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I just came across this list of key characterizations by Christian Schubart in 1806. I was aware of this phenomenon, and also know that it predated Schubart, e.g. influencing some choices in Handel's "Messiah" (according to concert programs).

My question is: How widespread and influential were these in practice? Did many composers take them seriously? Were they regarded as scientific or more as we might view, say, books on dream interpretation?

From Christian Schubart's Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806) translated by Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. UMI Research Press (1983):

  • C major: Completely pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naivety, children's talk.
  • C minor: Declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key.
  • Db major: A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its crying.—Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key.
  • D major: The key of triumph, of Hallejuahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key.
  • D minor: Melancholy womanliness, the spleen and humours brood.
  • D# minor: Feelings of the anxiety of the soul's deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depresssion, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out of horrible. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key.
  • Eb major: The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.
  • E major: Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major.
  • F major: Complaisance & calm.
  • F minor: Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave.
  • F# major: Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief uttered when hurdles are surmounted; echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered lies in all uses of this key.
  • F# minor: A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language.
  • 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.
  • G minor: Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike.
  • Ab major: Key of the grave. Death, grave, putrefaction, judgment, eternity lie in its radius.
  • Ab minor: Grumbler, heart squeezed until it suffocates; wailing lament, difficult struggle; in a word, the color of this key is everything struggling with difficulty.
  • A major: This key includes declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one's state of affairs; hope of seeing one's beloved again when parting; youthful cheerfulness and trust in God.
  • A minor: Pious womanliness and tenderness of character.
  • Bb major: Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope aspiration for a better world.
  • Bb minor: A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key.
  • B major: Strongly coloured, announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring colors. Anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair and every burden of the heart lies in its sphere.
  • B minor: This is as it were the key of patience, of calm awaiting ones's fate and of submission to divine dispensation.
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  • Judging by the title, it seems like the book cited is devoted to answering this question. – Aaron Nov 10 '20 at 19:41
  • @Aaron Hmm. You're right. Perhaps this should be deleted as question lacking preliminary research. Unless someone would take pleasure in summarizing the history. – Luke Sawczak Nov 10 '20 at 19:45
  • At least: related question and here – guidot Nov 10 '20 at 20:54
  • I really like the question, so plan to leave it alone (unless I can get a hold of the book and provide an answer). If it starts attracting a large number of speculative answers, I would vote to close, though not delete. – Aaron Nov 10 '20 at 20:59
  • Huh, D minor really is the saddest of all keys. – Michael Seifert Nov 11 '20 at 20:03
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In many cases, these key characteristics were the byproduct of various historical tuning systems. Many of these systems were out of date by the time the Romantic era rolled around, and in that sense these characteristics were no longer still the same. Especially with the advent of equal temperament, C major sounds just like B major, only one half step distant.

With that said, we also have to consider the cultural connotations that these keys had. A key like E-flat major no longer in itself sounds "heroic," but there's a clear "heroic" connotation ever since Beethoven used it in the Eroica.

In this sense, these key areas became something of a "topic" in the Romantic era. Topic theory is the idea that particular gestures suggest and imply certain moods or connotations. For instance, horns playing major arpeggios are culturally reminiscent of the hunt or of a royal fanfare, and so these arpeggios can be a hunt or fanfare topic. Similarly, dotted rhythms may indicate a type of riding topic (think, for instance, of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries").

Lastly, I can't imagine that these were viewed in any scientific sense. We see these connections to emotions all throughout the history of music; even the Greeks viewed particular modes as "militaristic," "choleric," "gentle," etc. There may be some research into the psychological reality (or lack thereof) of these key characteristics, but I admit I'm not aware of any of that literature.

In short, I would argue that Romantic composers did consider some of these key characterizations, but not in the same way as some of their predecessors. Whereas these characterizations were largely an outgrowth of tuning inconsistencies, later in music history they were mainly connections to other famous works like the Eroica, Mozart's Requiem, and the like.

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  • Wasn't it the 20th century already before equal temperament was widely used? I thought that much of the romantic period still had tunings that led to different keys sounding different. Having naively made associations between keys and moods similar to the list in question (particularly D major, which even if popular in pop and rock for happy and triumphant music), I have long assumed it is the association with classic works that has made me derive moods from certain keys, but I have also wondered if there's a kind of "perfect pitch" involved, and/or an effect from the ranges of instruments. – Todd Wilcox Nov 11 '20 at 22:29
  • To continue, piano strings have slightly different sounds across the range of the instrument, likewise with other instruments, particularly woodwinds and brass, which have to be lipped into tune for many fingerings. Of course it's just an idea, not even much of a theory, but it seems possible to me that even in the age of 12ET, there could be measurable, audible differences between different keys. Maybe this is something about synthesizers that can be less satisfying: an oscillator (especially a digital one) would not likely have any tonal variance between notes. – Todd Wilcox Nov 11 '20 at 22:32
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There are several arguments against individual keys having particular emotional meanings (called "affects" which leads to the question of effecting an affect...}

One good argument against is that various lists of emotional affects of keys is that different authors had different lists.

Another is that Bach (among others) transposed works freely. The Magnificat appears (same music) in both D major and Eb major (to accommodate Baroque trumpet keys.) One of the 48 was transposed from another work in either C# to Db or something similar.

After the late 1600 or so, much music was "tonal" in the narrow sense of identifying a V-I or V-i pattern as marking an important musical event. This dominant-tonic (and other relationships) seems more important than which key is actually chosen.

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Very seriously, but not as scientifically as some papers and books imply. There was a huge tradition of music ethos and rhetoric, even aroused in 19th century by nationalism and idealism, and there were archetypes for feelings and contexts (as, for example, E-flat being always used in context of royalty, kingship, noble et cetera since early baroque until Wagner). Modulations were also though as changing colors as well, since color-key correspondences were in fashion since 15th century. Also, there was influence drawn from other arts, occultism, philosophy and other fields to establish some connections (as Bach, for example, always characterizes Virgin Mary with dissonant intervals regardless the key, for his views on this subject and questions from lutheran theology).

But none of this is indeed scientific, as we would call today.

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    If I recall correctly, the ancient Greeks and other cultures have ascribed certain moods and expressions to individual notes in addition to different keys. So it's an interesting quandary that we don't have much scientific reason to believe that keys have moods, but there are thousands of years of tradition in the notion. – Todd Wilcox Nov 11 '20 at 22:39
  • Simply: they rely heavily on subjectiveness and context, so one will fit it to its point of view. Also, the ancient music is completely different from ours, even Early Music, their sociocultural context is completely different. Just a food for though: since 1930s, Hollywood composers try to "establish" an ethos codex for movie music, an index of emotions and emotional archetypes linked to music (see Scott Murphy's magnificent work on this). But since then, they have to change the clichés approx. every decade because society evolves too fast and feels differently the "emotional content". – Rodrigo B. Furman Nov 12 '20 at 20:48
  • Also, another metaphor: how many systems do exist correlating keys, individual pitches, colors and other aspects (zodiacal signs, plants, flavors etc)? A simple Google search on this topic will result thousands of different systems. Which is the right one? Science, as we know it today, presupposes exact repetition of outcome since maintained the same conditions and/or variables. – Rodrigo B. Furman Nov 12 '20 at 20:52

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