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Thread: Emotional state and keys

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    Senior Member pcnog11's Avatar
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    Question Emotional state and keys

    I am not a musician and know very little about music theory. I am wondering if there is any association with emotional state and keys? For example does a certain key convey happiness or sadness. How about angry, confused, doubt, joy, frustrations etc.

    For those who excels in this area could educate the rest of us in this forum. Thanks.
    "Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." - Ludwig van Beethoven

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    Senior Member Gordontrek's Avatar
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    There are no hard-and-fast rules. Any key can convey almost anything. Typically, though, major keys are more flexible; a minor key doesn't convey happiness very well, but a major key can be used for both happiness and sadness if used right. Think of it as sort of a spectrum. Major stays farily constant throughout the spectrum but drops off the darker the emotion; minor drops away almost entirely in the brightest parts of the spectrum. The way the different emotions, like anger, confusion, doubt etc. are arranged on the spectrum varies by composer.
    "May God have mercy on my enemies, because I won't." - George S. Patton

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    Senior Member Ingélou's Avatar
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    ^^^ Great reply.

    Once someone makes hard-and-fast rules, someone else will come along and break or bend them. But for interest, this is what James Scott Skinner, the Scottish fiddler, thought about keys used in Scottish traditional music:

    C - Bold and piercing
    A minor - sad and plaintive
    G - plenty of body
    E minor - sterile, thin
    D - splendid body
    B minor - rather sad
    A - the fiddle key
    F minor - exquisitely harrowing
    E - brilliant but lacking in body
    B flat - velvet, very rich & fine
    E flat and C minor - weird, fascinating, and beautifully sad.

    This probably says more about Scott Skinner than about the keys. I think he's dead wrong about E minor, since a number of hauntingly beautiful Irish jigs are composed in this key.
    Last edited by Ingélou; Jan-10-2017 at 13:30.
    My fiddle my joy.

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    Senior Member pcnog11's Avatar
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    Thanks for the replies. Is there any study of what is the most popular key in classical music?
    "Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." - Ludwig van Beethoven

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    Senior Member EdwardBast's Avatar
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    A number of writers have written about the character of various keys. It is mostly silly and rooted in tuning systems in which the keys really were qualitatively different. With the universal adoption of equal temperament, most of the differences evaporated. Here are a couple of systems:


    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 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.
    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.


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

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


    These I found by googling "musical key characteristics."
    Last edited by EdwardBast; Jan-10-2017 at 16:51.
    … The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. William Butler Yeats

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    Senior Member pcnog11's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by EdwardBast View Post
    A number of writers have written about the character of various keys. It is mostly silly and rooted in tuning systems in which the keys really were qualitatively different. With the universal adoption of equal temperament, most of the differences evaporated. Here are a couple of systems:


    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 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.
    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.


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

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


    These I found by googling "musical key characteristics."
    Good stuff! Thanks.
    "Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." - Ludwig van Beethoven

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    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    Yes, EdwardBast is correct, "affeckt" has lost its meaning due to equal temperament. Maybe there's a perfect-pitch freak of nature who can hear ET differences.

    Or maybe you just have to "believe."

    Blue always reminds me of D…

    ...A is a rich, egg-yolk yellow.

    G is green.

    C is a rich raw sienna, and smells like leather.

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    Tuning changes the sound of the "keys", but these descriptions are pretty subjective.
    The different variants of the modes also sound distinctive - there is a reason why melodic and harmonic minor aren't popular at all in the mainstream music - too dramatic and dark, compared to dorian and natural minor.
    Saying C minor sounds like xxx is wrong, most composers were using minor mode mixtures.
    Last edited by BabyGiraffe; Mar-15-2017 at 20:27.

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    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by BabyGiraffe View Post
    ...The different variants of the modes also sound distinctive...
    Yeah, I hear it! That's why the mixolydian mode, used in "Within You Without You" by the Beatles, always sounds psychedelic to me!

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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    Yeah, I hear it! That's why the mixolydian mode, used in "Within You Without You" by the Beatles, always sounds psychedelic to me!
    Yes, I totally agree! The Beatles were great at using modes to create that "trippy" sound. Another example is Norwegian Wood, with its shifts between Mixolydian and Dorian.

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    Quote Originally Posted by EdwardBast View Post
    C major: gay and warlike
    The description leaves me befuddled. Is this like, two gays wrestling?

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    Senior Member JAS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    The description leaves me befuddled. Is this like, two gays wrestling?
    Maybe Spartans?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bettina View Post
    Yes, I totally agree! The Beatles were great at using modes to create that "trippy" sound. Another example is Norwegian Wood, with its shifts between Mixolydian and Dorian.
    You know, Bettina, this leads us into an area which I think might bear more real fruit: the Indian raga system. Each raga set of notes is supposed to invoke a sentiment or emotional state.


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