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My music teacher always rambles on about b flat minor, endlessly repeating how it is the key of death and is therefore used in movies for death scenes. Alright, I understand that it is minor, no problem. I get that it has the most flats of all the roots, simple. How can it be though, in essence, more minor than another scale???

A Bb minor scale and an Eb minor scale have the same relative intervals so why is there a difference? Is this way over my head? Have I missed some key music theory? Please can someone explain???

Argh!!! Music!!! Why didn't I just learn drums!?

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Because the minor shape has the semitones in the same place they mostly sound the same and often practical considerations are what sway the choice of key. –  Neil Meyer Nov 17 '13 at 17:00
That's my thought process too yet my music teacher seems to completely disagree. Guess it's not worth the fight... –  Tim Hargreaves Nov 17 '13 at 18:03
side note: drums make music, too. as much as any other instrument. –  SeuMenezes Nov 18 '13 at 1:25
See music.stackexchange.com/questions/12573/… –  slim Nov 19 '13 at 11:33

6 Answers 6

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Music has nearly infinite potential for subtlety, and yes, drums might seem more simple on the surface, but after a few years in music school you'll be tuning drum heads every time you sit down at a snare drum, have a mallet collection that weighs 30 pounds, and enjoy discussing the relative merits of different origin rosewood on your marimba.

Most people have some sense of absolute pitch, even if it's just a subconscious association of things in the key of Bb minor with other things in the key of Bb minor. And yes, in a perfect equal temperament world (i.e. electronic music) every transposition is functionally the same as any other. However, different instruments respond differently in different keys, both as a consequence of their construction (open strings) and despite centuries of work to make timbre as consistent as possible.

However, I think the most compelling argument is the least subtle of all the above, and that is that up until the mid-18th century, classical keyboard music was not played in equal temperament! It was played in well temperament, which, like equal temperament permitted music to be played in all keys, but did not completely equalize every interval, so that every key did have a distinct (and distinguishable) "flavor".

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Also like to add here that Just Intonation was also used. Irrespective of that, since the OP's music teacher isn't several hundred years old, influence of previous tuning systems is negligible and can be discounted. I also sincerely disagree with the statement about instrument design, which has categorically improved since the 18th century. –  jjmusicnotes Nov 17 '13 at 22:01
@jjmusicnotes OP's music teacher may never have heard well temperament, but he's familiar with music that was written with well temperament in mind. My point is that this heritage has informed compositional style for everything since then. I will reword my note about instrument design, but I will also present this as evidence to my point. –  NReilingh Nov 18 '13 at 2:16
yes, that may be true, but your answer doesn't offer explanation for the association between Bb minor and the key being "associated" with death. –  jjmusicnotes Nov 18 '13 at 14:10
I'll accept that; I only have enough evidence to make a plausible argument that associations can exist, not that specific ones do. (Though playing WTC on a well-tempered keyboard is on my to-do list!) –  NReilingh Nov 18 '13 at 16:12
Excellent and correct answer! –  MrTheBard Jul 25 '14 at 15:37

Your teacher is referring to the Doctrine of Ethos which was for the Greeks, a belief that listening to a certain type of music influenced your mood or character as a person. Throughout the centuries, this belief has taken various forms - from the key of Eb used in marches for nobility, D major being joyous, C minor being introspective, D minor being "the saddest of all keys" (Spinaltap) and many others.

It has also been diluted into the two basic tenants of how people generally perceive harmony - happy / major, sad / minor.

So, when your teacher belabors how awful Bb minor is, they are referring to the ethos attached to that key, not the specific ordering of semitones or the arrangement of the scale. Not all scales or pitches are created equal (as much as Schoenberg et al. might have tried!)

This is another reason why some pieces, when arranged in a key other than their normative one, sound wrong. Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" sounds unbearable in any other key but C# minor, and this fact is attached to ethos as well.

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Moonlight Sonata sounds unbearable in any other key but C# minor? Fact?? –  charlieparker Nov 18 '13 at 2:46
@charlieparker - there is humor here. It is obviously subjective, but if you've ever played the piece in a different key, you'll notice that it sounds and feels quite different. –  jjmusicnotes Nov 18 '13 at 3:11
+1 for elevating SpinalTap to the same level as the other "serious" music. –  the Tin Man Nov 18 '13 at 3:12
Thank you for "Doctrine of Ethos" something I wish to learn more about now, +1 for that. –  filzilla Nov 19 '13 at 20:20

A key's color, quality and difficulty are largely instrument dependent. For example, Bb minor rarely involves open strings on the stringed instruments and has fewer natural harmonic possibilities than, say, A minor. This leads to a "darker" sound on strings.

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I wouldn't say "darker" but perhaps not as resonant, or more muted sounding. Some would even say stuffy, as none of the notes in Bb minor really resonate with the instrument naturally. –  jjmusicnotes Nov 17 '13 at 22:04

Bb is the natural scale starter for brass combos, so Bb minor is a natural for funeral marches. Brass instruments are decidedly not equally tempered, so different minors have different characters.

If you are playing a natural trumpet (valveless), and that's sort of the instrument type that was quite a bit around when the key associations were established, then a minor third is sort of an awkward interval to play. The interval is supposed to be 6:5, but in the overtone series you instead have to revert to something like 19:16 which is 18 cents flat.

So that gives you a somewhat exaggeratingly depressed minor scale when played with valveless trumpets. While the valves on modern instruments offer more possibilities for getting the intonation closer to equal temperament, all of the possibilities still are tinged, with the instrument better-suited to the Bb major scale.

So even nowadays, not every scale is equal. But the "ideology" around various scales developed way before modern instruments, with the scales (both major and minor) starting flat from C being mostly natural to brass and some other wind instruments, and the sharper keys being served better by string instruments (also remember that in Renaissance and before, even many bowed string instruments had frets and thus were somewhat fixed in the scales the tuning got optimized for).

A modern piano, and to some degree modern orchestras are not really making different scales sound all that much different in character. But the traditional associations are not completely arbitrary but founded in the instrumentation available and its characteristics in different keys.

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I compose in B-flat minor for some time now.. And you can easily do a positive melody in this key. For me this scale has deep feelings and definitely lot of hope in it. So i believe it can be used for death in movies (to awake feelings), but kinda the way -everything is gonna turn around, not everything is lost.

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Bb minor in my experience is as minor as C minor is and F minor is the saddest key of all with only forte, and octave changing the feeling.

If I were to attribute different keys to different parts of life I would have it like this:

C major, F major, G major: everyday things like going to work or school

D minor: Mild sadness in someone

G minor: someone who is very sad but still quiet

C minor, slow: illness

C minor, loud: anger

F minor: peaceful death

Bb minor: Dramatic death

Bb major, Eb major, Eb minor, Ab major: sleeping

G minor, loud: Birth

Ab minor, Db major, D major: happy baby

A major, E major, B major, all low: mild concern about the baby(like "will my baby get viral pneumonia from the cold he currently has?")

C minor, G minor, D minor, F minor, all low: very concerned about the baby(like "How will my baby be able to breathe with this congenital heart problem he has?")

I have played all these keys on the piano with just the cadence and with other chords(like C minor with C major) and majors tend to be happy and peaceful and a little mysterious in low octaves and C minor and Bb minor tend to feel happy when fast, sad when slow, angry when loud, peaceful when in high octaves, and myterious in low octaves. Bb minor tends to be on the more dramatic side of this.

Since death can be dramatic and sudden(and often is in movies) and Bb minor is often dramatic, it makes sense that Bb minor is the so called "key of death".

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Could you please explain why you have these associations for the keys? Or is this your personal opinion? –  Bradd Szonye Jan 12 at 21:42
Because in my experience C minor slow is sad, C minor loud is angry, C minor low is mysterious(which can be attributed to concern), G minor loud has joyful components like C major and sad components like C minor, Bb minor is very versatile and dramatic, just like C minor. F minor is not very versatile but can be peaceful. C, F, and G are peaceful and joyful at moderate tempos. Bb, Eb, Ebm, and Ab are very peaceful and D minor is a little sad when slow but not as sad as C minor. D major, Db major, and Ab minor are also very peaceful and happy keys. –  caters Jan 12 at 23:04
Please edit relevant information into your answer; don’t just post it in comments. But more importantly, you might want to focus more on the subject of the question (B♭ minor and death) and you should offer more evidence backing up your experience, instead of just offering your personal conclusion. –  Bradd Szonye Jan 13 at 3:11
@BraddSzonye: is it possible however, that different minor keys relative to the tonic (eg. iv minor, i minor, v minor of natural minor scale) convey different nuances? Which means that Bb minor in an Eb minor key conveys the same nuance as a C minor chord in an F minor key, as they are both v minor.... but this Bb minor chord will produce a different mood if used in an F minor key, because it is now a iv minor chord? –  mey Jan 29 at 2:29
@mey I'm not sure what you mean. Keys are not relative to tonic. Perhaps you meant chords, but that is not what the question is about. Also, comments are not for followup questions and discussion; if you have a related question please post it as a question. –  Bradd Szonye Jan 29 at 8:20

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