Key Appeal
September 16, 2015 12:28 PM   Subscribe

In 1824's Musical Biography, John R. Parker systematically describes the "complexions" and personalities of the major and minor keys. (For example, C major is well suited to the expression of war and enterprize,while C minor is complaining, having something of the whining cant of B. minor. A-flat major is the most lovely of the tribe, and B flat's the least interesting of any...too dull for song.) posted by Iridic (51 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Does he find D-minor to be the saddest of all keys?
posted by briank at 12:34 PM on September 16, 2015 [8 favorites]

Which is the saddest of all keys?
posted by the quidnunc kid at 12:34 PM on September 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

To: briank

IOU one beer

posted by the quidnunc kid at 12:35 PM on September 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

For a more empirical take:

Key-Mood Association: A Self Perpetuating Myth:
The association of certain keys with specific moods continues to be widespread despite technical evidence that all equally tempered keys are identical. This paper provides experimental results which shed light on this phenomenon.

First, approximately three-quarters of participants questioned claimed to have key-mood associations.

Second, the key-mood associations held by participants showed a very strong correlation to late eighteenth century associations which attributed brightness to keys with sharps in their key signature and mellowness to those with flats.

Third, key-mood associations were proven to be invalid for the modern, equal temperament keyboard; the participants showed no ability to be able to identify mood from key or key from mood and, overall, there was no change in perceived mood of a piece if it was performed in a different key.

One reason why the key-mood association myth persists to the present day is the tradition of associating sharp keys with bright and positive moods and flat keys with dark and negative moods, which has been perpetuated by some musical commentators over the past two hundred years. In addition, there are a number of aspects of early musical training which encourage these associations for the sharp and flat keys.
posted by jedicus at 12:36 PM on September 16, 2015 [11 favorites]

In case you weren't sure if this was nonsense or not, earlier in the same footnote Parker asserts that 15th-century music was written in F and D minor because "the rushing of the storm, the murmurs of the brook, and the roar of the sea" all play out purely in Dm/F, the grand Key of Nature.
posted by theodolite at 12:44 PM on September 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

You know, I would pay actual money for Christopher Guest to go back and turn Lick My Love Pump into a complete song.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:46 PM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Simple lines....intertwining...
posted by howfar at 12:51 PM on September 16, 2015

"the rushing of the storm, the murmurs of the brook, and the roar of the sea" all play out purely in Dm/F, the grand Key of Nature.

Well, Beeethoven used it for Symphony No. 6
posted by thelonius at 12:52 PM on September 16, 2015

As someone with perfect pitch, I was/am always happiest playing/singing things in A major, because joy.
posted by Melismata at 12:56 PM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

As someone with perfect pitch, I was/am always happiest playing/singing things in A major, because joy.
posted by Melismata at 15:56 on September 16 [+] [!] No other comments.

posted by briank at 1:01 PM on September 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

He can take B Flat when he pries it from my cold dead trombone.

Seriously that is the easiest key to play in
posted by shakespeherian at 1:06 PM on September 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I always thought of flat key music as coming from styles like blues or jazz where a lot of horns are used - keys like Eb or Bb are their native waters, aren't they - and sharp keys like G or E or A as being from guitar-based genres.

On the guitar, there are certain chords that have mood associations for me, like the bright and clear D major or the melancholy and brooding E minor, but I'm not about to claim that those are universal qualities.
posted by thelonius at 1:08 PM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

there are certain chords that have mood associations for me, like the bright and clear D major or the melancholy and brooding E minor

Might that be simply be a result of the fact that the standard Em chord uses all six strings and the Dmaj uses only four?
posted by tonycpsu at 1:16 PM on September 16, 2015

Yeah like on trombone for example, a low Bb and an Eb are both in first position, with the slide all the way in, which is obv the easiest position. But the low B-natural and E-natural are both in seventh position, with the slide as far out as possible, which is the hardest position to hit.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:17 PM on September 16, 2015

I'm a musician, and whenever I see stuff like this I am reminded that most musicians are not exactly empiricists and have not done a double-blind study where they have controlled for all variables.
posted by randomkeystrike at 1:42 PM on September 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

The subjective basis for the centuries-long occupation of music-minded people with specific key-caracteristics is certainly somewhat problematic; but plain old empiricism doesn't really solve this problem.

First, there are those who do have varying degrees of perfect pitch, and hence different responses to different keys, so for them, a connection between emotions and the keys cannot be excluded. This does however not say much about which specific emotion belongs to which key--such (shifting) definitions seem to have been largely a matter of momentary agreement during certain periods, or the result of individual, subjective assessments (as seems to be the case in this example).

Second, a composer's subjective reaction to whatever moods he/she thinks the keys are having would in turn stimulate specific matching composing styles for one key or another (Beethoven's dark treatment of c-minor across his oeuvre is a good example, or Mozart's dramatic approach to g-minor).

Third, it isn't entirely clear whether in 1824 in Boston, piano temperament was fully equal in practice. Pianos tutors of the time do in principle advocate equal temperament, but the instructions are often practically-minded and rather slapdash, and the actual results may well have been all over the map.

Finally, to produce certain keys on some other instruments than the piano is associated with varying levels of technical difficulty (apart from the difficulty to read a score with very many accidentals); new research has addressed the feedback loop between performer and instrument that spurs emotional responses which in turn influence the musical interpretation. If a key is easier or more difficult to produce on an instrument, this will influence the performer's emotional response. As we're looking at the year of 1824 (and not, say, Hifi-sit-and-listen-heyday 1984) we can safely assume that this is not an exclusively audience-centered list, but one that applies to people, amateurs and professionals, who actually played music.
posted by Namlit at 1:52 PM on September 16, 2015 [13 favorites]

The whole concept of 'key' is kind of a bourgeois dream. For most of music history there was no such thing. Pop music is the constantly mutating challenge to this fantasy of pure order.
posted by colie at 2:06 PM on September 16, 2015

Well Mr. Parker was surely bourgeois, so nothing new there. It's the time when people believed in progress in the arts; newest is best and all that. So "most of music history" was whatever sat on their music desk, fresh from the printer.
posted by Namlit at 2:11 PM on September 16, 2015

Yes the whole topic of keys having inherent "moods" is not the most comfortable thing for me, because I am always feeling the urge to party-foul by calling bullshit and going off on a rant, and I don't want to be THAT GUY. But I'll be that guy here because I know you people are super cool. It's usually a conversation I get roped into in social settings. The conversation is usually like:

"Uh....... "
"F#... :("
"I.... don't really..."
"I LIKE B. It's definitely the most emotional."

I have thought about this for years and talked with many other musicians, and I believe the reason any of you think a particular frequency series of tones in a traditional western 12-tone scale has a certain "inherent mood" is that your brain remembers bits and pieces of (or whole) songs that are in a certain key.

The body of western classical music may have evolved in the way it has because certain keys are more natural (or due to the construction of the instrument, more resonant and pleasant) for certain western instruments to play in, like C major, A minor, D dorian, F lydian on the piano, or like shakespeherian said, default brass positions. When you think about a certain "meaningful" key, I think people with perfect pitch subconsciously and automatically recall and cross-reference the dozens of pieces they know in that key which happen to have a particular mood (with profound selection and confirmation biases, because they already think keys have moods and their brains select for that).

Some of us may have stronger and clearer sound memories than others so the effect is more pronounced, and others may not even be able to remember the sound of things in their original keys at all, consciously or otherwise, so they don't get "feelings" for keys like this at all. Among those of us with a clear memory, the speed and clarity of recall can vary widely, so some people have to "take a second to figure it out" while others know immediately.

Personally, I can see the pitches of sounds in my environment (including chords) on a staff without a reference pitch, it's incredibly clear because I am REALLY practiced at it, but I don't feel that any keys have ANY special qualities whatsoever, while intervals, phrasing, and harmonies are all that contribute to the emotional vibe of a song. Transposing may sound "wrong" or "different" but only because it clashes with a memory you've already formed. If you heard a brand new song in the "wrong key" to begin with, I don't think you'd think there was anything wrong with it. I think a double-blind test (after another one to verify perfect pitch from a cold start) would rule this out, and I didn't see one in that survey above! This would be easy to test!

So, basically, I agree with the thinking that this whole phenomenon is a self-perpetuating myth / social cliche, but I hypothesize that it's based on subjective memories of musical repertoires, combined with above-average "cross-referencing / synthesis" brain circuitry, and NOT some inherent psychological quality of western musical scales on their own.

I hope more studies on this will show I was right, because if so, that means all I'm doing while writing in a particular key is Google Deepdream, synthesizing new compositions based on hundreds of licks, chord progressions, and harmonies from everything I've ever heard. Which means a sufficiently trained neural net will someday be able to replace me, so I CAN FINALLY TAKE A FUCKING VACATION
posted by jake at 2:23 PM on September 16, 2015 [15 favorites]

(Eb is not first position for trombone. That's Bb and F.)

I think the fact that equal tempered pianos provide no distinction between keys is pretty obvious and not particularly interesting. I think this idea, to at least some degree, predates the total adoption of equal temperament.

I'd be interested in knowing if orchestral keys could convey variations in major and minor because of the register that it would force instruments to play in. It is also really fascinating to see composers lean on keys for specific moods. Its like a weird encoding of intentions that I find interesting, even if I'm in the extreme minority.
posted by lownote at 2:26 PM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Tim Minchin playing in one key and singing in another:
posted by sineater at 2:33 PM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

> intervals, phrasing, and harmonies are all that contribute to the emotional vibe of a song
Correction: THESE ARE NOT "ALL" OF THE THINGS but they're definitely some of the things
posted by jake at 2:35 PM on September 16, 2015

(Eb is not first position for trombone. That's Bb and F.)

Oh, right. I got mixed up on whether I was talking about keys or notes and also I haven't picked up my instrument in years.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:37 PM on September 16, 2015

I suspect that it has an awful lot to do with one's instrument and the physical feel of a particular key.

"I think the fact that equal tempered pianos provide no distinction between keys is pretty obvious and not particularly interesting."

There may not be any distinction in the output, but a lot of this is in the way your fingers have to sit and move in order to play in whatever key, and unless you are a perfect player this is bound to reflect somehow.

This all is particularly apparent in the folk world where it's pretty normal to have an instrument that just can't play all the notes it might want to.

Even my concertina although it can technically play in any key is basically in C. Do not ask me to play it in B major, it will be ugly. And I've been practising pretty steadily for three years.
posted by doiheartwentyone at 2:54 PM on September 16, 2015

This sounds a little familiar -- dividing things up into 12* groups and making unfounded conclusions based on group membership...

(*ok, 24)
posted by kurumi at 2:55 PM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Did anybody here see the study that jedicus linked to? (Not just the abstract) I'd like to know how they conducted the test, particularly how they neutralized the natural bias that particular instruments have, keywise. That is, assuming it was even necessary to do so.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 3:26 PM on September 16, 2015

First, there are those who do have varying degrees of perfect pitch, and hence different responses to different keys

Also, people with some degree of perfect pitch is pretty highly over-represented among musicians, and the further you go up the ladder of music performing ability, the higher this proportion grows.

Also the incidence of synesthesia among the top tier of performing musicians and composers is above the insignificant level, as well. Those folks can have a pretty distinct sensory and/or emotional reaction to various chords, notes, keys, etc. Despite the fact that they all disagree with each other, these folks tend to have very strong opinions on these matters and they tend to be opinion leaders within the community. Just for example, here is a list of musicians with synesthesia.

WRT to the research quoted here: This type of research would not have revealed the type of associations the synesthetes feel between notes/chords/keys and other senses or feelings, because only a small proportion of the population seems to have synesthesia of this type. In addition, it appears that it is highly individualistic, so even if you had a roomful of synesthetes to test, the responses are still very individualistic. You wouldn't necessarily find any agreement on which key is purple, or dull, or outdoorsy, or whatever.
posted by flug at 3:34 PM on September 16, 2015

Certainly I'd like to see a study that managed to separate musicians' experience of playing in particular keys from audiences' experience of listening to them. I wouldn't be at all surprised if there was no measurable effect at the end of the day.
posted by doiheartwentyone at 3:36 PM on September 16, 2015

Despite the fact that they all disagree with each other, these folks tend to have very strong opinions on these matters and they tend to be opinion leaders within the community. Just for example, here is a list of musicians with synesthesia.

Yeah, agreed. It's that fact which I think makes any kind of "overview of the different keys" as a guide for other musicians totally bunk, and not helpful if influential musicians go around presenting it as fact! It's all personal connections we've made, not some inherent property of the pitches we're hearing. So any writing like the FPP can only ever be a "here's how I personally and uniquely feel when I hear these keys", and the whole "Bb is a gross key" is 100% a matter of personal connection, and not a physical reality. Sorry, if it seems like I'm attacking straw men: I am involved in a bunch of music communities, and see this repeated all over the place, as if it's just accepted fact that some keys are naturally sad or happy or harsh.

I can't speak for people claiming to have synesthesia, but when I hear music I don't see colors, I see very clear mnemonic connections -- pictures, full scenes, mundane everyday things I have seen and heard and felt in the past while hearing the sounds in question. Like, hearing an F7 chord pings part of my brain that remembers an F7 chord from a song I don't know the name of, which was playing in my car while I passed under a bridge in Champaign, Illinois on a Friday in October of 2008 after saying the words "Yeah, I could murder some yogurt right now" to my wife, and she laughed, and it was a good day. F7s briefly flash that memory, among other, less (or more) happy memories, whenever I hear them.

I mean there are thousands of these, all linked to specific times and places, like EXIF location coordinates attached to the sound. And they are instantly called up when I need to think about that particular harmony or interval or rhythm, whether I'm remembering old songs or writing new ones. Every harmony or bass lick lives in its own location in spacetime that is totally unique to me. I am certain that it's the same to varying degrees for many other composers, artists, writers.

I'm glad people are hardcore about researching how human memory works, because I feel like a lot of what creativity is might be simpler than we think, and a LOT more complicated in other ways. But understanding it better doesn't diminish the magic of hearing Handel or seeing a Picasso. It's one thing to understand how it works, another entirely to make something good!

(Source: I depend on creativity to feed myself, don't understand how it works or how to encourage and maintain it, and am terrified by that fact)
posted by jake at 4:17 PM on September 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

I don't see that anyone has so far mentioned the concern of pitch level: an A in 1824 was considerably lower than an A today (likely around today's A-flat). So, when we play a piece by Beethoven in, say, c minor, we're actually hearing it in what to him would have been c-sharp minor.
posted by LooseFilter at 4:18 PM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, is the thread title a "Key and Peele" pun? If so, bravo, I just got it and laughed really hard
If not, I'm just laughing maniacally in my car and people can deal with it
posted by jake at 4:18 PM on September 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

There was a contest.
posted by lagomorphius at 4:23 PM on September 16, 2015

"This sounds about 20 cents sharp of soft and tender."
posted by Wolfdog at 4:48 PM on September 16, 2015

Take it Stewie.
posted by Splunge at 5:02 PM on September 16, 2015

is the thread title a "Key and Peele" pun?

; )

(Rejected titles: "Key Witness," "Public Key Description.")
posted by Iridic at 5:13 PM on September 16, 2015

I totally agree with those who aver that these opinions are mostly cultural and learned biases, and that they have little to do with the notes and keys themselves.

But - but - unfortunately it's not as easy as dismissing the idea of keys having characters as complete nonsense. This is a peculiar modern impulse, to flatten the differences in things and attempt to purify all variance as quantitative rather than qualitative. Dedekind's number line, for example, the premier teaching tool for numbers, sees them not as a collection of individual numbers with different characters and qualities but as points along a continuum. What we do with notes and keys is worse, because we take that theory of a bare continuum and apply it to sound.

The simple fact is: different keys actually do sound different - not just in relation to each other, but in relation to sound itself. They have different frequencies, different resonances. The mistake we can make is in believing there is some absolute quality; but we must know that we each have personal relationships to different frequencies, different keys. We grow up hearing certain tones in certain circumstances; the rooms we live in for years of our lives have tones, resonances; and we get used to feeling pleasure at some and displeasure at others. I think we probably have some common perceptions, but not enough to make this universal. Musicians in particular hear and play in many keys and learn biases from their fellows.

It certainly isn't the case, as some have suggested (like that study above) that all keys are exactly the same and indistinguishable.
posted by koeselitz at 6:49 PM on September 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

For a detailed account of key/mood associations by a true believer, see Ernst Pauer, The Elements of the Beautiful in Music (London: Novello, 1877), archived at This folklore goes way back. Plato and Aristotle recommend the keys and modes that will make you a better person. The "Record of Music" in the Chinese Records of Ritual (probably 3rd-c BC) theorizes about which tonalities correlate with which political conditions.
posted by homerica at 7:58 PM on September 16, 2015

It's uncanny. It actually feels like different keys have different emotional textures, even though according to the laws of physics they ought to be identical in perception.

But only a fool looks for logic in the chambers of the heart.
posted by ovvl at 8:30 PM on September 16, 2015

Prior to the adoption of equal temperament, the keys did feel very different, because the intervals in all the chords had different relative tunings. The tuning variance was enough that the chords sounded/felt different, and when you combine those chord tunings with the different locations for those weird tunings (in one key, your most out-of-tune chord would be the I!), yeah I'm sure it felt different.

There was also likely some selection bias perpetuating this -- if you knew D minor was the saddest of all keys, you'd write your sad songs in D minor. Which reinforced to other musicians that it was the saddest of all keys.

But to our modern ears, not used to hearing those different tunings, it just sounds out of tune and bad, for the most part.
posted by Jinsai at 10:17 PM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

ovvl: "It's uncanny. It actually feels like different keys have different emotional textures, even though according to the laws of physics they ought to be identical in perception."

The laws of physics actually say no such thing. The laws of physics say that different keys have very real differences. To wit, the laws of physics say different keys have different frequencies.
posted by koeselitz at 11:04 PM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Pretty much everything Jake said. Spend enough time writing, arranging, and transposing music and pretty soon all illusions you had about the character of keys will disappear.

Certainly the frequencies are different, and the average human's ability to perceive certain frequencies more readily than others probably does contribute to the increase of Concert Pitch over the years...but that's about it. The quantifiable deltas do mean something, but I doubt it has anything to do with a taxonomy of moods.

I really enjoy playing in E minor on the piano, but that's because it feels good in my hands. The arrangement of the keys on a standard keyboard also seem to lend themselves to certain playing styles; for example I find that playing in Db highly encourages the use of 9th and 11th chords, whole-tone motifs...and thus Db becomes my "wistful" key. Never mind that once the song is written it could be transposed into any other key and it would sound exactly as wistful (though higher or lower overall pitch shifts may change the feel a little).
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:15 PM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's uncanny. It actually feels like different keys have different emotional textures, even though according to the laws of physics they ought to be identical in perception.

The study found that they are identical in perception. The keys. Not the instruments, or the particular piece played. You get to keep your feels, but you can't claim they're innate to the key by itself.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 11:16 PM on September 16, 2015

This seems unavoidable complicated by the fact that the ability to distinguish absolute pitch seems to be a thing that varies widely between individuals, possibly a thing that some people just have but most just do not. I certainly do not seem to - though I have a strong sense of relative pitch - and combining that with my sort-of-trained-then-taught-himself the rest background and medium of electronic music I have definitely come to see melody and harmony as essentially transposable. If you don't have a good sense of absolute pitch I don't think the hypothesis that the mood of a key is derived from associations with existing compositions holds up, since there's a good chance you wouldn't even notice if it was transposed a half-step or two. This appears to be more or less what Jedicus's cited study found. But if you can tell absolute pitch this may be completely different.

However making electronic music (or just doing audio engineering) also teaches you that there's more to music than melody and harmony, and that there are plenty of situations where frequency matters. I think this is not too far from what Koeselitz is getting at though I'm not sure I buy some of the specific things he said. If you want a kick drum that kicks you in the chest, a snare drum that punches you in the mouth, a sub-bass pulse that will shake the room - well, to some extent the perfect choice will always depend on the resonance of the room its played in but all of those things happen in certain frequency ranges. In fact in dance music the key of the track is pretty frequently built around the position of these essential elements and in many genres the popular key choices are constrained by what will give a deep and powerful sound without being too deep for consumer gear to reproduce - in addition of course to what are already the popular, mixable key choices. And when you're working with complex synth patches with filters and distortion there are all kinds of changes in timbre you can get just by playing a different note. I don't think this is as pronounced with "real" instruments if they are high-quality and in equal temperment but I'm sure it matters a little.

Anyway I'm rambling here so - I'm not convinced about the idea of emotional associations as described here, for most people, for transposition. Major/Minor probably but last I heard that was probably a cultural association. However that doesn't mean that the tonal center doesn't matter because there are other dimensions to music.
posted by atoxyl at 11:39 PM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

To clarify, I'm not saying there aren't differences in keys - I just think that the ramblings of some of the old masters were not informed by anything like the scientific method (it is an art, not a science, after all*).

I play clarinet, and there is a ton of "folk wisdom" that even the best (especially the 'best'?) teachers pass along. One example that speaks directly to the "mood" of keys. The clarinet everyone knows in band is a Bb clarinet. That is, you read a C on the page and the actual tone that comes out is a Bb.

(most band instruments transpose this way, which is why you meet few people with perfect pitch in band - drives them up the wall)

If you play in the orchestra, you also wind up owning an "A" clarinet. That is, a clarinet which plays an A when you read a C.

This practice dated back to when the clarinet didn't necessarily play well in all keys, and the composer (or the player) would use the Bb instrument to avoid some keys and use the A clarinet to avoid others. Practically speaking, even today, the Bb instrument has you reading a key signature with 2 fewer flats, and the A has you reading a key signature with 3 fewer sharps.

Of course, it also means that if you play any given "fingering," the note that results is a 1/2 step lower on the A clarinet. A note that's 1/2 step lower is, by definition, deeper, and we associate deeper with darker. So the notion arose in clarinet playing circles that the A clarinet is the one to use when writing chamber music that is darker sounding, more romantic, etc., whereas the Bb is brighter, livelier, etc.

Meanwhile, back in the real world - you can't tell the two instruments apart. Not in sound, and sometimes we even pick the wrong instrument up when it's time to enter on a part (now THAT makes a difference in the mood of the music)... not even another clarinetist sitting right next to you can generally tell which one you're playing, unless one of your instruments sounds terrible.

By contrast, I (and probably most people who listen to music a lot) can tell a difference between an alto sax and a tenor sax, just by listening to both on a radio. So I'm not denying that different instruments have different timbres - these two clarinets are just too close together to hear it.

And yet teachers keep spouting the same story...

*I know, I know, there's science in it. But as I'm saying, they didn't think that way...
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:49 AM on September 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think we're all talking across one another here. It's true that if you compose a piece in C major and transpose it to E flat minor, the character of the piece will be preserved in nearly every aspect (notwithstanding any subtle effects caused by the frequency response of the human ear).

What is being described here is more likely to be the effect of composing a piece to be comfortable to play or write in a given key. How does a piece written for E flat minor so that it isn't clumsy on the page or the piano keyboard sound? People mentioned keys chosen to make songs easier to play on trombones and guitars.

This all says more about our instruments than the particular starting frequency of a scale, and may not be so easily written off as syn├Žsthesia or imagination.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 7:53 AM on September 17, 2015

Most of us chiming in here seem to be musicians (unsurprisingly). We have such biases according to our instruments that it's pretty hard to be neutral regarding this topic. I'm used to playing piano jazz in Eb because so many songs in the Real Book are in Eb because Alto Sax. And I learned in the key of C because: self-taught. And Dm may not be "the saddest key," as per the Funniest Movie in the World for musicians, but it is the easiest key to play in because no wrong notes because Dorian mode/white keys.

All pianists who enjoy playing in the key of B major raise your hands. I didn't think so.
posted by kozad at 8:43 AM on September 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Bb is blues key. I don't care what them damn clarinet players think.

Anyhow, those old time Europeans were all about modals, so to hell with that, too. Okay, the mixolydian/dorian apposition is cool, so, I'm just saying. If I had to actually take time to learn anything about music I'd never get any playing done.

Rock on!
posted by mule98J at 8:47 AM on September 17, 2015

I don't think anyone is arguing against the idea that different instruments favor different keys.
posted by atoxyl at 10:55 AM on September 17, 2015

Hey, I'm a guitarist, so believe me I understand (mathematically, not morally) about intonation and how modulating in the middle of a song can ruin your day (and those of others) if you don't know how to compensate.

But let's not confuse FREQUENCY and KEY. Keep in mind every key scale repeats infinitely every doubling of frequency (i.e. every octave) so there are a WHOLE LOT of C majors we can play in, etc. This one's not high enough? 8VA! Inversions! EQ! All kinds of ways to make sure you're hitting the right frequency ranges in your electronic production. Doesn't have that much to do with the base KEY itself, and most tracks will survive moderate transposition without changing how they emotionally FEEL to a first-time listener. A drastic jump of 11 semitones will definitely change how "bright" a song feels, but you could get the same tonal result by going down ONE semitone. Same key! You never really have to transpose more than a half-octave in either direction, and there aren't many songs that would evoke a completely different emotion if shifted just a few semitones.

The thing at issue here is: Is this "folk wisdom" passed on about certain keys just having inherent emotional connections.. actually something that has any business being repeated as "wisdom" or is it just a weird superstition that has sounded poetic and "artistic" and otherwise lovely and sensible to composers and writers for eons, and maybe if you have some kind of weird synesthesia connections it might be true in a totally unique way for YOU, but for most people, it's a better idea to learn that all keys can be made to express any emotions you want through the development of harmony, dynamics, and tension, and then learn about the ranges of instruments so you can write for them in any key you like, instead of preferring or avoiding certain ones like cracks on a sidewalk?

No slight intended, but chalking up superstition to "oh it's just an art, not a science, you can't explain that" is not my style. I'm an engineer, not only an artist who feels things without questioning them, and we can do better. Music is as much science as art, and I don't find talk about the "moods of 2 different adjacent keys" any more convincing than talk about throwing salt over your shoulder or having a lucky flipped cigarette, no matter how many dead white religious dudes held magical beliefs or were used to writing for certain wood and metal ensembles.

I promise I'm not bitter or angry about this! Just really passionate, having fun talking with smart people about music!
posted by jake at 1:06 PM on September 17, 2015

kozad: "All pianists who enjoy playing in the key of B major raise your hands. I didn't think so."

I actually like the black-note keys better because my fingers are fat. I like B major - the blues scale is very easy to do quickly in that key, too - but I probably prefer C sharp major. (Try getting a trumpet player to play in C sharp major, though - heh.) E flat is indeed the common one. The one I hate most, oddly enough, is G flat major; in all the other major keys with all the black notes in them, the lone white keys are either to the left or the right, but in G flat major they alternate, which (when I think too hard about it anyway) gets me all tripped up. Probably I'll figure out a way past that particular block at some point, though.
posted by koeselitz at 1:43 PM on September 17, 2015

...if I raise my hands I can't play, no matter whether I enjoy it or not.

...okay, okay, I'll have another drink...
posted by Namlit at 1:49 PM on September 17, 2015

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