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 B♭ minor scale and an E♭ 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?


6 Answers 6


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".

  • 1
    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. Nov 17, 2013 at 22:01
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    @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, 2013 at 2:16
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    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. Nov 18, 2013 at 14:10
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    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, 2013 at 16:12
  • Excellent and correct answer!
    – MrTheBard
    Jul 25, 2014 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?? Nov 18, 2013 at 2:46
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    @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. Nov 18, 2013 at 3:11
  • @charlieparker not hard fact but play it (or hear a recording of it) in C# minor then do the same, manipulated into a different key. it certainly does not feel the same. music as a whole is both a science and an art -- this is the part that is open for interpretation after all, but a good amount of musicians agree on this, therefore it's "fact"
    – psosuna
    Sep 20, 2017 at 17:09
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    For something in another key to feel different, doesn't the listener need either some degree of absolute pitch, or to have heard the piece in C# first? Also if Moonlight Sonata had been originally written in D#, would those who can tell what key it is in now be saying it wounds wrong in C#? Sep 22, 2017 at 22:06
  • @WayneConrad Certainly. But, the piece may not have been nearly as popular if it were written in D# instead ;) It's wrong by virtue of it feeling otherwise from what is already known.
    – psosuna
    Sep 22, 2017 at 23:56

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. Nov 17, 2013 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.

  • Brass instruments, even valveless ones, are not laboratory demonstrations of the harmonic series. The player has considerable control over intonation. Even more so with modern instruments - trumpets with movable tuning slides on 1st and 3rd valves can easily adjust any pitch, making any idea that Bb is "better suited" laughable.
    – Laurence
    Apr 6, 2015 at 12:12

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.

  • "So i believe [B-flat minor] can be used for death in movies (to awake feelings)" Chopin's Nocturne in B-flat minor, op. 9 no. 1 has more to do with the night than with death.
    – Vighnesh
    Dec 27, 2023 at 6:16

B flat minor is the key of Chopin's famous funeral march. Thus, this piece may tie B flat minor to funerals and other places and times of death.

  • "B flat minor is the key of Chopin's famous funeral march. Thus, this piece may tie B flat minor to funerals and other places and times of death" Chopin had written another piece in B-flat minor which does not represent death, and it is the Nocturne in B-flat minor, op. 9 no. 1.
    – Vighnesh
    Dec 27, 2023 at 6:16

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