I’d like to clarify my position a bit.
(1) I agree with the idea of having this sort of thing available as an option, and suggested a beginner’s mode. There’s a deeper issue here, involving interface customization as an antidote to information overload caused by the burgeoning number of features.
(2) I don’t want to fight anyone. The post was getting long winded, so I tried to be terse. Realizing that this might be misread as “talking down”, I added the P.S… Honestly, it took me years to discover a shortcut to learning the key signatures. Of all the people I’ve shared this with, only one said it was obvious. Maybe it is, so I felt the need to express some humility. I want a world where more people are empowered to make music, where we help each other.
(3) Re: Navigating harmonic theory in multiple keys. I don’t even try. The deeper issue is how to allocate learning capacity.
Section 1: Getting Key Signatures Out of the Left Brain
Academic music education seems to favor a mathematical and memory intensive approach, which I find kills creativity. It’s no good knowing how to write out an augmented chord if you don’t know how to use it. That means you have to know it personally – its moods, its friends, its happy places. Same thing with key signatures. This is how I’m trying to approach it in steps 2 and 3 above. When music is written down, it becomes twice removed from true nature, which is about feel. We use sound to do this, so thinking about sound instead of feel takes us a step away. When we write instructions about how to make the sound, that’s another step.
If you play middle C, go up to G, down to D, up to A, etc. – almost like a Hannon exercise – and you count 0, 1, 2, 3, etc. as you go, then you will “know” the sharp side of the circle of 5ths without even being aware of what the notes are called. It will be a tangible thing, a kinesthetic and auditory thing. (Flats: play middle C down to F, up to B flat, down to E flat, etc… Count 0, 1, 2, etc. as you go.)
Likewise, it would be easy if the sharps appeared in successive key signatures in the order F# G# A# C# D#. But it’s almost that easy. The 2 packages are interleaved, and can be understood physically by playing F# up to C# down to G#, and so on. Once you play this, you can even forget what these notes are called. I do.
In my mind, there’s no key of Eb major. There’s the key of 3 flats. Tonality is far more nuanced than most people think, so even the concept of a major key is questionable. Given that there are 3 flats, all you need to know is how to find them, and I’m showing how that’s easy. When you acclimatize your mind to their presence, it’s just a little shift in expression, like talking with a french accent.
Other people call it Eb major, or C minor, or Bb mixolydian, or some such thing. Ask me what the submediant chord of Eb major is, and it’ll take me a while. I have to translate: “submediant = iii”, “Eb major = 3 flats”, keyboard of the mind goes Eb, F, G, so G is iii, iii means minor, so G minor. Very unnatural, worthless to me, and nobody asks anyway.
Section 2: Harmony Theory in Multiple Keys
If I really need to work something out, I first transpose to the key of 0 sharps (AKA C-major AKA A-minor). It’s very familiar. Had I instead decided to learn the corresponding harmonic relationships in A flat, in E, and so on, I would have had less time to understand it in C, so I would have understood less in C than I do. I can also think pretty well in the nearby keys of +1 and -1 sharps (AKA G and F), since they are natural extensions of C, along with C blues, various pentatonic scales, and scales based on jazz chords.
Likewise, if I have to analyze an orchestral score, I’ll transpose everything to concert pitch (using software). I’m not that great at reading music as it is, having spent my efforts elsewhere. Classical musicians and people in large ensembles need good reading skills . I’m not in those groups.
The running theme is that we shouldn’t and don’t learn stuff we can’t use. It’s especially true for DAW operators trying to write, perform, produce, and promote. Any one of those fields can swallow you whole with plenty of room to spare. You get spread too thin, so you prioritize, you delegate, and you accelerate your learning.
Section 3: Delegating to Technology
We turn to sequencers and other technology as a method of delegation. I can barely play the drums, but I can imagine what I want them to play. I can go to Beat Designer, or the Drum Editor and do all of it without having to bother a real drummer, or learning how to master and mic a drum kit. Likewise with elaborate keyboard parts. Technology also saves me money. Cubase gives me all the gear I’d want in a professional recording studio for $600! Another successful delegation.
Section 4: Complexity Management
Questions arise. “What can’t we delegate to technology?” “What shouldn’t we delegate to technology?” Each of us has our own answers, so the temptation is to make everything available, and you choose what works for you. As an unfortunate consequence of this ideal, we are confronted with a plethora of undesired features mixed with the features we want. What to do about this?
I’m become wary of new features, not because I want to make life easy for myself at someone else’s expense, but because it makes Steinberg spread itself too thinly, and Cubase seems to lack a good strategy for managing interface complexity. We agree that color coding keys in the diatonic scale of your choice is OK to have, but should be disabled by default. Where’s the on/off switch?
I recently watched a video tour of Reaper and was impressed by how their interface was so clean and customizable. I don’t think Cubase should try to be like Reaper. That would disrupt existing Cubase users. We do have window layout tools that allow some customization. We also have a wealth of preferences. That seems like the best place to put a scale note colorization option.
Section 5: Back to the Original Dispute
As a child, I had a battery-powered organ with colored keys. The songbook that came with it had all the notes in colors that matched the keys. Bringing this idea to Cubase, we could colorize the notes in both the score editor and the key editor. (Have the tonic in pink, the dominant in blue, the subdominant in green, and so on.) If anyone finds this idea condescending, you are not alone. It embarrassed me at age 10. I think of Cubase as “the composers’ DAW”, a serious professional tool.
On the other hand, a person might come to the world of DAWs with weak to non-existent knowledge of scales. Perhaps they have “golden ears” and fine production skills. Perhaps they are a self-taught performer. Perhaps they are very young. Whatever the case may be, there’s no reason not to give them a little help. So fine. Let’s go for colored scale notes. We already have chord assistant and acoustic agent, not to mention countless loops and arpeggios is HALion. All of these things are available, all can be ignored. They all could be empowering for whoever decides they want to delegate this or that job to technology.
As more of these little features are added, it might be a good idea for Cubase preferences to allow us to exclude menu items that lead to places we know we’ll never want to go. That would certainly satisfy my concerns about growing complexity.