noun, plural keys.
- (in a keyboard instrument) one of the levers that when depressed by the performer sets in motion the playing mechanism.
- (on a woodwind instrument) a metal lever that opens and closes a vent.
- the relationship perceived between all tones in a given unit of music and a single tone or a keynote; tonality.
- the principal tonality of a composition: a symphony in the key of C minor.
- the keynote or tonic of a scale.
- a device for opening and closing electrical contacts.
- a hand-operated switching device ordinarily formed of concealed spring contacts with an exposed handle or push button, capable of switching one or more parts of a circuit.
verb (used with object), keyed, key·ing.
- to paint (a picture) in a given key.
- to adjust the colors in (a painting) to a particular hue: He keyed the painting to brown.
verb (used without object), keyed, key·ing.
- Football.to watch the position and movements of an opponent in order to anticipate a play: The defensive backs keyed on the star receiver.
- Also key in on.to single out as of prime importance or interest; be intent on or obsessed with: a company that is keyed in on growth.
- to bring to a particular degree of intensity of feeling, excitement, energy, nervousness, agitation, etc.: keyed up over the impending test.
- to raise (a piece of masonry) by the insertion of a wedge or wedges.
- to raise (the haunches of an arch) by the insertion of a voussoir.
Origin of key1
Synonyms for key
- Also called: tonalityany of the 24 major and minor diatonic scales considered as a corpus of notes upon which a piece of music draws for its tonal framework
- the main tonal centre in an extended compositiona symphony in the key of F major
- the tonic of a major or minor scale
- See tuning key
- a hand-operated device for opening or closing a circuit or for switching circuits
- a hand-operated switch that is pressed to transmit coded signals, esp Morse code
verb (mainly tr)
Word Origin for key
"metal piece that works a lock," from Old English cæg "key," of unknown origin, with no certain cognates other than Old Frisian kei. Perhaps related to Middle Low German keie "lance, spear" on notion of "tool to cleave with," from Proto-Germanic *ki- "to cleaver, split" (cf. German Keil "wedge," Gothic us-kijans "come forth," said of seed sprouts, keinan "to germinate"). But Liberman writes, "The original meaning of *kaig-jo- was presumably '*pin with a twisted end.' Words with the root *kai- followed by a consonant meaning 'crooked, bent; twisted' are common only in the North Germanic languages." Modern pronunciation is a northern variant predominating from c.1700; earlier it was often spelled and pronounced kay.
Figurative sense of "that which serves to open or explain" was in Old English; meaning "that which holds together other parts" is from 1520s. As "answer to a test," it is from chess, short for key move, "first move in a solution to a set problem." Musical sense of "tone, note" is 15c., but modern sense of "scale" is 1580s, probably as a translation of Latin clavis or French clef (see clef; also cf. keynote). Extended c.1500 to "mechanism on a musical instrument." As a verb meaning "to scratch (a car's paint job) with a key" it is recorded by 1986.
"low island," 1690s, from Spanish cayo "shoal, reef," from Taino cayo "small island;" spelling influenced by Middle English key "wharf" (c.1300), from Old French kai "sand bank" (see quay).
The main or central note of a piece of music (or part of a piece of music). Each key has its own scale, beginning and ending on the note that defines the octave of the next scale. The key of C-major uses a scale that starts on C and uses only the white keys of the piano. In a piece composed in the key of C, the music is likely to end on the note C, and certain combinations of notes based on C will predominate.
Make intense, excited, or nervous. For example, The excitement of the gallery opening has really keyed her up. This usage alludes to key in the sense of “wind up a spring-driven mechanism such as a clock.” [Late 1800s]
In addition to the idiom beginning with key
- key up
- in key
- under lock and key