I remember a masterclass where the piano teacher commented a piece from Chopin with something like "and after this modulation we enter the world of sharps".

This left me wondering if it was a poetic way of introducing a modulation or if it was really possible to recognize the difference of "color" between the sharp and flat tonalities without recognizing the tonality or the individual notes.

In context of a established tonality, modulating from the sharps to the flats brings at least two new notes (ex : modulating from G to F), so this could be a clue you're modulating a bit far, but it's not enough to know that you've entered in the flats (ex : from A to G).

In absence of established tonality, I think this would be analoguous to listening a perfect pitch (ex : E major is in sharp, F major is in flat, but there's only a semitone between the two scales) : you notice the scale, not the "color". The color always depends of the context : think enharmonics.

My conclusion is that distinguishing the sharps from the flats is rather a matter or familiarity with tonalities : you recognize the arpeggios from a piece you've already played, the scale fragments, maybe you can name the tonality, but you have no way to guess the color per se.

What are your thoughts about "color discrimination"? Do you think you can develop a feel for colors?

(English is not my native language, feel free to edit)

  • 1
    what do you mean by colour? If I move every note up a semitone, without perfect pitch, nothing changes as far as my ear is concerned - the intervals are the same. It's not like moving from major to a minor key.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Sep 30, 2013 at 14:20
  • By "color", I mean something like : "Oh, I don't know precisely which is this tonality, but it's in flat, for sure".
    – kurto
    Sep 30, 2013 at 14:27
  • Musicians have been using the word "color" to describe different aspects of music for over a hundred years. I am keenly interested in answering this question, but don't have time at the moment. Sep 30, 2013 at 15:05
  • 2
    As you will see from the answers kurto, that just doesn't happen in any modern equal temperament tuning. Being 'in flat' just doesn't mean much unless you have perfect pitch
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Sep 30, 2013 at 17:06
  • Whether you know the name for the note, recognizing it means you have some sense of relative or perfect pitch. If you recognize a note by its inherent qualities, that's perfect pitch.
    – user28
    Sep 30, 2013 at 18:12

3 Answers 3


I wish to elaborate on @Tim's answer, which is correct.

Actually, it was easier to discern the "color" before the modern system of 12-tone equal temperament for piano tuning.

In Chopin's time and before, pianos and other keyboard instruments were tuned to one of many different systems of temperament, some of which sounded quite different in certain keys, because various 1/2 step intervals on the keyboard were different distances apart.

However, in 12-tone equal temperament tuning, all keys have essentially the same "color", and all 1/2-step intervals are the same exact 100 cents apart (not taking into account "stretch tuning", which is another topic).

Chopin would have been aware of the distinctions in "color" or intonation between different keys on his piano, although they would have been slight. He would have deliberately made use of these differences in the process of composing his music. If you can find a recording of his works done on a historical piano in Chopin's historical tuning, you may be able to hear the difference, and hear it the way that Chopin would have played it himself.

Do a Google search on "chopin historical tuning" and you will find some resources on this.

  • By that you mean digital, electronic keyboards, and you are right. Re-tuning an acoustic piano to a historical temperament would require the skills of a professional piano tuner who has experience in that specialized discipline of historical temperaments.
    – user1044
    Sep 30, 2013 at 16:11
  • 1
    Oh yes ! I really wouldn't want to see anybody re-tuning an acoustic piano !!Although there are authentic concerts that would need this manoeuvre.
    – Tim
    Sep 30, 2013 at 16:20
  • 1
    There's still plenty of color because instruments' natural resonances are different for different notes. Ask any violinist or cellist (gotta leave violas out :-) ) about the way different keys sound. It may matter less for brass, but even there different sets of valve combos will make for slightly different tone qualities. Sep 30, 2013 at 19:32

Probably before temperate tuning, where each note is the same distance from the next, it would have been possible to discern - maybe because an instrument could sound in tune in one key, but not in a different key ! Please look at Wheat's answer for enlightenment on tuning.

Someone who has absolute ('perfect') pitch will be able to tell, because they would know what key it's in and thus know -it's in Ab, therefore it's got flats.Relative pitch will also do it, provided the listener had prior knowledge of the start key.

As far as being able to tell if there are # or b : I'm sceptical. These days on most instruments, a Bb will be the same sound as an A#, for example.Having said that, some people will say 'I think the key of Dmaj. is the brightest key' etc. But has it ever been put to the test?

When an open chord is played on guitar, for example, the sound, or flavour,and therefore the actual chord, can be recognised. Go to barre chords, however, and it becomes very difficult.

As it happens, yesterday I had a discussion with a pupil about 'colour', and at the end, he was as confused as when he started. I see (hear) colour as the difference between say, a minor chord and a diminished one, but he felt the colour changed between say, Eb and E maj.

You have probably opened a cow (can of worms) here, so I await lots of thought-provoking answers.


You cannot tell which configuration of sharps or flats are in a given key that is being played, when the modern equal temperament is used. The spacing between all the 12 semitones is identical, and so keys do not have their own color (beyond whatever color is imparted to them by their absolute tuning).

When we modulate from, say, C to C#, the frequencies of all of the pitches are multiplied by the same factor (about 1.059) and so their ratios stay the same.

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