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I'm VERY new to music theory, just learning. I'm reading about keys and scales right now. From what I understand major keys are all the same except for being shifted by one or more semitones (e.g. C major is the same as D major, but shifted up by two semitones). Likewise for minor keys (e.g. A minor is the same as B minor, only shifted by two semitones; I know about variations on minor keys, like melodic vs natural vs harmonic).

Is this correct? If so, what is the point? Does a composition written in C major sound emotionally different from a composition written in D major (other than a slight shift in pitch)? I understand for songs which switch keys (this is called key modulation, right?), but I'm talking about songs which maintain the key throughout. Maybe some keys are particularly easy or hard depending what instrument you are playing?

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After playing a few different melodies in C/Am I got a constant nagging feeling that "all music is the same"; I guess composers got that too... –  anatolyg Feb 5 at 23:09
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I voted it up because it has always slightly bugged me. When composers talk of the colour of a key or the mood I'm left wondering if this is cultural (i.e. over the years composers in generation after generation associate a key with a mood) or is it something about the notes themselves. Sometimes such discussions bring up equal temperament, but even before equal temperament keys would have an isomorphism between them (albeit involving retuning) –  dumbledad Feb 6 at 15:09
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It's an interesting question. This you might find interesting: biteyourownelbow.com/keychar.htm . Also, if you want to get esoteric, give some thought to the idea of resonance, along with the concepts of stimulus and response. –  BobRodes Feb 6 at 16:21
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I upvoted this question because it's well-written and has objective answers. SE doesn't expect only questions about advanced topics; basic questions can be good, too. –  Kevin Feb 6 at 18:38
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Different people sing comfortably in different ranges, which affects choice of key. And some instruments play more easily in some keys than others -- and not always C/Am. So depending on whom you're writing for, key can make a difference quite aside from any perceived aesthetic qualities of particular keys. –  Monica Cellio Feb 6 at 22:18

19 Answers 19

up vote 38 down vote accepted

The keys are only identical on equal-tempered instruments, but that's most modern western instruments like pianos. Wind instruments other than the trombone are built to be (mostly) equal tempered [EDIT: I might be simplifying too much here, see David's comment below], but the players can bend pitches somewhat. The trombone, all non-fretted string instruments, and vocalists have more control over small variations and only have to be equal-tempered if they're playing with other instruments that don't have the flexibility.

But that's fairly academic and theoretical. You've hit the nail on the head in your second paragraph. The primary purpose of multiple keys is for modulation within a single piece, but yes, some instruments sound better or are easier to play in some keys more than in others. Any vocalist will have keys that they tend to feel more comfortable and sound better in. As a general rule, orchestral string instruments will sound much bigger and richer in keys like D-Major, A-Major and, to a slightly lesser extent, C-major and G-major. This is because the open-strings of these instruments are Es, As, D, Gs and Cs, and all of these open strings will vibrate sympathetically with the notes that tend to be used the most in those keys. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ab and Eb Major tend to sound a little dull and muddled on those instruments.

Some keys fall under the hands more easily than others on the piano. For instance, non-pianists are often surprised to see that F# and C# Major/minor are relatively common keys for solo literature, but it makes sense because those keys tend to feel nice under the fingers--especially when the thumb can just play the occasional white key while the other fingers stick largely to the black keys.

I'm sure other answers will talk about other important considerations, but that's a sampling.

EDIT: Oh, and I should add that all instruments have a lowest possible note, and most have either a highest possible, or at least a highest standard range of notes. Writing for cello in B-major is often frustrating because, without detuning the instrument, the lowest possible note is a C. Writing for a Bb clarinet (the key of a transposing instrument is a whole other can of worms that is related to, but distinct from, the keys you can have them play in) in Db is perhaps not the best idea since its lowest (sounding) pitch is D natural. Etc.

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Interesting point about the stringed instruments sounding good on D and A. Is that why when you hear an orchestra tuning up, they use an A? So it's easy for the strings to tune? –  loneboat Feb 5 at 23:07
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Yes, violins, violas, cellos and basses all have an open A string, so it's a good choice for tuning. Usually the oboe gives an A (440 Hz specifically for most American orchestras) and the string players make sure their A-strings are in tune with it. They then tune all of their other strings in relation to their As. A is actually not such a useful tuning pitch for the winds, especially the brass, but tradition is tradition... –  Pat Muchmore Feb 5 at 23:17
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"Wind instruments other than the trombone are built to be (mostly) equal tempered." -- wrong. That's basically only true for the principal scale on woodwinds. Since brass instruments make a lot of use of non-octave harmonics, their scales are built around a number of pure intervals. Also their valves don't affect relative pitch independently, so the intervals involving valves are fishy compromises: notes with single-valve action tend to be somewhat flat compared to multiple valve use. There are often "equivalent" fingerings with differing tonality. –  User8773 Feb 6 at 10:39
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The difference comes only once you've tuned the instrument for one key, but play in a different key. If I tune a harpsichord perfectly into just intonation on C, then all other keys will have decidedly different relationships, and a key like F# major will be crazy nonsense by tonal standards. But more important to this particular conversation is the difference between Equal temperament and the various types of Well-Temperament that were used in Bach's day, such as Werckmeister III. In these systems, the keys are purposely tuned into decidedly different characters such that all keys can be used –  Pat Muchmore Feb 6 at 18:37
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Absolutely we do. I love playing a nice big low D on the bottom string and see my D and A strings vibrate almost as much as if I had plucked them. Of course there are circumstances in which we mute strings, but it isn't very common. –  Pat Muchmore Feb 6 at 23:22

As someone who writes music, I have this to add: I usually come up with ideas for songs by improvising on a piano until I come up with a phrase that I really like. Way back when I started improvising, I came up with some ideas in certain keys (mostly based on what was easy for me to play at the time), and over time, the emotions in those songs became associated with those keys for me. As I wrote more songs, these associations became stronger. Today, when I write a really sad song, my first inclination is to write it in E or A minor; an aggressive or threatening song, C or D minor; and a jazzy or upbeat song, in C or F major.

I suspect that other composers end up developing similar associations as a result of the music that they write and analyze themselves. This certainly doesn't mean that there's anything inherently more sad about A minor or aggressive about C minor. It's simply easier for composers to default to what they're used to, and doesn't cause any harm.

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Sometimes I compose for what fits neatly on the staff with minimal ledger lines, and then move it to where it needs to be later. In other words, purely practical for the composition process. (Your answer reminded me of that, which is why you're getting the random comment. :-) ) –  Monica Cellio Feb 6 at 22:20
    
@MonicaCellio: It's not just you; as I understand it, this is exactly the way The Sacred Harp determines what key to write each hymn in, in order to save space on the page. –  Micah Feb 7 at 1:15

Here's a really easy way to think about this question.

Write a song in the key of C. Now transpose that song up by 10 octaves. It's still in the key of C, but does it "emotionally" sound the same? The answer is no (actually you probably won't hear anything except an annoying high pitch whine)

Obviously, the differences are more subtle, but moving a key up by 1 semitone is physically doing the same thing as moving up by 10 octaves. You are increasing the frequency of vibration of sound waves, just on a smaller scale. Therefore, yes, different keys can absolutely have different emotional impacts

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That's reducio ad absurdum. Unless you have a well developed absolute pitch, which most Westerners don't have (nor any other culture without a tonal language), then it's almost impossible to tell the difference between C major and C# major, unless they are played back-to-back. Moving keys up by one semitone is totally different to moving it 10 octaves (which is about the full range of human hearing). –  naught101 Feb 6 at 3:30
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I agree with naught101; I understand the point you're making, but in my original question, I specifically used the example of pitching up or down one or two semitones. To answer with an example of "imagine shifting up by ten octaves" is clearly (and almost willfully) missing the spirit of the original question. –  loneboat Feb 6 at 3:50
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That said, thanks for posting your answer! Even though you've been downvoted, this is more or less the kind of answer we want to get on Music.SE: clear, well-written, and easy to understand. It just so happens that we disagree with you, and even the best, most experienced users on this site occasionally get downvoted. I hope you stick around and post more here! –  Kevin Feb 6 at 4:12
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But it's a well known trick in pop songs to shift up a semitone, tone or even more to give more energy to the final chorus. Lifting into the new key, although it's not far away, encourages the singer to put more in to the piece. –  Iain Hallam Feb 6 at 12:18
    
@IainHallam they also often change in the dominant, shifting it up a fifth. There are some pretty common modulations out there.... –  Matthaeus Feb 8 at 14:20

I music thoery, you're probably right - for westen music it's the same scale just shunted up and down a given interval. All the maths still works so .. why ?

However when you come to play it, that's when it becomes more apparent. Like this :

  • On a keyboard, the key makes a difference to the fingering of the chords/melody.

  • On a Guitar, some keys are excellent to play in as they give you the advantage of open strings. Guitarists tend to write tunes based on this - eg Hendrix's Voodoo chile relies heavily on an open E string. You could play it in other keys but it wouldn't sound the same. Other keys are more difficult like Eb - you can't use many open strings and you're one semitone below the lowest (traditional) guitar note, so you can't get a deep mellow note/sound so easily.

  • Vocalists have a comfortable key, and there's a big difference between men and women in this respect. Having jammed with lots of people, men singing songs originally by women generally need it transposed down by a few semitones or more, and the opposite applies.

  • Some keys resonate more with us, because as humans we have a natural resonant frequency (different for everyone), but there is a notion that lower frequencies affect certain areas of the body, higher frequencies others ("feel it in your chest" vs. "piercing"). Glastonbury is full of books about how music affects the different body areas. I wish I could find it now but can't seem to - I found a website which played a piece of piano music, first in C and then in D as a comparison. Although otherwise identical, the D key sounded more uplifing (as was the argument of the site). This is probably very subjective but in this case the comments underneath the post confirmed it.

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Oh, really interesting point about the resonances in our bodies and environments! Thanks! –  loneboat Feb 6 at 15:46

Key names are really just a way of defining standard tones for typical equal tempered instruments. Sometimes when I composed on guitar, I simply choose a key based on how easily I can play a movement in that key. I've heard of one artist trying to relate the spectrum of sound to the spectrum of light, referencing sound to colors. As "Mozart" stated, pitch alters emotion. If you traverse into atonal, typically higher pitches sound more "tense" and the lower pitches more relaxed, you can easily experiment with this using the whole-tone scale, which is basically how most music was composed for cartoons and some popular shows(star trek) namely scifi.

The way I like to see things is C3 and C4 are not the same sound, they are the same KEY however. Looking at the spectrum you'll notice, C3(~130Hz) is half that of C4(~260Hz) and C5 is double that of C4. When alot of composers look at music, they only see 2 dimensions in the circle of 5ths, however when I look the circle of 5ths I see more of a spiral of 5ths where the same note of a higher or lower octave intersects with its counterpart(octave) along the 3rd dimension rather than completing a circle.

Pitch matters, and its often a lost concept in diatonic theory because diatonic theory really explain anything about pitch. It rather explains the arrangement of notes and how they relate in a series(melody) or in an instance(harmony) based on the intersection of the kelps and troughs of given waves, and the combine wave's frequency of modulation. However, if you look into atonal theory/s you'll find some light on the subject, and if you're daring enough to look into "The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization" to better explain how keys differ and why notes aren't necessarily symmetrical within diatonic theory.

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Welcome to Music.StackExchange! –  Kevin Feb 6 at 5:07

I once had to arrange and record an album for a (rather unschooled) artist who wrote her own songs, and they were all in C. After two or three songs in the same key, the remaining songs lose much of their potency because the ear gets bored. By the fifth song, you just don't want to hear any more. (At least I don't!)

It took some doing, but I convinced her to transpose a few. I was careful to select songs that would actually benefit from transposition by placing her voice in a more effective register.

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Obligatory Spinal Tap quote: "D minor is the saddest of all keys". I used to have a quote from Frank Zappa from the early 70s in which he said something like "you have to like D minor a lot to play in our band".

But seriously ... I often write songs in easy keys to play on the guitar or keyboard such as E minor or A minor, but when I record them, I transpose them according to the lowest and highest pitches that I can sing. Also, chord positions on a guitar very much influence the key of writing: there are certain very nice sounding chords on a guitar which are easy to play (such as E7/9) which sound good in certain keys (D major) and bad in other keys (C major).

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In music with vocals, the key is often chosen to adjust to the vocal range of the performer. I used to play in a band with a female lead singer. Whenever we played covers of songs that were originally sung by a male performer, it was often to low for her. Pitching up the vocal melody by one octave would then often be too high, so we would transpose the song up by a few semitones until she felt she could sing it comfortably within her own vocal range.

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Let's come at the question a little differently. What purpose does a key signature serve?

Generally speaking -- very generally and simply speaking -- as humans we expect songs to have movement, expressed via tension and resolution. Even people who are musically uninclined or self-describe as 'tone-deaf' are typically left hanging when one plays a scale from the tonic to the leading tone and then refuses to play the octave (do re mi fa so la ti..............???)

If I establish a certain tonality or key around whatever root note I choose for the day, and I play a V7 chord, most listeners will expect the song to eventually (and relatively quickly) come back to the I chord. The full cadence V7 -> I is the driving force behind a lot of Western music - so much so, that it compels players to use it to step outside the key for the sake of that movement to show up for other chord changes.

Consider a 12-bar blues that makes use of a series of b7 chords. If we adhere to Mrs. Oldface's music theory class from high school, upon seeing a dominant-seventh chord this should be a giant flag that one is in a key that's a perfect fourth higher than the root of the chord (or ah, a perfect fifth down, I guess, depending on how you're feeling). But when we're in C, for example, and we use the C7 to 'predict' the IV -- F -- only to return to the I and then move to the real V, being G -- all of a sudden we're off in nonsense land as far as Granny Oldface is concerned. That dominant-seventh interval has no business in a half cadence -- but of course, a C7 -> F progression is totally normal, if we're in F major. In other words, if sticking to the idea that one key should rule them all, the only time the music theory sticklers of the world will 'let you get away with that' is when you're moving from the V to the I.

So, did the song modulate to F for 4 bars? Is that a useful approach to playing, arranging, or improvising over the 12-bar blues example? Or instead, did the composer/band/whomever simply capitalize on the notion that any chord with a tritone in it can be used to 'pull' the listener's ear from where the song is now, to where the song is going?

Now tritones invite a lot of tangential discussions about other ideas like chord substitution and that (the tension of the B-F interval will resolve to C as easily as it does to F#) and I don't want to just range all over the place. But if we're wondering why one key is no better or worse than all keys, consider for a second that key signatures are as easily discarded as they are adhered to, without inducing cacophony in the process.

This doesn't explain why every song isn't in C, since this could all just be happening in C and we could just be telling people to shove off whenever we play a Bb in a song relative to C major. But it illustrates in a roundabout way that implying a strict tonality of "X Major" and its relative minor is practically a rule that's made to be broken, precisely because that V7 -> I tension and resolution is a powerful method of informing the listener to your next move and as such, to only apply it to G7 -> C for all of eternity would be unfortunate.

So it isn't terribly hard to imagine, even if it is just somewhat hyperbole at this point, that in an imaginary world of 12 tones but only 1 key, that a player somewhere might realize the potency of that tritone resolution and say to themselves, "Hunh. I can use a I7 to signal a move to the IV chord, I wonder... I wonder where else I can go..."

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What an interesting question!

The primary reason is, as has been mentioned many times, composers want to modulate into other keys. A piece can get awfully boring if it is all in C Major. For example, it is very common for a piece in C Major to modulate into G Major (the dominant), F Major (the subdominant), or A minor (the relative minor), since these keys are all closely related to the original.

However, there are other reasons. A couple hundred years ago, certain keys were thought to have various significance (sometimes conflicting). For example, C Major was "pure" or the "key of life". And I have to confess that as a composer, I tend to associate different emotions with different keys, although I'm sure this is largely just my imagination. I think of E Major as being very sprightly and joyous, even silly at times; E minor as being mischievous; C Major as being innocent and celebratory; Bb minor as being very dark, menacing or brooding; and so forth.

Thirdly, there are certain keys that are more often used for certain types of music. This is probably due to the instruments that typically play that type of music. A lot of popular music is written in E, A, D, B or occasionally G because those are the easiest keys for guitarists to play in with standard E tuning without a capo. A lot of cello music is written in C, G, or D because it is easier to play chords with open strings in them, and the strings on a cello are pitched at C, G, D and A. Many marches and other types of military music are in Eb and Bb Major, because they use lots of brass instruments. Trumpets and tubas typically have an open pitch of Bb with no valves pressed, so it is a little easier to play in that key. (Actually, trumpets in C are also very common these days.) However, you'll find that marches and trumpet music from 200-300 years ago were often written in D Major. That's because the trumpet in D was very common, and it had no valves at that point, so it could only play the D harmonic sequence.

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Another, more humorous example: with all of the above being said, it might come as no surprise that many a western pop tune was actually written in the same key, and apparently uses four different chords only, cf. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOlDewpCfZQ. Some might this boring or appalling that this is the case.

But there are numerous musical cultures on earth besides the western one, and those do have different concepts of tonality, and as such, for listeners and artists, will provide very different experiences and such. In addition to what was said in the other answers these might provide you with lots of "point[s] of keys other than C and Am".

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There are also certianl connentations to different keys - and different composers like to writing in different ones. Brahms, for example, loved keys with a lot of sharps or flats (C sharp, or G flat). Some composers have used this to great effect, Sibelius' 7th symphony - in C major - is an ironic choice, seeming simplicity disguises a great wealth of complexity.

The point about ranges of instruments is well made - and especially important when writing songs, as the range of different voices can make different keys particularily easy or hard to sing. Writing in the extreme ranges of instruments and voices can be thrilling and tense, and picking the correct key can help this along.

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Does a composition written in C major sound emotionally different from a composition written in D major (other than a slight shift in pitch)? On any real instrument made of real physical stuff like wood and metal and strings, yes it absolutely does.

Any real physical instrument will have a whole bunch of subtle and not-so-subtle resonances at more-or-less fixed pitches that depend very little on its tuning, and these will interact with the harmonics of the notes being played in ways that make each note's timbre perceptibly pitch-dependent. This is why a good electronic piano based on carefully simulated vibrational physics sounds like a piano, while a shitty one based on pitch-bent samples from a real piano sounds kind of weird and warped and awful.

Similar effects occur for similar reasons when you take into account the resonances in the listener's own body and ears and auditory brain, too. We're not all fitted with perfect Bruel & Kjaer reference microphones, and these differences make differences.

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A little tangential, maybe, but an idea, to try to answer the question. Try singing a well-known first line from a song. Record it, and check its key against known pitch. Note it (sic).Repeat daily, with no reference to other musical sounds. Note each key. Bet it's not the same each time ! Try again, after hearing another tune. Bet you sing in the same key as the last tune !

Most people, even singers, will not pitch a song they can sing in the same key each time, unless- a. they have a reference point, or b. they have absolute pitch.Apart from all this, not many people could play/sing a particular tune only in Cmaj. or Amin. for all the reasons quoted above.

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Pianos and (other instruments) are not "perfectly" tuned. Starting with one note (say middle C) you can find the frequency for an octave higher by doubling the frequency. You can find the frequencies of the other notes in the scale by further calculations.

But the point is that if you then start on another note and try to construct the scale (starting on that root note) then the positions/frequencies of the other notes in the scale will be slightly different compared to the frequency values you calculated for the C major scale.

If you constructed a piano on these principles that was perfectly tuned for C major (using Just Tuning) it would sound a bit "off" playing scales in other keys.

The modern tuning of pianos (and other instruments) is based on a compromise that makes all keys sound reasonable - but there are microscopic differences in the the intervals for the different keys - resulting in slightly different "feel" for each key.

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See 'Natural vs. tempered semitones' answer by Wheat. –  Tim Feb 7 at 12:26

Using the white notes you can play a C major scale, an A natural-minor scale and all the other white-note modes too. Granted, there are lots of tunes can be played on and harmonized just using just the white notes.

But there's also a whole load of tunes that can't be played just on white notes no matter how you transpose them.

So yes, you do need more than C major and A minor.

I think music theory books can give the impression that all there is is Major Scales and Minor Scales, forgetting that there's lots besides - diminished scales, chromatic, whole tone, modal scales, etc, etc.

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The key is one thing, then you have different scales. Certain genres of music are played in particular scales. You can play blues in A minor, D minor or whatever key you want but it will not sound like blues if you don't follow a certain scale. For example, you have diatonic blues harps available in various keys and chromatic harps that allows you to play in any keys and scales you want. The first is usually used in blues music, the second is more for classical music.

That's my point of view, and own experience... but music in C major sounds like lullabies for kids or kid songs, A minor sounds a bit mellow, D minor sounds kind of sad, C minor sounds a bit more cheerful to me for example. If you only play on the black keys, it sounds like asian music.

Besides, if music was only limited to 2 keys... it would lose all its creativity. After a while, everything would sound the same.

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I would like to suggest that there are three sources of this so-called "key symbolism":

  1. The actual differences in pitch, e.g. take the rich D-flat major triad that ends a Romantic piano piece such as Chopin's "Fantaisie-Impromptu" and transpose it up or down a major third, noting how "muddy" it is in A and how "shallow" it is in F.

  2. Conventions and associations in the mind of the composer, often stemming from key preferences of particular instruments, e.g.: C major suggests children learning to play the piano, D major is the Hallelujah chorus, E-flat major is a marching band, etc.

  3. The relationship of the sound to the printed note. I haven't heard it before, but it seems plausible that while listening to a musical performance while watching the score, some people might pick up on the way that in E major many of the notes "leap" out of our expectations for that line or space on the staff, and conversely in E-flat major many notes are "depressed" downward from expected pitch.

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I'm cleaning this up to be a summary of what I really think, having thought about it, played around on my keyboard, etc.; the basic message is the same.

  • Keys that have single-letter names like "A" and "D" and sharps in their key signatures sound bright, optimistic, etc.

  • Keys that have flats in their key signatures sound dull, nostalgic, dim, etc.; these keys include F and all the keys with flats in their name (Bb, Eb, etc.)

  • The keys with names like Bb, Eb, etc. have sharp names, too (A#, D#, etc.), but this doesn't change the fact that the key, by any name, basically has a flat sound. This is why the flat key names are traditionally used, e.g. music students learn Bb early on, with A# encountered later, if at all.

I believe this is probably explicable in terms of the average frequency of all the notes played in a typical song in the key, if you remove octave differences (e.g. all As become 440hz).

There is a Microsoft commercial on TV right now that exemplifies this. It takes the song "Perfect Day" by Lou Reed and transposes it from A Minor/ C Major to F. The result is just ridiculously flat... I knew the minute I heard it that the song had been transposed into a flat key. It surprises me that anyone would argue this.

Edit: I was listening to some music and heard another one that's in a really flat key: "Weak" by SWV. This is in Eb Major (C Minor). As soon as I heard it I could hear the flatness, so I Googled it.

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So, just to be clear, do you think you can hear the difference between F# major with six sharps, and Gb major with six flats? –  Pat Muchmore Feb 6 at 20:13
    
Pat, aren't you talking about the same key there? I never claimed to be able to hear differences where they don't exist. What I'm saying is that if you take a song that's usually in, say, A Major and put it in, say, E-flat Major, I will perceive a change in the feel of the song. I'm also making the claim that these changes are at least somewhat predictable. This is unscientific, but also more accurate than the answers being given, which really seem to be (wrongly) confirming the "null hypothesis" from the original question, i.e. that having different keys is somewhat pointless. –  user1172763 Feb 6 at 20:32
    
I'm trying to understand your claim that keys with lots of sharps sound different than keys with lots of flats. You said we hear sharps as sharp and flats as flat. If that's true, then shouldn't Gb and F# keys sound different? Since you agree with me that that would be ridiculous, then maybe you should word it differently? –  Pat Muchmore Feb 6 at 22:56
    
Re-worded it... curious to read your thoughts! –  user1172763 Feb 7 at 1:15
    
OK, so first off, when you're talking about a song you know in one key being played in a different key, you're talking about a relative phenomenon, and no one here is claiming that hearing one key instead of another or moving from one key to another has no effect. The question is about creating a piece in A Major vs. creating a piece in Bb. You say the Lou Reed song was originally in "A Major/C minor" but now sounds flat to you in F Major, but c minor actually has 3 flats as opposed to F Major's 1, so I'm not sure why F Maj sounds flatter to you than C min (or why you're comparing min to maj) –  Pat Muchmore Feb 7 at 4:00

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