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The simple comparison between major and minor chords seems typically to be between happy (major) and sad (minor).

Likewise, is there a feeling/mood that tends to be associated with the flat major chords?

For example, Adele's 'Hello' is (roughly) F min Ab Eb Db. In this context, the flat major chords sound emotionally muted, but not necessarily happy or sad (at least to me).

Just curious if there's a consensus around what mood the flat major chords tend to convey and thus when they're most appropriately used.

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    When a piece is in C# major,it could equally have been written in Db major. What then..? And if most of us heard that Adele song in F#m/A major or Em/G major instead, would we know? And would it change the mood? Doubtful. – Tim Oct 19 '19 at 15:51
  • @Tim Fair point, the question could have just as easily been phrased in terms of sharp majors. – Zach Valenta Oct 19 '19 at 16:19
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    So is your hypothesis founded on 'the black keys' on a piano. Going somewhat silly, Fb major (lots and lots of flats) sounds pretty well like E major (four sharps). – Tim Oct 19 '19 at 16:22
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    If you play it a semitone lower, Em G D C, you would ask about natural majors being different than something? How about if you tune your instrument between semitones? – piiperi Reinstate Monica Oct 19 '19 at 16:49
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While a chord's quality (major, minor, diminished, etc.) is the primary factor in determining how it "feels", the context around it also plays a significant role. You are absolutely correct that the Ab, Eb and Db in your example feel a little less bright (a term I greatly prefer over happy) than an isolated major chord, but this has nothing to do with them being flat.

Instead, it is the preceding Fmin that sets a certain precedence, suggesting that we are in a minor key, and effectively darkening the entire progression. If you leave the Fmin off and only play Ab->Eb->Db they will sound a little brighter. Similarly, is you shift everything up a half step so you are no longer playing flats (F#min->A->E->D) it will have the same quality as your original progression, despite the lack of flats.

On their own, all chords of the same quality sound exactly the same (with identical tuning and ratios) and this is essentially the point of equal temperament tuning. A major, played on its own, will not sound any brighter or darker than Ab major. However, no music consists of a single, isolated chord. The voice leading surrounding any given chord changes its effective brightness. Once a contextual precedent has been established, chords of the same quality can have differing levels of brightness.

These interactions can be incredibly intricate and subtle, but, in many cases, lowering pitches can, in fact, darken the overall context and thereby each individual chord, so you're observations are not unprecedented. That said, be careful not to equate a lowered pitch with a flat note; flattening natural notes will have the same effect as naturaling sharp notes.

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The "moods of keys" (or chords) is a centuries-old superstition in music, with many famous composers claiming to prefer a certain key for inducing certain emotions.

This page has a list: https://www.wmich.edu/mus-theo/courses/keys.html

I don't have perfect pitch and I can't differentiate between the keys by ear, but I've been told that with modern equal temperament tuning those associations are basically musical religion and have no basis in observable/testable fact.

Maybe with the historical unequal/just intonation tunings that many composers wrote in, they were able to identify keys by those slight differences of interval distance, or maybe even the timbre/resonance of instruments playing in vs out of their native keys?

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  • Very cool link. The specificity of the associated moods is wild :) – Zach Valenta Oct 19 '19 at 16:20
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    A bit more technical, but I also found this section about "key coloration" in the wikipedia article on musical keys to be a good summary of how non-equal tempered tuning affects the main interval distances, and it also led me to this concept I'd never heard of before: the "wolf fifth." That audio example made me do a hearing double-take! Boards of Canada had it right, music really is math. – user63785 Oct 19 '19 at 16:43
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    I wouldn't exactly call it a "centuries-old superstition." It is of dubious relevance in modern equal temperament, but the differences in old tuning systems between keys were not small: try playing in C major, then in D-flat major in a meantone tuning, and you'll certainly notice a difference! Completely even equal temperament wasn't really practiced on keyboards until the 20th century, so many historical composers could hear differences among keys. For them it wasn't "superstition" and traditions of setting certain genres in certain keys meant the connections stuck around. – Athanasius Oct 19 '19 at 23:36

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