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Maybe it's subjective thing. But when you start playing same song in same mode (natural major for example), but from another key than original was. What will happend? You have two possiblities or maybe more comparison to original key:

  1. It sounds for you just higher or lower, and nothing more.
  2. It sounds for you higher or lower AND emotional quality(mood) also changed, for example it sounds more or less happier and/or get new emotional quality(mood)
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If you play it straight after the original version, the higher one, or perhaps the one with more sharps in the key signature will doubtless sound brighter.

Although A major is lower than C major, the three extra sharps make it brighter. Try it. Subjective? Maybe.

But going from C major to B major - with FIVE more sharps - just sounds like a downer. (And I don't think that's just a subjective thing. Go figure :-)

C major up to Eb major has both 'higher' and 'more mellow' aspects.

  • So if we play from key E to key F, higher, but fewer sharps, it'll sound about the same (cancelling out..?). – Tim Oct 3 at 16:30
  • No. Like C to B, the 'immediately adjacent' characteristic seems to overwhelm the 'more flats' one. Or maybe we have to think of F as E#. – Laurence Payne Oct 3 at 18:11
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This question is related with others here about the key characteristics which have been discussed here more than once.

e.g.:

Are all modes/scales in a given key signature perceived as equally bright/dark?

Before the equal tuning there must have been strong differences between the sound of the modes in different keys giving them typical characters.

Some theories pretend that the keys still have these characteristics - like the modes of the Greek and their characteristics have been handed to the middle age and Renaissance.

other theories - and I tend to them - that can't be proved is that these labels have been traded and taught from age to age and from generations to generation and meanwhile they are learnt and associated as such that the old characteristics and effects have remained the same.

My theory would be that the contrast of 2 keys evokes this impression:

Like minor in contrast with major evokes different emotions namely the parallel keys a major 3rd lower and a minor 3rd higher seem to be darker and the minor 3rd lower and major 3rd higher sounds brighter.

This would mean that e.g. Ab doesn't have the same effect when we have been modulating from C like when we are leaving from B.

You can make the test yourself and with others - also with minor and major 2nds. 4ths and 5ths.

What do you hear if you play in C# comparing with Db? or F# with Gb?

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Many songs are published in versions in different keys to suit voices of different ranges. So, compared to a version for soprano or tenor, a version in a lower key will be sung by a contralto or bass, say. So not only will the music have a deeper, more resonant tone because all the notes are lower, the voice has the different tone quality of the lower voice-type.

If stringed instruments are playing, then keys such as G, D and A can sound brighter because there is more opportunity to use open strings. The composer might also take the opportunity to write chords that involve an open string, whereas they might be reluctant to write the corresponding double-stop if the music were in a different key, because double-stops are harder to play.

Interesting case in point: Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra K364. Mozart wanted the two solo instruments to be equals, but the viola is not as bright as the violin. So he makes the viola-player tune the viola a minor second higher, to make it brighter, and he wrote it in E♭ major (not a bright key for strings), so that the viola would have the further advantage that 3 of its strings are now tuned to a♭, e♭ and b♭, which E♭ major suits just as much as D major suits a viola tuned normally.

Harp strings are also considered to sound brighter when sounding in their "flat" position than in their "natural" or "sharp" positions. (How much of a difference it really makes to the sound I'm not sure. A stopped note on a violin is stopped by a finger, which tends to dampen the vibration a little. But by contrast, a harp string is stopped by a peg on a disc which is part of the pedal mechanism.) At any rate, some music featuring the harp prominently is written in flat keys so that most of the strings can be in their "flat" position. Examples: Ravel's Introduction and Allegro for flute, clarinet, harp and strings in e♭ minor--G♭ major, and the harp interlude in Britten's Ceremony of Carols, in C♭ major.

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