Musical Key Associations

Do you feel that musical keys have any association or relationships with non-musical entities?

e.g. with numbers, or the planets, or zodiac, etc?

In terms of feeling, I had always felt that it was standard among classical composers to associate:

  • F major with bucolic, pastoral
  • Bb major with hunting
  • G major is a sunny, genial key

The sharp keys are generally thought of as bright, extroverted and the flat keys are subdued and earthy. Probably due to the stringed instruments (tuned with open strings in G, D, A, E) and the brass and woodwinds whose home keys are often F, Bb. The minor keys are usually thought of as gloomy, tragic, etc.

But when I googled, I kept hitting references to Christian Schubart’s Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst which I thought was way over the top. For example, Db Major is “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.”

Of course this is subjective, and only has value as entertaining speculation, but I would love to hear your opinions, perceptions of key color or associations.

“Dm is the saddest of all keys, I find”

and I know what song you’re thinking of.

Why is the root note mentioned ? I mean, what’s the difference between Gm and Dm except for pitch ?

Let’s see. I certainly believe that individual composers believed that the keys had characteristics. Between composers there is sometimes agreement, but nothing universal.

Certainly for particular instruments, some keys are more idiomatic than others. Guitars play really easily in A Major, whereas F Major is a pain in the ass. Brass instruments and many woodwinds play more easily in flat keys, whereas strings tend to prefer sharp keys.

Mozart had a real thing for Eb Major - in the Magic Flute, the music for Sarastro’s Temple centres around Eb, while Papageno goes in more for G Major. Three flats = Holy Trinity, according to some sources.

I think part of this arose in earlier music, written pre-equal temperament. One only had a range of 6 keys before the tuning would not permit the full use of the harmonic possibilities. If a keyboard had been tuned mean-tone to work well in C Major, three flats or three sharps was about the limit before things got really skanky. Perhaps that’s the source of Schubart’s comments about Db…

And just to really muddy the waters, we moderns have settled on A at somewhere between 440 hz and 444 hz. From the Baroque to the early Romantic periods, A rose from 423 hz. So does that mean a Brahms piece in A Major should be described in terms of Schubart’s Bb Major?

It’s all an interesting set of questions…

That’s what I came here to mention. However, every musicologist I’ve talked to in my undergrad always brought that up with regards to his affiliation with the Freemasons and their pyramid symbols, not his Catholicism/Christianity. Particularly given the quasi-masonic text on which it’s based.

“A is a good country key”

They are only the same, in relative terms, if you are using equal temperament tuning. In other tunings, which were once common and still are used sometimes today, the intervals in various keys are actually different.

“You know, just simple lines intertwining, you know, very much like - I’m really influenced by Mozart and Bach, and it’s sort of in between those, really. It’s like a Mach piece, really.”

“Key of C?” “Is there any other?”

I associate musical keys with colors, same as letters and numbers. But my feelings about a key are very different than my feelings about the corresponding letters. And I really wish we had musical keys with letters beyond G.

And by the say, F# minor is totally evil.

Please, folks, I’m dying to know…what work (film?) are those intriguing quotes from?

A few different films. Here’s one of 'em.

Thanks! I should have guessed it would be the formerly Lovely Lads…

“A is a good country key” about 1:15 into this video

Mine was from ‘The Producers’. I find it appropriate for hack broadway songs.

I always think that flat keys (keys with flats in the key signature) sound warmer. I think it may have to do with the divide in modern worship music: in the past, flat keys were the norm, but now that everyone is playing guitar with it, it’s much less common.

Silly movie quotes aside, minor keys just sound less bright or in your face than majors. I don’t have the vocabulary or training to explain it more than that.