What Scales Should I Learn for Indie Music?
Indie is a genre of music that encompasses a large variety of styles and subsets. But if you’re starting out as an indie songwriter, you may be curious what keys of music work best for indie.
Is there a certain key that’s preferred by indie pop artists? To find out, I’ve slogged through data on over 200 indie songs to see if there was a clear pattern of preference in key, scale, or pacing. I hope that this information can inform your own decisions on key and tempo selection in your pursuit of penning and producing indie pop music.
My Indie Pop Hypotheses
- Key. I’ve seen internet commentators suggest anecdotally that the keys of C major and G major are probably the most common for indie artists, as they are the easiest keys to play on guitar or piano. Without any other preexisting notions to dispute that, I’m inclined to agree C major/A minor will be a popular key regardless of genre or style.
- Scales. It’s not a far stretch to expect Western music is probably written in mostly Western scales, that is standard major or minor scale. I predict that most indie pop music will sound poignant or sad so it will likely be written in standard minor scales.
- BPM (Beats Per Minute). As for tempo, the indie music I’ve listened to has often been a bit slower paced. I hypothesis that indie songs will have a moderate tempo compared to rap or hard rock, maybe between 100 and 120 BPM.
I took a sample of 210 popular songs that are considered “Indie Pop” and checked their key and BPM. I used the keys as a basis for determining the scale being major or minor, as the majority of rock/pop music in modern production does not use Eastern scales. These are songs that did well in Western music markets, primarily North America and Northern Europe. I cataloged them by key using both major or minor key as an option, but I also did a pass putting all the songs into only the relative major key to see if that changed the averages in any meaningful way.
Without any further ado, let’s see what the numbers have to say!
What Key is Most Popular for Indie Music?
It’s no surprise that the most commonly-used key in our indie songs sample was the Key of C Major: 24 songs appeared that used it. But there was a surprise twist: the Key of E Major actually tied with C, also appearing in 24 of the songs.
However, when I combined major keys with their relative minors and checked the numbers, C Major again came out supreme: 31 songs in total used either C Major or A Minor, accounting for 14.76% of all indie songs that were sampled. G Major (when also counting it’s relative of E Minor) came in fourth place, appearing in 22 songs.
The biggest loser in this study was Bb minor: no songs in the sample used this key (not counting it’s relative major counterpart). When minor keys were combined with their relative major keys, Db major/Bb minor received 3.81% of the total love.
Are Major or Minor Scales More Common in Indie Pop?
This analysis shows that major scales are far more popular in Indie Pop. 84.76% of all songs sampled used a major scale. Out of all the minor scales, A Minor was the most popular with 21.88% of the total minor keys share.
Out of all the major scales in music, the most common scales had a natural tonic—that is, the tonal center of the key was not a sharp or a flat. Out of the top six keys, none of them had a flat or sharp tonic. They were: C Major, E Major, D Major, G Major, F Major, and A Major.
What Tempo is Most Common in Indie Music?
My hypothesis on song speed was right on the money. In this sample of indie songs, the most common tempo was 120 BPM. Out of 210 songs, 15 of them used exactly 120 BPM, thus giving the ubiquitous tempo about a 7% share of this indie collection. The mean was not far off either, coming in at an average of 117 BPM for all songs in the sample.
Now it doesn’t take a scientist to figure out why that is: 120 BPM is the standard default in many digital audio workstations (DAWs) and score editors. So if an artist opens up their DAW and jumps write to making the backing track, without messing with the tempo, the song’s going to be at 120 BPM. Due to it’s default status in modern music, 120 BPM is a natural pace for artist to compose at; I often write songs on an acoustic guitar without using a metronome, but I’ve found that—when checking the BPM of my creations after the fact—a noticeable amount of my songs end up having a tempo at or near 120 BPM.
But it’s not just indie pop that loves this tempo. While digging into this anomaly, I discovered that tempos at or near 120 BPM are also the most common for Billboard-charting singles; and that’s from two studies with sample sets in the thousands of songs…going back to the 1940s! It gets more interesting. The mode of my tempo data was 117 BPM. In the studies I just mentioned, researchers pinpointed an average range of tempos being between 117 and 122 BPM. It’s starting to look like, regardless of genre, people just have a preference for musical pacing. But this begs another question?
Why is 120 BPM the Standard?
Research suggests that 120 BPM is popular, not only because it’s easily divisible, but also because it’s a natural biological rhythm for human beings. Several longitudinal studies have discovered that people gravitate towards that specific pace at a physiological level.
One study tested the speed at which people on average walk, clap, or tap their fingers (without any music or metronome playing) and found that folks just tend to move at a rate of 120 beats per minute.
There may be a neurological or cardiological element to this. The normal resting heart rate of healthy adults is 60 to 100 BPM. While there’s no scientific research that can currently confirm it, we can postulate about some possible connection between a heart rate of 60 BPM and an average body tempo of 120 BPM—that is, a natural movement rate that just happens to be double time to our average heart rate).
Lastly, there’s a mathematical factor at work. A minute is 60 seconds, so a tempo of 120 BPM gives you a rate of two beats per second. 120 is easily divisible into halves, triplets, or quarters. Most musicians aren’t sitting around checking their tempo against a clock, but the psychological influence of the number 60 in our lives for telling time could somehow influence our preferences.
So What Keys and Scales Should I Use for Indie Music?
Based on this quick analysis, your indie songs may perform better in rankings if they follow some basic suggestions. If you want to go with the flow of indie music, consider composing your songs:
- In the Keys of C Major, E Major, or D Major.
- Keep in mind Lydian or Aeolian modes of these keys will likely do well, too.
- With a tempo at or near 120 BPM.
Or if you want to embrace the D.I.Y. aesthetic of indie and go against the grain, you could also do the opposite and write songs in less fortunate keys—like Bb minor and Eb minor—with slower or faster pacing.
With all that said, keep in mind that there is no guaranteed formula that will make your song popular. A song’s potential for popularity is not based on it’s key or tempo alone, but rather a combination of:
- well-written lyrics,
- creative melody composition,
- good use of harmony to support the lyrical content, and likely
- sheer luck going viral on social media
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