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

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