend to see more commonly in music: plucky, upbeat majors tend to beat out the moodier minors. And it also reveals something about where the majority of Spotify’s collection (which tends more towards Western music) comes from.
But the more interesting part of it is what it tells us about musicians and how they use their instruments. Which is why the most important key in the chart might be F# minor.
At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a very important one — it’s neither the most nor the least popular, at a slight 2.5%. It gets more interesting though, when you look at its relatives. A major’s relative minor is F#. But, while A major was one of the top four keys unlike the other three top keys, its relative minor stayed obscure. Why? Perhaps because on a guitar it involves more frequent, difficult barre chords than the other keys. In other words, this chart isn’t telling us just about musical listening tastes, it’s telling us about musical playing tastes.
It also seems to work in the opposite direction as well. Ning notes that the most popular key of all — G major — also happens to be among the easiest ones to play on both a guitar or piano, saying:
E is convenient for guitar, but not piano. C is convenient for piano, but not guitar. G is convenient for both guitar and piano.