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Do you believe that different keys have different emotions? Why or why not?


Yes or no?  

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  1. 1. Do you think there are differences between keys?

    • Yes
      17
    • No
      8


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I am interested in how different composers choose the keys for their works.

Do you do it based on the instruments (some keys are easier than others)?

Or do you try to write in a variety of keys, just to mix things up?

Or do you believe in the debated 'Key Psychology', where different keys conjure up different moods?

Some examples of this are E-flat major, often regarded as having a noble sound, and F Minor being an extremely sad key.

Do you really think there are differences between keys, or do you think that so long as they use the same basic scale or mode that they are the same?

I'm looking forward to your views on this!

(If you don't have time to write a full response, you can just fill in the poll!)

Edited by aMusicComposer
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I voted no but I have a synesthetic friend who would disagree. In a sense, the keys have different "colors" to me. D-flat major is sea green, F major is sky blue, D is bright red, for example. I don't, however, see these colors as I'm listening to pieces as they play—even "simple" pieces use so many chords that it would look like fireworks in my head. I think the colors have come about because of a visual association with a sentinel piece in that particular key. Fun to think about but not practically useful at all.

Choosing the home key (for me) depends largely on the instruments and their ranges. I can evoke any feeling or emotion using any key, so I don't buy into the key psychology stuff. Not saying it isn't true—it's just not true for me. I often modulate in unexpected ways in most of my pieces (some longer works can go through a dozen key changes) but generally find my way back to the home key. I find that how the different keys relate to one another is the most important factor in choosing the mood for the work!

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I myself have specific emotional associations with certain keys. I will separate this into a major and minor list.

Major Key Emotions:
 

  • C major - Happy boredom in most conditions
  • G major - Completed a minor task or in general, warm
  • D major - Majestic
  • A major - Bouncy, staccato reinforces it
  • E major - Triumph over something major
  • B major - Dreamy, Figuring out what to do next
  • F# major - Dreamy, Jazzy
  • C# major - Eternal
  • Db major - Dreamy
  • Ab major - Dreamy, Flying and enjoying it
  • Eb major - Sleeping in a field of flowers
  • Bb major - Moonlit night
  • F major - Flowing along a river



Minor Key emotions:
 

  • A minor - Completely neutral key, as if the sadness of D minor and the happiness of C major canceled out, and left this void of a key that is A minor
  • E minor - Lost in a maze
  • B minor - Mountain climbing, Working hard
  • F# minor - Saddest of the sharp minors
  • C# minor - Peaceful evening
  • Ab minor - Mysterious
  • G# minor - So uncommon I don't have an associated emotion unlike with C# major
  • Eb minor - Jazzy, even with a completely regular rhythm
  • Bb minor - Naturally angry, regardless of tempo or dynamic
  • F minor - The Key of Death, Unrelievably sad
  • C minor - Most variable of all the minor keys. Any emotion is easy to get across
  • G minor - If it comes after a dramatic passage, Calming down, Otherwise, variable
  • D minor - A tad sad, Uncertainty

 

The fact that C major sounds to me like happy boredom, along with the fact that a small bit of chromaticism makes me question whether or not it actually is in C major, and that C major is the most common key in all of music, is why I have it as my one and only avoid key. Now all these emotional associations are just from my experience as a pianist. I realize that different instruments playing in the same key can sound completely different in terms of emotion, even if the music that is played is exactly the same.

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It's interesting how @Tónskáld puts it.

9 hours ago, Tónskáld said:

I voted no but I have a synesthetic friend who would disagree. In a sense, the keys have different "colors" to me. D-flat major is sea green, F major is sky blue, D is bright red, for example. I don't, however, see these colors as I'm listening to pieces as they play—even "simple" pieces use so many chords that it would look like fireworks in my head. I think the colors have come about because of a visual association with a sentinel piece in that particular key. Fun to think about but not practically useful at all.

@Tónskáld 

Your main point seems to be that you feel the emotions from a observant perspective, where from playing other pieces in the key you pick up a general mood from them. You also say that the instrumentalists are the main factors in deciding the mood. Do you think that music which modulates often (or even atonal music) would either be full of conflicting emotions, or even void? It's possible that only the main key centre affects the mood.

@caters

You say that each different key has a different mood for you, and you list them all. I would agree with many of the emotions that you have put on the key. Do you think, like Tónskáld, that it is experience of playing pieces that can lead you to define a key with an emotion? 

You also, importantly to the main point of this discussion, say that you avoid certain keys due to the associated mood. If you were to write something in a different key and then transpose it, do yo think it would have a different mood?

 

Thanks for responding.

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I have to see a score in order to see the "color." Just listening to music I've never looked at doesn't bring about any colors. Prime example: I've always loved Rachmaninoff's 4th piano concerto. It's harmonically rich and exotic, with so much uncertainty and rhythmic uneasiness that it keeps you on the edge of your seat. I see and hear so much emotion in that piece, I would guess it's in a "rich" key, like D-flat or E major. I learned just recently that it's in one of the "barest" keys of all: G minor (resolves to G major at the finale).

I did not say (or did not mean to say) that instrumentalists mainly decide the mood. They help me decide the key. As to all the intricacies of emotion in music... who knows? Atonal music does elicit an emotion with me: disgust. But the music that moves me the most are those unresolved chords that crescendo into resolution. The greater the release of tension, the more emotional the passage. And if it modulates to a different key... turn on the waterworks!

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I always think that they do, until I really start thinking about what I'm feeling. Like, in my head I'll modulate Shostakovich's second piano concerto into E-flat or something, but then realize that nothing's really changed, at least in terms of how it was stylistically written, especially if I accept that the new key is "correct".

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My answer is no.

Taking one or another key depends on the instruments to use, and the range or tesitura of the piece (the botom notes in the piano for example).

To my taste, emotions come up because of contrast between tension and rest. Tonal music and functionality is just one way of making that contrast, but there are many other. That's how emotions are peinted in atonality or impressionism, etc... Most times, I find purely tonal music boring.

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On 7/26/2019 at 3:08 AM, aMusicComposer said:

It's interesting how @Tónskáld puts it.

@Tónskáld 

Your main point seems to be that you feel the emotions from a observant perspective, where from playing other pieces in the key you pick up a general mood from them. You also say that the instrumentalists are the main factors in deciding the mood. Do you think that music which modulates often (or even atonal music) would either be full of conflicting emotions, or even void? It's possible that only the main key centre affects the mood.

@caters

You say that each different key has a different mood for you, and you list them all. I would agree with many of the emotions that you have put on the key. Do you think, like Tónskáld, that it is experience of playing pieces that can lead you to define a key with an emotion? 

You also, importantly to the main point of this discussion, say that you avoid certain keys due to the associated mood. If you were to write something in a different key and then transpose it, do yo think it would have a different mood?

 

Thanks for responding.

 

I definitely think that playing pieces is at least part of what lead me to define the emotion for some keys(such as for example the most variable key being C minor) but I also think that my own improvisations are also part of it. For example, when I improvise in F minor, I find that it always sounds very sad, like it is The Key of Death. But when I play for example Piano Sonata in F minor op. 2 no. 1, it doesn't sound sad, rather it sounds dramatic. Chopin's F minor Ballade also doesn't sound sad to me.

And yes, I do experience a change of mood with transposition.

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  • 2 weeks later...

It's almost impossible to imagine that a person without perfect pitch would be capable of associating different keys with different moods. How would they do it? For my part, I do have perfect pitch, and, as a result, different keys do have sometimes strikingly different qualities to my ear. D minor reminds me of medieval fantasy, for example, and evokes an approximately brownish yellow color, whereas B minor is blue and somewhat dark and imaginative in tone. 

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  • 1 month later...

12-TET tends to sound all the same, for a good reason. It was the point of the system. Now, if you start using other non TET systems, or even expand to 24TET or so, you really can get a lot of different sounding things.

 

So, emotions or not are kind of irrelevant if all the keys are the same. Barring perfect pitch people, nobody really cares. Much more interesting is when the keys are NOT the same, then you can really get some mileage out of the system.

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  • 11 months later...
On 7/25/2019 at 12:16 PM, aMusicComposer said:

I am interested in how different composers choose the keys for their works.

Do you do it based on the instruments (some keys are easier than others)?

Or do you try to write in a variety of keys, just to mix things up?

Or do you believe in the debated 'Key Psychology', where different keys conjure up different moods?

Some examples of this are E-flat major, often regarded as having a noble sound, and F Minor being an extremely sad key.

Do you really think there are differences between keys, or do you think that so long as they use the same basic scale or mode that they are the same?

I'm looking forward to your views on this!

(If you don't have time to write a full response, you can just fill in the poll!)

Since you are still active on the website I decided to give this old thread a go LoL ...

In short - I don't know how I pick the keys I pick.  I simply sing or hum or whistle the melody while I'm coming up with it and check what key I'm in against a tuning fork or the volume button on my cell phone and I try to keep it in that key.  Very rarely I change the key of the piece I am writing to better suit the necessity of the instruments - like my last Piano Quartet in G# minor was originally in G minor but I had to transpose it up a half step because I needed the cello to be able to play a leading tone to C minor in the 2nd theme of the form - since that happens to be a B below the staff in bass clef (and I wanted to avoid a scordatura tuning for the cello) I transposed it so the leading tone becomes B# (or C) in the new key of C# minor for that section.

I do believe that different keys have different psychologies I just don't think they are what we think they are.  Hearing a piece a half-step or a step higher than one is used to might make it sound for example a bit more bright (until one reaches a certain limit where the instruments would have to be re-arranged to be in an appropriate range).  Same if you transpose it down.  It can have a very artificial sounding effect on the music at first when one is not used to the new key.  I think it's because of this brightness/darkness factor.

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Hi @PaperComposer, thank you for your comment, and sorry for the late response.

On 8/26/2020 at 5:07 AM, PaperComposer said:

In short - I don't know how I pick the keys I pick.  I simply sing or hum or whistle the melody while I'm coming up with it and check what key I'm in against a tuning fork or the volume button on my cell phone and I try to keep it in that key.

That does make sense to me. I'm lucky enough to have perfect pitch so I don't have to check with a reference, but I always write down the music in the key I heard it in my head.

On 8/26/2020 at 5:07 AM, PaperComposer said:

Hearing a piece a half-step or a step higher than one is used to might make it sound for example a bit more bright (until one reaches a certain limit where the instruments would have to be re-arranged to be in an appropriate range).  Same if you transpose it down.  It can have a very artificial sounding effect on the music at first when one is not used to the new key.  I think it's because of this brightness/darkness factor.

I read an article about Baroque tuning, which said that the reason that 'concert pitch' is higher now is that it sounds more intense or excited than the low A432 or even A415. I heard a recording of Chopin's nocturne op 9 no 2 where the piano was tuned a little higher than normal - I noticed that the music sounded overly bright and a little harsh.

Since I created this thread over a year ago, my opinion has very much changed. Before I would say that keys had very specific emotions, but having learnt considerably more about music and explored more repertoire, my answer would now be no - I now choose keys based on the instruments and their ranges.

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15 minutes ago, Luis Hernández said:

I'm sure Chopin, Beethoven, etc..., also chose keys in terms of easier playing of the piece.

I have found that when playing piano, especially Romantic period music. 

The Étude op 25 no 1 fits beautifully under the fingers - I don't think it would work so well in any other key.

 

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I think, with equal temperament now the standard, the keys no longer really have unique feelings associated with them in any scientific sense -- other than the range of the instruments being used producibg different timbres. But people still tend to assign the keys general moods based on (or simply inspired by?) the days before equal temperament, when there were very real differences between the keys.

In Ye Olden Days, there would be quite a bit of difference in the ratio of the sound waves in, say, a major third in one key versus a major third in another key. One might be much closer to the perfect fourth interval, while another might be closer to the minor third interval. Thus, playing a piece in one key versus the other had a big difference on the mood of the result. I'm given to understand that some keys were cacophonous and pretty much unusable. When the equal temperament system came along, these subtle differences in pitch were 'flattened out' in favor of a standardized system. 

On a more personal level, as a guy with a guitar who can just move a capo up the guitar neck and sing a song in whatever key I choose, I can tell you that I never choose a key for a song based on the native 'mood' of that key. It's always about finding the right key for each song for the range of my voice, and making sure that meshes well with the pitch of the guitar.

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  • 4 months later...

Coming at it from a producer's perspective, I do think there is something to using different keys. It has to do with how the frequencies interact as you get closer to the bass region of the frequency spectrum. This region starts to get much more sensitive to playing notes that are closer together because they are slower, so you hear the beating of the clashing frequencies more. Transposing a piece up will alleviate some of this "beating". So finding the right balance for your progression with the mood you're aiming for and with the right bass representation absolutely comes into play for me. 

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From my pure personal pov:

B- evokes a feeling of 'jazz'

G- evokes a feeling of nobility

D- kind of cinematic, deep or emotional

F- can be kind of cheery

Amin- sad but romantic

C#min- very dark, foreboding

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On 1/16/2021 at 2:25 PM, jackfrost said:

Coming at it from a producer's perspective, I do think there is something to using different keys. It has to do with how the frequencies interact as you get closer to the bass region of the frequency spectrum. This region starts to get much more sensitive to playing notes that are closer together because they are slower, so you hear the beating of the clashing frequencies more. Transposing a piece up will alleviate some of this "beating". So finding the right balance for your progression with the mood you're aiming for and with the right bass representation absolutely comes into play for me. 

 

Good points. This definitely comes into play when choosing a key. But to me, this is more of an issue of voicing / orchestration than it is of having particular keys reflect specific moods. Like there wouldn't necessarily be a noticeable mood difference between a piece in F major and the same piece transposed up a half-step to F# major, and they'd have similar frequency issues if the chord voicing was too muddy at too deep of a pitch.

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I suppose this comes back to using instruments well - keys which take lots of instruments low into their range will sound heavy and muddy. Sometimes the only option is to transpose it, but this might affect another instrument! That's why, when writing for a group of instruments, you need to be thinking about their ranges from the start to make sure that your piece will fit nicely under them.

In my workshop experience, I try to write idiomatically for the instruments, in keys that will suit them, and this has been picked up on a few times.

Edited by aMusicComposer
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This got me curious. Though I rarely compose in a key I play some lounge-styled numbers, usually in Db. That's because a few years ago my piano gradually dropped its tuning so the tuner stabilised it a half tone flat. If accompanying anyone in C major I had to transpose on the fly to Db, likewise if it was a Bb instrument like a clarinet, I'd have to play in B major. 

The point is, mood-wise, there's a difference playing in Db (which is usually calm and lounge-y) from C# which seems brighter and more energetic. I have no idea why.

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  • 1 month later...
On 1/23/2021 at 4:37 AM, Quinn said:

This got me curious. Though I rarely compose in a key I play some lounge-styled numbers, usually in Db. That's because a few years ago my piano gradually dropped its tuning so the tuner stabilised it a half tone flat. If accompanying anyone in C major I had to transpose on the fly to Db, likewise if it was a Bb instrument like a clarinet, I'd have to play in B major. 

The point is, mood-wise, there's a difference playing in Db (which is usually calm and lounge-y) from C# which seems brighter and more energetic. I have no idea why.

 

I notice a difference between Db major and C# major myself, but C# major doesn't sound more energetic to me, it sounds more like eternity, heaven, god, whereas I would agree with you that Db major sounds calm, and I would even go so far as to say that Db major sounds like a deep dream, passion.

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9 hours ago, caters said:

I notice a difference between Db major and C# major myself, but C# major doesn't sound more energetic to me, it sounds more like eternity, heaven, god, whereas I would agree with you that Db major sounds calm, and I would even go so far as to say that Db major sounds like a deep dream, passion.

 

I think you've nailed it there about D-flat. 

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There is no reason why any key should have a different "mood" than any other given that "Key" is an entirely relative concept and the things that we derive a sense of "mood" from in music come from rhythm/phrasing, scales/mode (pitch essentially) and harmony and progression.

This is easily demonstrated by the fact that if a pianist sits down and plays a number of different pieces, but plays them all in A minor, they will still have different discernable moods, equivalent to the original pieces' keys. The original Red Dead Redemption soundtrack is a great example of this; they did the entire thing in A minor. Plenty of different "moods".

There are also many instances where a band will play a song in a different tuning live than on a recording, especially if they change singers. Do their songs get a different mood because of the tuning, or the different singer with a different voice and style?

Does Smoke on the Water have a different vibe if I tune my guitar a 1/4 step down or up? Especially if you hear it in isolation? No; in fact, I doubt you'd even guess it was in a different tuning if I just played it for you without reference to the original recording. 

Relating to another discussion: The way to tell if something is truly "subjective" or not is whether or not a near-universal consensus can be independently formed or not. Even in this thread, among those who believe different keys inherently convey a different mood, you will see wildly different answers. If C# Major really sounded more "Majestic and righteous" than Ab Major, that would be a conclusion many of us (over centuries now) would have come to by now.

To be honest: The idea of "keys" having an inherent different emotion is rooted in the all-too-common desire nowadays to reduce creating impactful music to something trivial and easily within the layman's grasp.

It's nice to think that all it would take, or at least lend a huge helping hand, to write a piece that sounds "Majestic" or "Epic" or "Heroic" is to "play in X key"; but the reality of the situation is that if you want to write something that would inspire that consensus among most listeners, you'll require a lot more musical knowledge, know-how, skill and finesse. You'll have to know the tropes, know the harmonies, the right modes, maybe borrowed chords, and how melodies that fit that description would typically be phrased, what their contour might be like, what instruments would be used, in what registers they would be voiced, and all sorts of other esoteric knowledge and genre/musical familiarity — and that's a far greater task to accomplish than simply choosing a key. 

Edited by AngelCityOutlaw
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