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Do Key Signatures Really Sound Different?

Key Signature Emojis
Key Signature Emojis

The idea that certain keys can be associated with certain moods or feelings has long been debated in music. Some composers, such as Scriabin, have even come to hear keys in terms of colour, a phenomenon known as ‘synaesthesia.’ Others have been skeptical, pointing out that since the advent of modern tuning (i.e. 'equal temperament') all keys have effectively been the same. Whether we experience this phenomena ourselves or not, however, knowing how composers thought about keys can helps us better understand the works that they wrote.

Christian Schubart

One of the most influential theorists on the moods of keys was Christian Schubart, who in his ‘Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst’ of 1806 summarised every key in terms of their musical quality.

Some of his descriptions are remarkably specific. C major is 'Completely Pure'. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naïvety, children's talk.’ This one, at least, seems instinctively correct. C major is the key we start to learn in—it contains no pesky black notes.

Eb minor (or D# minor, they are the same), by contrast is a bleak affair, containing ‘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 D# minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key.’

If these explanations seem far-fetched they do start to make some sense when we consider composers’ use of these keys.

C Major

Going back to Schubart’s description, consider a handful of pieces in C major. Bach’s Prelude No.1 from the 48 Preludes and Fugues, book 1, for example is a model of beautiful, childlike simplicity:

So too is Mozart’s lovely Piano Sonata, K545M

Other works share a certain solidity, a certainty and simplicity that seems somehow to exemplify the key of C. These include Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 and Symphony 5, in the latter case the darkness of C minor giving way to the light of C major in the final movement. The idea of C major as ‘light’ is also exactly represented in Haydn’s ‘Creation’, where a dissonant representation of chaos, is cast aside by blaring C major at the words ‘And there was light’:

Eb Minor/D# Minor

In terms of Schubart’s descriptions, the Eb minor key is about as far away from C major as it is possible to get. It’s also a pretty fiendish, having either six flats or sharps in the key signature.

Works in this key do seem to exemplify some of the qualities of bleakness that Schubart identifies. Take for example. Scriabin’s yearning, almost despairing Etude Op.8, No.12:

Or Rachmaninov’s spectral Prelude Op.23, No. 9:

The question, however, is whether the key is responsible for the atmosphere or whether it is simply the composer’s choice of notes. Some would say that the piece would sound just the same, for example in D minor....

D Minor

D Minor is actually a pretty interesting key. It is an especially common choice for composers writing Requiem Masses, a piece of music originally intended to be performed at a funeral. The most famous example is Mozart’s Requiem, K.626, which he left finished at his death. It is a work of great power and drama. Here is his depiction of judgement day, in the Dies Irae:

Other examples, however, tend to emphasize the more melancholy side to the key, including that by Faure:

and Durufflé:

If none of these pieces seem quite to match Schubart’s description of D minor—‘Melancholy womanliness, the spleen and humours brood'—it is also worth remembering that plenty of other composers, including Berlioz and Verdi, were quite happy to write Requiems in different keys.

Take the Test

Here are some more examples on Schubart’s key wheel, with some example of works that seem to fit that description and a few that don’t. Can you spot the difference? Alternatively you can go to our Key Signature page where you can browse sheet music on 8notes helpfully sorted according to the key it's written in.

D Major

‘The key of triumph, of Hallelujahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key.’

Handel ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus:

Bach - Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050:

Elgar Symphony No. 1, Third Movement:

Eb Major

‘The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.’

Beethoven Eroica Symphony, First Movement:

Mozart Horn Concerto No.4, K.495, 3rd Movement:

Mozart Symphony No. 39, 1st Moment (after the introduction):

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.’

Bach, Christmas Oratorio ‘Pastoral Symphony’:

Claude Debussy - Piano Trio in G Major:

Mozart Eine Kleine Nachtmusik:

G Minor

‘Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike.’

Verdi Requiem, Dies Irae:

Mozart Symphony No, 40, First Movement:

Chopin - Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op.23:

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