Bob Dylan on his Favorite Keys

“Try it in B minor,” he says

Bob Dylan. “Songwriting? What do I know about songwriting?”

It was in a spacious bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel where Bob Dylan met for an interview. It was 1991. He agreed to do it based on the promise that our focus was a subject close to his heart. Songwriting. He’d never done an interview before with this focus only.

Several decades earlier, he said how odd it was that in interviews he would be asked about such a strange range of topics.

“Well,” said the interviewer, “what should they ask you about?”

“Well,” Dylan said, “maybe… music?”

Seemed like good advice. Talk to Dylan about music. After all, it’s there that his genius lives. Words and music. Yet rarely was he asked directly, or at any length, about how he did it. How he wrote songs. Perhaps because it was assumed that how he did it was not something mortals could understand.

And that might be true. But songwriters can understand it. So when the opportunity came to ask questions, I though of every question about his songs and every aspect of songwriting there is. And why not? It was like being a Buddhist and getting to ask Buddha any question. This is a credible source.

Because not only is he an artistic genius, he’s also a remarkably ingenious and diligent craftsman.He’s thought thoroughly about all the craft aspects of this thing, whether it’s rhyme scheme, meter, phrasing (which is “everything,” he said), narrative songwriting, imagery, truth, musical keys, chords, melody, the evolution of songwriting, and much more.

To some of these questions, including ones most people can’t answer, he offered sometimes words of ancient wisdom told in timeless images, as in his songs. Asked about the evolution of the popular song, he said the following.

“The evolution of the song,” he said, “is like a snake with its tail in its mouth.”

We had some coffee before we started, served in glasses because there were no cups. “It tastes better out of glass,” he said. It was a great adventure, with much laughter throughout. Those who have heard the recording have said, “But he sounds so happy!” He was happy.

“Songwriting?” he said. “What do I know about songwriting? Start me off somewhere.”
As if I’d leave him to do it all himself.

About halfway through I asked him about if he had favorite keys, and other related queries. This was his answer:

BOB DYLAN: On the piano, my favorite keys are the black keys. And they sound better on guitar, too. Sometimes when a song’s in a flat key, say B flat, bring it to the guitar, you might want to put it in A.

But that’s an interesting thing you just said. It changes the reflection. Mainly in mine the songs sound different.when you take a black key song and put it on the guitar, which means you’re playing in A flat, not too many people like to play in those keys. To me it doesn’t matter.[Laughs] It doesn’t matter because my fingering is the same anyway.

So there are songs that, even without the piano, which is the dominant sound if you’re playing in the black keys – why else would you play in that key except to have that dominant piano sound? – the songs that go into those keys right from the piano, they sound different. They sound deeper. Yeah. They sound deeper. Everything sounds deeper in those black keys.

They’re not guitar keys, though. Guitar bands don’t usually like to play in those keys, which kind of gives me an idea, actually, of a couple of songs that could actually sound better in black keys.

Do keys have different colors for you?

Dylan: Sure. Sure. [Softly] Sure.

Bob Dylan, “One More Cup of Coffee,” live

You’ve written some great A minor songs. I think of ‘One More Cup Of Coffee’ –

Dylan: Right. B minor might sound even better.

Why?

Dylan: Well, it might sound better because you’re playing a lot of open chords if you’re playing in A minor. If you play in B minor, it will force you to play higher. And the chords you’re bound, someplace along the line, because there are so many chords in that song, or seem to be anyway, you’re bound someplace along the line to come down to an open chord on the bottom. From B. You would hit E someplace along the line. Try it in B minor. [Laughs] Maybe it will be a hit for you. A hit is a number one song, isn’t it? Yeah.

When you sit down to write a song, do you pick a key first that will fit a song? Or do you change keys while you’re writing?

Dylan: Yeah. Yeah. Maybe like in the middle of the thing. There are ways you can get out of whatever you’ve gotten into. You want to get out of it. It’s bad enough getting into it. But the thing to do as soon as you get into it is realize you must get out of it! And unless you get out of it quickly and effortlessly, there’s no use staying in it. It will just drag you down. You could be spending years writing the same song, telling the same story, doing the same thing.

So once you involve yourself in it, once you accidentally have slipped into it, the thing is to get out. So your primary impulse is going to take you so far. But then you might think, well, you know, is this one of these things where it’s all just going to come?

And then, all of the sudden, you start thinking. And when my mind starts thinking, “What’s happening now? Oh, there’s a story here,” and my mind starts to get into it, that’s trouble right away. That’s usually big trouble.

And as far as never seeing this thing again. There’s a bunch of ways you can get out of that. You can make yourself get out of it by changing key. That’s one way. Just take the whole thing and change key, keeping the same melody. And see if that brings you any place. More times than not, that will take you down the road. You don’t want to be on a collision course . But that will take you down the road. Somewhere. And then if that fails, and that will run out, too, then you can always go back to where you were to start.

It won’t work twice, it only works once. Then you go back to where you started. Yeah, because anything you do in A, it’s going to be a different song in G. While you’re writing it, anyway. There’s too many wide passing notes in G [on the guitar] not to influence your writing, unless you’re playing barre chords.

Bob Dylan, “Dignity”

Do you ever switch instruments, like from guitar to piano, while writing?

Dylan: Not so much that way. Although when it’s time to record something, for me, sometimes a song that has been written on piano with just lyrics here in my hand, it’ll be time to play it now on guitar. So it will come out differently. But it wouldn’t have influenced the writing of the song at all.

Changing keys influences the writing of the song. Changing keys on the same instrument. For me, that works. I think, for somebody else, the other thing works. Everything is different.

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