I'm going out tonight which means I won't get to the Saturday puzzle until tomorrow, so for today's post I go back to my pile of unpublished generic essays. It would be nice if there were a music clue in today's puzzle (it hasn't come out yet so I have no idea) but if not, clip and save for future reference.
What do crossword solvers need to know about music? Of course being able to spell Mahler, Brahms and the rest help, but many clues are about music keys because that's a good excuse to use an odd combination of letters. Even if you have no idea which key is correct, there are strategies that can help.
"Like Beethoven's sixth symphony" (3 letters) means that you scrawl IN as the first two letters and the last letter is something from A to G. Musically, any of those is equally likely but since INA, INC, IND, possibly INE can be more smoothly clued, we're probably looking at B, F or G. I happen to have conducted Beethoven 6 so I know it's in F but even if you're not a musician you can have a good start on the answer.
Keys are either major or minor and if you leave off that qualifier, major is implied. Major keys are either single letters or a letter plus FLAT. If the answer is 5 letters long, you can immediately enter _FLAT since nothing else fits. The first letter could be A, B, D, or E. The other letters are theoretically possible but very unlikely.
You might think something like C SHARP would be a key but it's not. Minor keys can be sharp but major keys must be flat or natural, so if you face a 6 letter key you can immediately enter _M_ _OR. Those letters are common to any possible answer. Then look immediately at the cross clue for the fourth letter to see if J is possible. If not, and it's usually not, you can fill in _MINOR. Looking at the stats, the most likely 6-letter answers based on historical data from XWordInfo are, in order, A MINOR, E MINOR, G MINOR, and E MAJOR.
Sometimes the clue is looking for not a key but a note. Remember, D FLAT can be either. C SHARP is only a note. The clue often asks for the note with the same name as another. If you have even a passing familiarity with music you know that the note C SHARP is the same as D FLAT (they are enharmonic equivalents), D SHARP is the same as E FLAT, and so on up to G SHARP where you loop back to the beginning and call it A FLAT. There are some exceptions: B SHARP is C, not C FLAT, but these are rare in crosswords.
A completely random related story
This paragraph has nothing to do with crosswords but since the subject of enharmonics has come up I thought I'd mention a book. For most musicians C SHARP is not quite the same as D FLAT. If you play a keyboard of some sort it is identical because it's just one physical key, but if you play a viola or an OBOE you can subtly bend the note to exactly fit. Musicians do this without thinking or often even realizing it. Keyboards have fixed pitches, though. It turns out that there's no way mathematically to break up an octave into twelve notes that all sound exactly right when played in any combination. This horrifying fact has some fascinating history as various factions have proposed different ways to solve the problem. How do you tune an organ or a piano? It's a little-known struggle that for a couple hundred years had huge implications for — I'm not exaggerating here — music, science, philosophy, and religion. The best book I've read on this is Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization.
Update: this seems important enough to move from the comment section to here:
Readers have pointed out that the four enharmonic oddballs that don't fit the normal pattern all appear in my database, so for completeness, here they are:
B SHARP (2 occurrences) is the same as C
C FLAT (4) is B
E SHARP (3) is F
F FLAT (1) is E