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The Trombone ForumCreation and PerformanceMusical Miscellany(Moderators: JP, BGuttman) composing in various keys - emotional effects?
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Mahlerbone

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« on: Apr 13, 2006, 02:33PM »

Do composers have reasons for composing in various keys?  Do they experience different emotional and psychological effects?  For example, why did Beethoven compose his "Moonlight" Sonata in C#, and his 7th Symphony in A major?  And why is Mahler's 6th Symphony in A minor, and Shostakovich's "Festive Overture" in Ab?

I was reading some other forum, and this kid asked why all music isn't composed in C major, because C major is the "easiest" (no accidentals).  But it got me thinking.  Obviously, music would be very dull if all of it was in the same key.  

Also, I once read something where an expert on perfect pitch said that he felt that Eb major was mellow and relaxing, yet Gb major felt uncomfortable.  That's interesting, because I have perfect pitch, and I feel the same way.
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« Reply #1 on: Apr 13, 2006, 02:43PM »

Well, the emotional aspect is open discussion.

Certainly, different keys sound different.  I don't have perfect pitch, but if I take something I am familiar with and transpose it to a different key, it sounds much different, to my ears.

I write things in whatever key sounds the best to me.  And usually, when I'm hearing something in my head, it ends up being quite key specific, even though I don't have the perfect pitch to tell me what that key is.  That I only find out when I sit down at the horn, the piano, or Finale.
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« Reply #2 on: Apr 13, 2006, 02:45PM »

Quote from: "Mahlerbone"
Eb major was mellow and relaxing, yet Gb major felt uncomfortable.


Of course Gb is uncomfortable.  5th position!!!

I don't buy that one key is aurally different from any other, at least in an idealized world.  Would Gb-high pitch still feel uncomfortable?  I think that any difference we perceive has to do with instrument construction and pedagogy.  Gb is harder on most brass instruments because of the less-used slide positions (and with the valvers, more notes require valve combinations, which affect the pitch or timbre). Other keys probably have similar effects on the string or WW instruments.

Vocalists... I dunno.
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« Reply #3 on: Apr 13, 2006, 02:46PM »

Interesting question.

There are effects of how the music in different keys fits in the range of instruments, and how comfortable they are to play.  In equal temperament, I think there isn't much absolute difference.  Much music was written for various unequal temperament tunings, which did have rather significant characters for the various keys.

I do think that some people (e.g. Mahlerbone!) have different sensations for the different keys; Schubert, I think, had colors.

If you're going to compare, it's not enough to play the same music in two keys, because then you get effects of range differences.  You have to play two pieces with roughly the same absolute range and roughly the same musical character, but in two different keys.
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« Reply #4 on: Apr 13, 2006, 02:51PM »

Quote from: "This Is Spinal Tap"
Marty DiBergi: It's very pretty.
Nigel Tufnel: Yeah, I've been fooling around with it for a few months.
Marty DiBergi: It's a bit of a departure from what you normally play.
Nigel Tufnel: It's part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I'm working on in D minor which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don't know why.
Marty DiBergi: It's very nice.
Nigel Tufnel: 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. It's sort of...
Marty DiBergi: What do you call this?
Nigel Tufnel: Well, this piece is called "Lick My Love Pump".

Practically speaking, I think keys can be a function of range (where a high or low note of the piece sits) and contrast (ending up in key of G# because of it's relationship to an initial key of E, let's say). Creatively, there are other reasons and theories. Most people are in agreement that D minor is the saddest of all keys, though.
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« Reply #5 on: Apr 13, 2006, 06:27PM »

yes... see this string? i play this string alot...

love that spinal tap...

but seriously... look into the composer SCRIABIN... some fine theories about keys and colours and moods and light...

justin
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prototypedenNIS
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« Reply #6 on: Apr 13, 2006, 07:39PM »

Emotiuonal attachment to keys and pitch is only a cultural artefact conjured by our perceptions of music, prevously defined by what we've heard.

This is only caused by how we introduce music to humans.  One can be trained to like tritones, for example.
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« Reply #7 on: Apr 13, 2006, 07:50PM »

Ah yes... Spinal tap.

"D Minor is the saddest Key"
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« Reply #8 on: Apr 14, 2006, 04:40PM »

In the past month I've heard 2 people refer to F as the Key of Love.
I never heard that before - in 28 years.
Has anyone else?
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« Reply #9 on: Apr 14, 2006, 07:35PM »

Interesting trivia: The "ohm" used in Indian meditation should be based on C# (not Db (they are different). C# has a certain resonance in the nervous system that is very relaxing yet clearing.

Ever play a pitch on trombone and notice something resonant in your room like a music stand or other metallic object?

Ever use an electric toothbrush and notice it gets instantly louder when you put it to your teeth?

Your head is a resonance chamber, it resonates to certain pitches better. A reason why chromatic fundamentals sound muddy: your head to resonating to very very very close harmonics. You might be hearing the entire chromatic scale at extremely high frequencies (8,000 khz+) over the length of four chromatic fundamentals.

There have been studies about music and resonances in the body. Mozart wrote in d minor a lot because he worked extremely in it and it always seemed to have a profound working on the listener's ears.

Recommended Read: Superlearning 2000. There's a couple chapters in it about the resonances of pitches in the body.

If being a pro musician never worked out, I would definitely look into something in audio resonance.
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« Reply #10 on: Apr 15, 2006, 01:28PM »

Gosh, I hate it when I kill interesting topics.
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« Reply #11 on: Apr 16, 2006, 04:33PM »

there is a great effect when you compose a piece in B major and put it in front of a high school band...
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« Reply #12 on: Apr 16, 2006, 05:44PM »

Quote from: "prototypedenNIS"
there is a great effect when you compose a piece in B major and put it in front of a high school band...


LOL. Fog horns? Cows? Pigs?

A band director who does that needs to be shot, or...if they're willing to spend a few months on telling each section how many sharps they've missed, good luck.
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« Reply #13 on: Apr 16, 2006, 05:50PM »

Seriously, that's one of the reasons people pick keys: because they can be played easily on the instruments required.
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« Reply #14 on: Apr 16, 2006, 06:52PM »

As I composer, I've noticed you can convey different moods through key based on how you know the musicians will react. There's a segment in one of my pieces that I want to feel very uncomfortable, so I put it in Ab minor. If I want something to feel free and easy, I'll usually put it in F major or Bb major.
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« Reply #15 on: Apr 16, 2006, 07:17PM »

Quote from: "prototypedenNIS"
Emotiuonal attachment to keys and pitch is only a cultural artefact conjured by our perceptions of music, prevously defined by what we've heard.

This is only caused by how we introduce music to humans.  One can be trained to like tritones, for example.

Exactly.  And with most winds pitched around the Bb, C, or Eb scales we become comfortable applying small intonation adjustments to really bring the music into tune (just intonation) in the more common keys.  The only reasons the other keys would sound different are:

a) because the musicians aren't as comfortable tuning up those less common keys, or

b) those keys put the instruments into a stretch part of their range.
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« Reply #16 on: Apr 17, 2006, 10:21AM »

Quote from: "prototypedenNIS"
there is a great effect when you compose a piece in B major and put it in front of a high school band...


There's kids in high school that can solve complicated calculus formulas.  Yet, these same kids can't play a piece of music in B major?   Expectations among us musicians these days are so low.
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« Reply #17 on: Apr 17, 2006, 10:32AM »

Quote from: "BFW"
Seriously, that's one of the reasons people pick keys: because they can be played easily on the instruments required.

Often true when playing trombone with church guitarists ... most of the tunes are in E major. Any Bb parts (trumpet, tenor sax, etc.) end up playing in F# major. Oh yea, and since tunes often spend time in the dominant key, you end up playing a lot of stuff in B major (C# major for the Bb instruments  Eeek!  ) !!!
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« Reply #18 on: Apr 17, 2006, 02:40PM »

Quote from: "Mahlerbone"
Quote from: "prototypedenNIS"
there is a great effect when you compose a piece in B major and put it in front of a high school band...
There's kids in high school that can solve complicated calculus formulas.  Yet, these same kids can't play a piece of music in B major?   Expectations among us musicians these days are so low.


Not everyone in a school band necessarily wants to put that kind of effort in... that's where the problem is.
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« Reply #19 on: Apr 17, 2006, 05:04PM »

I think that B major is one of the prettiest keys to play on trombone. Play a tune in C, play the same tune in Bb, then play it in B. Beautiful tones, especially on bass trombone.
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« Reply #20 on: Apr 17, 2006, 07:06PM »

Quote from: "JP"
I think that B major is one of the prettiest keys to play on trombone. Play a tune in C, play the same tune in Bb, then play it in B. Beautiful tones, especially on bass trombone.


I actually agree with this. Whenever I make up little ditties, they sound best in B Maj. Strange, but it's very true.
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« Reply #21 on: Apr 21, 2006, 08:25AM »

Back when I was singing in a choir, we did a little a capella thing that was in F. We would end up a half step flat all the time, in E, essentially. Before we were out of the first measure, we'd all go flat a half step. So my choir conductor was telling me about a study he read that basically, the majority of people would find a comfortable pitch, which was some combination of E, F#, and A. (I think. I'm pretty sure E and F# are right because of the story related below, but I'm going on memory, so if anybody can find this study, don't crucify me on the details!) Like, the study asked people to sing simple songs, and most people would start in one of those keys that would end up closest to a comfortable range. There were some exceptions, like most people would sing the Star Spangled Banner in Bb regardless.

So we took that song, and without telling us, he pitched it up in E. We sang through, no problem holding the pitch. Played the last chord for us, and we're dead on. (I should point out, I only know this because I was standing next to the piano, and watched him pitch it up.) Next rehearsal, he pitched it up in F#- also no problem, we held the pitch. More people noticed the change, though- like, nobody noticed when we went down a half step, but some noticed when we went up a half step. So the next time we did it, he put it back in F- we were a half step flat before we got through two measures. Settled nicely into E major, and were a half step flat when he played the final chord for us. (I'm pretty sure we sang it in E major from there on out, but the last two happened at the dress rehearsal.)

So I dunno- maybe some keys are more "natural"? I'm not certain it wasn't due to musical socialization; I would think that the band geeks in the crowd would be more comfortable with F than F#, and there were plenty of us. Maybe the orchestral types would be more comfortable in E than F, and there were plenty of them, too. But I would think the choir types should be equally comfortable in E or F, but probably not F#, since it just doesn't crop up much at all.

I was just listening to commentary on Mahler 4- the Benjamin Zander/Philharmonia edition, for those interested. He mentioned something about the key of E major being related to heaven in many works. Maybe it's cultural, but maybe it's got something to do with natural tendancies, too?
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« Reply #22 on: Apr 26, 2006, 10:47AM »

I know for me, there's certain keys I just don't like. C major is one of them.

I do have a certain fondness of D minor and B major. E minor is quickly becoming a new favorite though.

I actually don't like Bb major, the "primary" scale for band instruments. I don't know why, but I guess after playing it in school for all these years, it's gotten monotonous. Ironically, I like G minor.

Long live the Aeolian mode.  Evil
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« Reply #23 on: Apr 27, 2006, 06:01AM »

Quote from: "bickle"

I was just listening to commentary on Mahler 4- the Benjamin Zander/Philharmonia edition, for those interested. He mentioned something about the key of E major being related to heaven in many works. Maybe it's cultural, but maybe it's got something to do with natural tendancies, too?


That's odd. Not too long ago, I listened to my recording of Haydn's Seven Last Words. The accompanying notes mention the keys of most of the movements, along with how Haydn used those same keys throughout his career. He always used E major, according to this author to the best of my recollection, for bleak and cheerless moods.

I suspect that many composers have had very definite ideas of the emotional meaning of the various keys. There may be some kind of rough consensus among composers of the same time and place, but just comparing Mahler's and Haydn's use of E major, it certainly appears that composers of different eras will have very different ideas.
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« Reply #24 on: Apr 27, 2006, 06:37AM »

Something else to remember when talking about this is the huge variation of pitch standards over the years.  

I don't know what Haydn's preferred A was, but Mozart's was 421 Hz.  Closer to our modern day G#.   Handel's was 422 Hz.  And at other times, the standard has been much higher, as high as A = 452 Hz, which approaches our modern A#.  

So when one composer refers to E major as heavenly, and another thinks of it as bleak, it is important to remember that there may be more than a half step difference between the two, depending on time and place.  And I think the sound and timbre of a particular piece in a particular key would be quite different, depending on your standard pitch.

Try playing the Mozart Tuba Mirum in A, or B major, instead of the written Bb and you'll see what I mean.
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« Reply #25 on: Apr 27, 2006, 07:18AM »

Quote
Interesting trivia: The "ohm" used in Indian meditation should be based on C# (not Db (they are different). C# has a certain resonance in the nervous system that is very relaxing yet clearing.-Brian Santero


It's not a biggie, but for such an "astute post" you should have correctly spelled "Om".
Ohm is a measurement of electrical resistance.
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« Reply #26 on: Apr 27, 2006, 07:49AM »

Quote from: "dmguion"
I suspect that many composers have had very definite ideas of the emotional meaning of the various keys. There may be some kind of rough consensus among composers of the same time and place, but just comparing Mahler's and Haydn's use of E major, it certainly appears that composers of different eras will have very different ideas.


It's kind of like trombones. Sometimes we're the voice of god, sometimes, we're the devil, sometimes the gates of heaven, sometimes the bowels of hell....

 Grin

 Don't know

It reminds me of these two professors I had. They had an argument going about some major aspect of polymer chemistry. So we'd go to class in the morning, and the one guy would say, this is how it is. So after lunch, we'd go to the other class, and he'd say something like, my esteemed colleague neglects the work of so and so. Then the next day, the first guy would say, if you were to factor in the work of such and such, you would see that I'm correct. And of course, this argument is going way over the heads of us mere undergrads. Turned out that the TAs were eating lunch together, talking about what was going on in class, and then relaying it to the other professors. It all ended when the two of them got drunk at the department Christmas party and had a slurred yelling match about whatever arcane rule it was that sparked the debate. I wish I had been there, that must have been fun. Darned if I can remember what they were arguing about though.
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« Reply #27 on: Apr 29, 2006, 12:09PM »

First, I can not hear d-minor as the saddest of all keys.

(That could be because lots of Swedish folk-music is played in d-minor.)

I hear C# minor as a beautiful sad key on many minor melodies. More then d-minor, but thats me.

I dont believe that the key in itself have a emotional effect, it depends on the melodic intervals as well.

But I do believe that a certain melody can change character when transposed, if nothing else because the intervals will be higher or lower.

Listen to a major third played like c-e, compare it to f-a, does it sound the same?
Not in my ears. how about F-A? More tension I say. C-E even more tension. If played simultaneous its muddy.

Sometimes singers have bands transpose arrangement to another key then the arranger have written, and some good arrangements that sounds interesting with a good mixture of tension and relaxing gets uninteresting with not much tension, or on the other way muddy and no relaxing.

If the arranger gets a chance to rewrite the arrangement he will probably change the whole arrangement for that reason.

So right, for certain effects of melodic or harmonic interval there is a best key.

Quote
For example, why did Beethoven compose his "Moonlight" Sonata in C#, and his 7th Symphony in A major? And why is Mahler's 6th Symphony in A minor, and Shostakovich's "Festive Overture" in Ab?


The music would certainly sound different in other keys (try it!), and probably not give you the same emotions.
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« Reply #28 on: Apr 29, 2006, 12:34PM »

A lot of this discussion is hinging on the current concept of minor keys being sad.  That is purely a modern affectation.  There is a lot of happy music written in minor keys or in modes that have a minor third in what would be the tonic triad.  There is sad music written in major keys.  Bach and others sometimes used rhythmic devices to indicate mood.

I agree with Sven; range has something to do with how the music sounds.  That's why I would say that a fair comparison of keys would have to maintain approximately the same range and same tessitura in the various keys, rather than comparing the same music in two different keys.  Composers will choose keys to allow use of certain octaves or certain notes in certain instruments (e.g. trombone pedals, open strings on violins), which is mostly a range consideration.

But in a primarily equal-tempered environment, or in one where intonation is done relative to the key of the moment, I'd expect there to be little or no difference between keys, other than range and facility issues.
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« Reply #29 on: May 03, 2006, 08:24AM »

Quote from: "BFW"
A lot of this discussion is hinging on the current concept of minor keys being sad.  That is purely a modern affectation.  There is a lot of happy music written in minor keys or in modes that have a minor third in what would be the tonic triad.  There is sad music written in major keys.  Bach and others sometimes used rhythmic devices to indicate mood.


Can you give an example of happy music written in a minor key?  I can't seem to think of one right now.
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« Reply #30 on: May 03, 2006, 08:27AM »

The first thing that pops to mind is a piece I sang a while back called "Gaudete", which is decidedly minor, but I believe means "Rejoice". It's a Christmas song; Gaudete, Christus est natus.
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« Reply #31 on: May 03, 2006, 09:24AM »

Quote from: "Mahlerbone"
Can you give an example of happy music written in a minor key?  I can't seem to think of one right now.


Bach, quite a few choral selections.  The motif of eighth-sixteenth-sixteenth, repeated, is a "happy rhythm", and was understood that way by the audience of the time.

There are Renaissance modal settings of the same texts (masses, for instance), some of which have a major third and some a minor third over the tonic.  The mode was not changed with the text.

There are quite a few minor key (or minor-ish modal) settings of "Alleluia" in many vocal works.
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