Characteristics of Musical Keys

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This document contains a selection of information from the Internet about the emotion or mood associated with musical keys. It is not complete nor does it include information found only in print sources.

Emotion and musical pitch || Color and musical pitch




Emotion and musical pitch

From http://www.music-cog.ohio-state.edu/Music838/exam_questions_answers.html What is meant by a "key characteristic?"

The association of certain musical key signatures with a specific subjective quality or emotion. e.g., E major as "bright & piercing."



From http://www2.hmc.edu/~alves/justkeys.html

Many theoretical works of the eighteenth century explicitly assign certain affectations or emotional characteristics to different keys. Though these writings often contradict each other as to what these characteristics actually are, it is well known that many composers carefully chose keys for similar affectations throughout their lives. To Mattheson, for example, D major was "somewhat shrill and stubborn," while to Rousseau it was suited to "gaiety or brilliance."



From http://www.wmich.edu/mus-theo/courses/keys.html

Affective key characteristics from Christian Schubart's Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806), Translated by Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. UMI Research Press (1983).

C major Completely Pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naïvety, 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 Hallejuahs, 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 humours brood.
D# minor Feelings of the anxiety of the soul's deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depresssion, 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 & calm.
F minor Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave.
F# major Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief utered 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.
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 coloured, announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring coulors. 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 ones's fate and of submission to divine dispensation.



From http://www.wu-wien.ac.at/earlym-l/logfiles/em.2001-03

Key or mode descriptions from Charpentier's Regles de Composition ca. 1682


C major:
C minor:
D major:
D minor:
Eb major:
E major:
E minor:
F major:
F minor:
G major:
G minor:
A major:
A minor:
B major:
B minor:
Bb major:
Bb minor:
gay and warlike
obscure and sad
joyous and very warlike
serious and pious
cruel and hard
quarrelsome and boisterous
effeminate, amorous, plaintive
furious and quick-tempered subjects
obscure and plaintive
serious and magnificent
serious and magnificent
joyful and pastoral
tender and plaintive
harsh and plaintive
solitary and melancholic
magnificent and joyful
obscure and terrible



From http://www.win.net/~pelerin/music/science/music5.html#l

Key Characteristics

"Today many musicians claim to hear the different characteristics very clearly, and associate them with the emotional quality of the music. They will tell us that music played in the "open" key of C major---with neither flats nor sharps in the key signature---sounds strong and virile; played in the key of G, with one sharp, it sounds brighter and lighter; in D, with two sharps, even more so; and so on. Every additional sharp in the key signature is supposed to add to the brightness and sparkle of the music, while every flat contributes softness, pensiveness, and even melancholy.

From the English translation of Helmholtz's Tonempfindungen:


C major:
Db major:
E major:
E minor:
F major:
F minor:
F# major:
Gb major:
Pure, certain, decisive; expressive of innocence, powerful resolve, manly earnestness and deep religious feeling
Fullness of tone, sonority and euphony
Joy, magnificence, splendour; brightest and most powerful key
Grief, mournfulness, restlessness
Peace, joy, light, passing regret, religious sentiment
Harrowing, melancholy
Brilliant, very clear
Softness, richness



From: http://www.wmich.edu/mus-theo/courses/keys.html

From Christian Schubart's Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806) translated by Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. UMI Research Press (1983).

C major: Completely pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naïvety, 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 Hallejuahs, 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 humours brood
D# minor: Feelings of the anxiety of the soul's deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depresssion, 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 utered 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 coloured, announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring coulors. 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 ones's fate and of submission to divine dispensation



Color and musical pitch

http://www.harmonics.com/lucy/lsd/colors.html: Pitch, colour, Scriabian, and others by Charles E. H. Lucy
an attempt to make a "connection through mathematics and physics"
He states that in addition to Scriabin, "Berlioz, Debussy and Wagner were also interested in music and colour and Rimsky-Korsakov considered C as white."

This site includes Scribians, The Rosicrucian Order's, and Charles Fourier's color charts for musical pitches.



Keys and Colors: Is There a Connection? by Gail Smith
Includes Amy Beach's list of ley colors



From http://rhythmiclight.com/archives/ideas/modetoshade.html

From Frank Popper, Origins and Development of Kinetic Art, 1968:
p. 157-8: Scriabin held that each mode corresponded to a particular shade of colour, and each modulation to a nuance of this shade.



From Tom Douglas Jones, The Art of Light & Color, 1972:
p. 102: Beethoven is said to have called B minor the black key. Schubert likened E minor "unto a maiden robed in white with a rose-red bow on her breast." One Russion composer said, "Rimsky-Korsakoff and many of us in Russia have felt the connection between colors and sonorities. Surely for everybody sunlight is C major and cold colors are minors. And F-sharp is decidedly strawberry red!" Of his subtle compositions Debussy wrote: "I realized that music is very delicate, and it takes, therefore, the soul at its softest fluttering to catch these violet rays of emotion."

p. 103: Dr. D.S. Myers, a psychologist who talked with Scriabin, said, “Sriabin’s attention was first seriously drawn to his colored hearing owing to an experience at a concert in Paris, where sitting next to his fellow countryman and composer Rimsky-Korsakoff, he remarked that the piece to which they were listening (in D major) seemed to him yellow; whereupon his neighbor replied that to him, too, the color seemed golden. Scriabin has since compared with his compatriot and with other musicians the color effects of other keys, especially B, C major, and F-sharp major, and believes a general agreement to exist in this respect. He admits, however, that whereas to him the key of F-sharp major appears violet, to Rimsky-Korsakoff it appears green; but this derivation he attributed to an accidental association with the color of leaves and grass arising from the frequent use of this key for pastoral music. He allows that there is some disagreement as to the color effect of the key of G major. Nevertheless, as is so universally the case with the subjects of synesthesia, he believes that the particular colors which he obtains must be shared by all endowed with colored hearing."



From http://www.thereminvox.com/story/28?page=5

Athanasius Kircher system of correspondences between musical intervals and colors
octave: green
seventh: blue-violet
major: sixth fire red
minor: sixth red-violet
augmented fifth: dark brown
fifth: gold
diminished fifth: blue
fourth: brown-yellow
major third: bright red
minor third: gold
major wholetone: black
minor second: white
minor wholetone: grey
(See this website for more systems like this)

Scriabin's system of colored musical keys:
C# -- Purple
F# -- Bright Blue/Violet
B   -- Blue
E   -- Sky Blue
A   -- Green
D   -- Yellow
G   -- Orange
C   -- Red
F   -- Deep Red
Bb -- Rose/Steel
Eb -- Flesh
Ab -- Violet
Db -- Purple (same as C#)
Gb -- Bright Blue/Violet (same as F#)



From http://www.composersdatebook.org/archives/090400.shtml

Two Russian composers were fascinated with the idea of linking certain musical keys to particular colors - but came up with completely different associations. According to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the key of C Major was "white," while Alexander Scriabin said it was "red." The two composers did agree, however, that the key of D major was "yellow" and that Eb Major was either "bluish-grey" or "steely."

Here's a list of other key signatures, with Rimsky-Korsakov's color choice given first, then Scriabin's color association:
G Major (Brownish-gold/Orange-rose)
A Major (Rosy/Green)
E Major (SapphireBlue/Bluish-white)
B Major (Dark Blue/Bluish-white)
F# Major (Grayish-green/Bright blue)
Db Major (Dusky/Violet)
Ab Major (Grayish-violet/Purple-violet)
E Major (Green/Red)



From http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MUSI/bibkeys.html

Key characteristics in music Dearling, Robert. Guinness book of music, 1981. "List of Keys" section provides associations to moods and colors
Steblin, Rita. A history of key characteristics in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, 1983.




From http://glenngould.org/f_minor/msg08707.html

"... descriptions of keys from various writings ... (quoted from a book by Rita Steblin):
C Major:
   "Completely pure" (Schubart, 1784)
   "Cheerful and pure" (Knecht, 1792)
   "State of nature, virginal chastity and purity, lovely innocence of youth" (Heinse, 1795)
   "Naturalness and nobility" (Gervasoni, 1812)
   "Cheerful and pure; innocence and simplicity" (Weikert, 1827)
   "Simple, unadorned" (Schumann, 1835)
   "Concerning the physical expression of this key, it appears to be completely pure" (Schilling, 1835)
C-sharp minor:
   "Penitential lamentation, intimate conversation with God" (Schubart, 1784)
   "Despair" (Knecht, 1792; Schrader, 1827; Weikert, 1827; Ebhardt, 1830)
D major:
   "Gay things and grandeur" (Rousseau, 1691)
   "Joyful and very militant" (Charpentier, 1692)
   "Pleasant, joyful, bright, songs of victory" (Masson, 1697)
   "Songs of mirth and rejoicing; grandeur and magnificence" (Rameau, 1722)
   "Martial ardour" (Hawkins, 1776)
   "The key of triumph, of Hallelujahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing" (Gathy, 1835)
Eb minor:
   "Horrible, frightful" (Charpentier, 1692)
   "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 Eb minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key" (Schubart, 1784)
E major:
   "Uplifting" (Junker, 1777)
   "Bright" (Gretry, 1797)
Bb minor:
   "Gloomy and terrible" (Charpentier, 1692)
   "Mournful songs" (Rameau, 1722)
   "Preparation for suicide sounds in this key" (Schubart, 1784)

Comments to Mickey Koth Yale University Music Library Last revised April 14, 2004