“What Key is a Ukulele in?”

When searching for ukulele-related questions to write posts about, one which turned up is “What Key is a Ukulele in?”

This question can be looked at in two ways:

1 .”What key is the ukulele tuned in?” or

2. “What key is the ukulele played in?”

What Key is the Ukulele Tuned in?

Ukulele Tuning in the Key of C

Most ukuleles (soprano, concert, and tenor) are tuned in the Key of C (GCEA tuning). But these sizes can also sometimes be tuned in the Key of D (ADF#B tuning) and even less often in other alternative tunings.

Baritone Ukulele Tuned in Key of G

Baritone Ukuleles are different from the other sizes in that they are traditionally tuned in the Key of G (DGBE tuning). They are also occasionally tuned differently, but not often enough to be mentioned in this post.

How is a Ukulele’s Tuned Key Determined?

When a stringed instrument is said to be tuned to a certain key, it generally means that the open strings’ tuning pitches (strings not held down at any fret) are rooted on a certain pitch.

For example, with a GCEA tuned ukulele. The tuning key would have to be either G, C, E or A.

The E and the G are the major third and perfect fifth of C respectively (in re-entrant tuning, the C is also the lowest pitch, which is indicative, though not proof, of it being the root pitch).

There is no B which would be the major third of G or perfect fifth of E.

There is no C#, which is the major third of A (also A is the highest string and thus less likely to be a root pitch).

So the clear focus of the tuning is C major.

Why are Ukuleles Tuned to Certain Keys?

String instruments in general are tuned to certain keys because functionally it allows you to play in that key with simpler chord shapes.

As to why the ukulele is specifically tuned to C (or G for baritone), it comes down to:

  1. Tradition
  2. The fact that these keys are very commonly played
  3. Less-importantly, the location of these keys in terms of overall pitch range, and how this coincides with the size of the instrument and the materials it is made of (string’s thicknesses/tensile strengths, wood’s ability to hold strings at certain tightness, etc.)

What Key are Ukuleles Played In

Ukuleles are chromatic instruments, not diatonic.

This means they can be played in any key.

Though they are most commonly played in their tuned key (Key of C for soprano, concert, and tenor; and Key of G for baritone) because the chords of a uke’s tuned key are generally easier to play (more open strings).

After the ukulele’s tuned key, the next most commonly played keys are likely the more commonly played keys in general (C, G, F, D, Bb, Am, etc.)

What are Musical Keys Anyways?

A key in music theory is the central pitch /chord of a piece of tonal music.

As musical scales and chords are based on pitch relations, the key pitch/chord is the one from which the other pitches and chords are derived.

And because of this centrality of the key pitch/chord, it is the pitch/chord where a given piece of music in that key will feel most at rest, at home, and resolved.

Do Instruments Even Have Keys?

Yes. Some instruments, such as a Diatonic Harmonica, do have a specific key they are designed to be played in.

These are usually instruments with limited pitch options/ranges, and, because of this limitation, they are limited to a single key to be useful.

Some examples of Diatonic instruments, which do have a designated key, include:

  • diatonic harmonica – this is the standard harmonica you’ll most commonly come across
  • certain accordions
  • certain xylophone-like instruments like the glockenspiel
  • some small plucking instruments like the diatonic lyre.

Some examples of other Chromatic instruments, which can be played in any key, include:

  • ukulele
  • piano
  • guitar
  • bass guitar
  • violin
  • chromatic harmonica (a larger instrument than the usual harmonica)

Some instruments, like percussion instruments, might have no pitch tuning at all and thus no playing/tuning key would even be possible.

Is a Ukulele in the Same Key as a Guitar?

Tuning-wise, the guitar isn’t considered to be tuned to a certain key as the ukulele is.

The baritone ukulele is typically tuned identically to the highest 4 strings in a standard guitar tuning.

Playing-wise, both instruments are chromatic (able to play in any key), so they could be said to be played in the same key in that both can be played in any key.

Conclusion

Well this turned out to be an interesting post, but hopefully the original question “What Key is a Ukulele in?” has been answered adequately.

Leave a comment if anything was missed!

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