Key and Character

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Key and Character

It always surprises me when I hear people say that different keys have a different character, like A major being joyful, G major being serious or whatever.

I've never been able to spot any difference in the mood of a piece based upon the key it's played in. Of course I hear a difference in pitch, but the difference in character that some perceive escapes me completely. To my ears, it's major or minor etc that matters, not the key. Are there people here that do hear a connection between mood and key, and if so, how does this work for you?

 

aquila non captat muscas

 

RE: Key and Character

G major serious? Never heard that one before. I am sure Haydn didn't believe it.

As a rule those keys closest to C major are going to sound brighter due to the temperment system which means keys are not only different in pitch but have slightly different "spaces" between the notes. Additionally, in music for strings, keys like A major and D major will sound brighter due to the effect of open strings. Similarly a B flat trumpet will sound brighter in that key than in others where the pistons are called for.

Beyond those actualities (and there are other kindred examples) you are entering into the area of synaesthesia where the responses to each key (or tone) is entirely personal.

I read once that a deterioration in ones hearing makes music sound sharper the older one gets. One old boy who could attach moods to tonalities spoke how a certain piece in jubilant C major was now sounder much darker in C sharp and that he was looking forward to the day when it would burst out in the splendour of D major!

RE: Key and Character RE: Key and Character

Interesting post. I have always wondered about this. Apart from issues relating to instrumental sonority, I just can't see how anyone can claim that each key has its own character. Unless you have perfect pitch, it can't. But we read about this all the time: the importance of C minor for Beethoven, G minor for Mozart, D major for festive stately music and so on.........I was reading a review of some Haydn piano trios the other day and the reviewer complained that there were too many G major recordings on the same CD. The implication was that it made for monotony.

I can understand how keys might have had some kind of character prior to equal temperament and that this 'character' might have remained as a psychological residue, but as every piece can be transposed into any other other without anything being lost or added (except a change of pitch), the whole business just doesn't make any sense to me.

 

As a rule those keys closest to C major are going to sound brighter due to the temperment system which means keys are not only different in pitch but have slightly different "spaces" between the notes. 

Are you sure about this, Bazza? I thought that there was no issue with "spaces" in equal temperament since the "distance" between every semitone remains identical over the whole range?! That is what equal temperament means. Or at least what I have always thought it meant. 

 

 

RE: Key and Character RE: Key and Character

I think that there is more to it than that Eliza.

I see two different aspects here.  As you say "But we read about this all the time: the importance of C minor for Beethoven, G minor for Mozart, D major for festive stately music and so on. " Indeed. Here we are talking about the significance of particular keys to a composer. We can't challenge that (and what about Messiaen's association of keys with colours). These things were important for composers and that's that! Mozart's D minor music has a particular character that we can all hear, and arguably would do even if the music was subsequently transposed into another key.

The second concerns whether music sounds different to us in different keys. Perhaps with equal temperament tuning especially of keyboards there is room for argument, but in some other instances there are obvious explanations for perc eived differences. With the violin (or other stringed instrument) it is most obvious.  Key signatures closely related to the notes to which the strings are tuned will always sound 'richer' than those distantly related, because of the natural resonance of those strings with the home key, even when those strings are not being touched with the bow.  Similarly with wind and brass in struments. (If this is what you meant by 'instrument sonority', OK, but it is not a minor contributor to the tonal character of a piece of music.

And I suspect this only sc ratches the surface of the question.  Interesting post Brumas.

Chris

Chris A.Gnostic

RE: Key and Character RE: Key and Character

Eliza, you are correct. In the equal temperament system the spaces are the same. But in the natural harmonic system they are not. That's why you get those flat-sounding sevenths and ninths on natural instruments. Flat-sounding to the layman, of course. To the trained ear (or the "mind's ear") the use of equal temperament will make them sound sharp. As I understand it, the further you get from C major, the more out of tune these "natural" keys get.

RE: Key and Character

Chris,

You started your post by saying you thought there was "more" to this than my previous post. But - without trying to be rude - I can't see what this is. As far as I can see, you haven't mentioned anything in addition to the points I raised.

I already mentioned instrumental sonority (which you think I downplay: I don't) and obviously I don't doubt that different keys had different meanings to different composers. That's a fact: you're right. And there are good reasons for thinking it affected the way they composed. My point is whether there are any underlying reasons for supposing there really is a difference between the keys. Why, for instance, did Mozart or whoever feel that there was a real difference between this or that key? The answer can't just be about sonority; it also applies to keyboard works. Pointing to the fact that this or that composer believed it to be the case, as you did, merely takes us round in a circle.

 

RE: Key and Character

Eliza, I'm puzzled!

You write "My point is whether there are any underlying reasons for supposing there really is a difference between the keys."

There are plenty and we've both answered them it seems. Instrument sonority is an enormous contributor.  Try the Bach Cello Suite in E flat for one in which the resonance effect is minimised.  I believe the difference is obvious.  Same with most of the instruments of the orchestra. What more does one need? Even if there were nothing elkse this would be a massive contributor, that anyone should be able to hear.

With the keyboard, I suspect that our feeling for differences becomes less as the music becomes more chromatic. With more diatonic music we hear what our ear and brain tell us is correct, which is not 'equal temperament' as Bazza says.  I wonder if instruments were fully tuned to equal temperament in Mozart's time? Did he tune his own pianos? If so exactly how.  He did not write much in the very distant keys so perhaps we should not assume too much about his tuning method?

As for us as listeners, I can only say that though I don't have perfect pitch I'm much more sensitive to pitch than I used to be. I readily notice the different tunings used in much early music, though I used not to.

Chris

Chris A.Gnostic

RE: Key and Character RE: Key and Character

Chris

Plenty of reasons! We've only got one: sonority. (What's the other?)

And I just don't think that is enough to cover the range and force of the common belief. If that was all there was to it, then key choice would merely be a strategy to achieve a certain sound.........a question of instrumental pragmatics; and that isn't really how it is talked about or referred to by composers or critics.

As to Mozart's piano - I don't know. I do know that many alternative tuning systems were in use while he was composing. Hummel (one of his students, as you know) is known to have favoured an unequal tuning system. So it is definitely possible that Mozart's piano was no tuned to equal temperament.

Finally, are you suggesting that there really is an absolute or intrinsic character to each key because we don't actually hear what is being played, but instead impose something of our own? (We adjust, somehow, for the impurity of equal temperament?) That looks like the beginnings of a possible explanation........

RE: Key and Character RE: Key and Character

Yes, tht's what I was suggesting, Eliza. I suppose where we differ is only that I think these factors combined are enough to account for what differences we hear. And it seems to me that still you give 'instrument' sonority a lower ranking than I would. After all, all music is played on instruments, even (or especially) when it's the human voice.

What we miss in this discussion so far, I suggest, is someone who does have perfect pitch. Anyone there?

Chris

Chris A.Gnostic

RE: Key and Character RE: Key and Character

Not me, sadly.

Indeed, I think it is useful to make a distinction between two things here: the importance of a key for the composer (out of  a personal preference, synaesthaesia or whatever) and the way the music is actually heard by the listener. My main concern in this thread is for the latter. In just intonation or pythagorean tuning, the difference in key is audible (see Plato's warnings against playing music in the Phrygian mode for instance). The suggestion that in equal temperament we somehow adjust what we hear, so that we perceive a difference that is not actually there, is an interesting one, but I'm skeptical. If we would transpose Bach's Wohltemperiertes Klavier up one note, it would sound different, but would it really feel different?

 

aquila non captat muscas

 

RE: Key and Character RE: Key and Character

I'm thinking about this.  But have to leave for now. Appropriately enough I'm going to a violin recital.

Chris

Chris A.Gnostic

RE: Key and Character

Brumas, for the last three to four years, most of my listening program has been based on the question of your thread. If I have a prolific composer, I choose his works in E flat (Haydn, for example) or in f minor (Beethoven). In case I deal with composers with less works in their output, I choose a key (b minor) and, then, I see how it works with different composers (how many or how often they use it and in which way).

It is clear to me (and many other people I know) that E flat was a very important key for the Classical period and the works written in that key have a very distinctive, positive, strong, assertive, even heroic character (Beethoven's Eroica, at least two of the Haydn's late Piano Sonatas and Trios, Mozart's Symphony No.39, etc.).

It is clear that Mozart chose very rarely the minor keys and only for very significant works and cases. Just listen to his Violin Sonatas. Only one, the K.304, is in minor key (e minor) and it is so different in character, tone and significance. His two Piano Concertos in minor (d minor and a minor) sound immediately different than the others and, particularly, the one in d minor has a particular importance in the whole output of his 27 concertos for the instrument. His Piano Quartet and his String Quintet in g minor are unique in character and they sound evidently different than their counterparts in major keys.

Finally, one can notice the big differences in let's say a c minor and C major work, by simply following the transformation of let's say the c minor Symphony (the 5th) or the c minor String Quartet (op.18,4) by Beethoven, as they start in the serious, bleak minor mode and they find their resolution in the parallel assertive almost triumphant major.

The subject is huge. So, I guess we'll have some more exchanges soon.

Parla

RE: Key and Character

Parla, a Mozart piano concerto in a minor? I guess you're thinking of the piano sonata in that key - since the companion of the d minor concerto is in the key of c minor (I actually prefer that piece over the d minor concerto, specially because of the finale, a rare and splendid piece in variations form).

As for the c minor - C major transition, Beethoven's last piano sonata (op. 111) is an excellent example. Almost as powerful is the d minor - D major transition. See Mozart's Don Giovanni. There, the transition is extra powerful because of the effective use of trombones (which sound great in d minor) and trumpets (strongly associated with D major).

Some composers from the past like Mattheson and Scriabin have lists of keys and the colors/moods which are associated with them. It's interesting to see that Scriabin associated C major with red, while white would be a more obvious choice:

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fb/Scriabin-Circle.svg

RE: Key and Character

50m, lately, I'm under extreme pressure in writing my posts. By the next year, I'm going to undertake a major new (and very exciting) assignment. So, I'm pretty busy, almost all the time.

You're, of course, absolutely right. The other Piano Concerto is in c minor (the No.24). The A minor is connected with the famous Piano Sonata K.310 (a splendid work), while the other great companion in the minor mode is the superb Piano Sonata in c minor (again), K.457 (sometimes or often performed as a pair with the extraordinary Fantasy K.475, in the same key).

Mozart was very meticulous in choosing the key for every single work of his enormous output. As an old professor has told me years ago: "the tonality is the identity of the work". It affects the pitch, the orchestration, the individual movements, the modulations...in the end, the character of the whole work (regardless of the fact that the average listener may or may not see the difference or the whole difference).

Parla

RE: Key and Character

Hi

We skirted around this issue in another thread once - Parla may well remember. Regarding Scriabin's circle of colours and keys as far as I understand the principles of synesthesia (or more specifically sound to colour - chromesthesia) is highly individual - so how two synesthetes see a certain key is very personal. Scraibin may well have seen C major as red while someone else sees it as green, or white. Liszt also had a mild form of chromesthesia.

In the early nineteenth century a fellow called Christian Schubart catalogued many of the keys as he felt they linked to emotions. Here is one version that I found online (here):

C major:
Completely pure. Its
character is: innocence, simplicity, naivety, children's talk

C minor:
Declaration of love
and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. All languishing,
longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key

Db major:
A leering key,
degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can
smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its
crying.--Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be
brought out in this key

D major:
The key of triumph,
of Hallelujahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the
inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing
choruses are set in this key

D minor:
Melancholy
womanliness, the spleen and humors brood

D# minor:
Feelings of the
anxiety of the soul's deepest distress, of brooding despair, of
blackest depression, of the most gloomy condition of the soul.
Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out
of horrible D# minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would
approximate this key

Eb major:
The key of love, of
devotion, of intimate conversation with God

E major:
Noisy shouts of joy,
laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major

F major:
Complaisance and calm

F minor:
Deep depression,
funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave

F# major:
Triumph over
difficulty, free sigh of relief uttered when hurdles are surmounted;
echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered
lies in all uses of this key

F# minor:
A gloomy key: it tugs
at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are
its language

G major:
Everything rustic,
idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender
gratitude for true friendship and faithful love,--in a word every
gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by
this key

G minor:
Discontent,
uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of
teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike

Ab major:
Key of the grave.
Death, grave, putrefaction, judgment, eternity lie in its radius

Ab minor:
Grumbler, heart
squeezed until it suffocates; wailing lament, difficult struggle; in
a word, the color of this key is everything struggling with
difficulty

A major:
This key includes
declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one's state of
affairs; hope of seeing one's beloved again when parting; youthful
cheerfulness and trust in God

A minor:
Pious womanliness and
tenderness of character

Bb major:
Cheerful love, clear
conscience, hope aspiration for a better world
A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is
somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance.
Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with
everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key

Bb minor:
A quaint creature,
often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very
seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world;
discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for
suicide sounds in this key.

B major:
Strongly colored,
announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring colors.
Anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair and every burden of the heart
lies in its sphere

B minor:
This is as it were
the key of patience, of calm awaiting one's fate and of submission
to divine dispensation

From Christian Schubart's Ideen zu
einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst
(1806) translated by
Rita Steblin

  

Naupilus

RE: Key and Character

Indeed, Naupilus, and Messiaen too had an elaborate key/colour relationship, sothey must think there is something in it.

Coming back to basics. I think there is good evidence that we don't actually hear naturally in equal temperament. As Bazza wrote:

"As a rule those keys closest to C major are going to sound brighter due to the temperment system which means keys are not only different in pitch but have slightly different "spaces" between the notes."

Here he is speaking of a 'natural temperament' not equal temperament.  I'm sure this is right.

First, those who have a good sense of pitch (not perfect pitch) can easily compare the sound of simple chords in equal and unequal temperament.  My experience and many others is that such chords (mainly thirds and fifths) sound more harmonious in the 'earlier' temperaments (as heard in many recordings of earlier music).

If you don't find this compelling try the following simple test. When you catch yourself (or one of your family, or a friend) singing or whistling a tune (away from its original source, so not just after listening to a CD say), check to see what key you or they are whistling in. If we really think in equal temperament now, the keys should be random.  In practice I've always found that people sing in simple keys, C, G, D, F perhaps, certainly Never G flat or C sharp. Try it!

So, Eliza asked me:

Finally, are you suggesting that there really is an absolute or intrinsic character to each key because we don't actually hear what is being played, but instead impose something of our own? (We adjust, somehow, for the impurity of equal temperament?) "

I would answer, yes, based on the above examples, which show how entrenched in our brains is an unequal temperament system based on C major.

This and the very important, almost omnipresent consideration of instrument sonority is probably enough to justify Messiaen and Scriabin.(IMO)

Chris

PS: The violin recital last night included Mozart's wonderful E minor sonata (K304).

Chris A.Gnostic

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