I know, I'm not the only one who hears key characters. But I have heard time and time again that equal temperament means that all keys are equal and thus there aren't any characters to it beyond Major vs Minor. I however, don't hear it that way. This is a list of characters that I feel for major keys:

  • C major: Boringly happy, not quite neutral, I personally rarely use this key outside of modulations

  • F major: Flowing like a river, melody always wants to move in this key, even over static harmony

  • Bb major: Nocturnal, like you are outside on a moonlit night when slow, Joyful when fast

  • Eb major: Beautiful, like sleeping in a bed of flowers

  • Ab major: Starting to get into the dreamy zone

  • Db major: Dreaming

  • C# major: Eternity

  • F# major: Jazzy, Dreamy

  • B major: Dreamy

  • E major: Joyful, like you have accomplished a major task and are feeling the relief

  • A major: Bouncy, like you are skipping around, especially when staccato

  • D major: Majestic, Heroic

  • G major: Happy but not boringly happy

And here is what I feel in minor keys:

  • A minor: Completely neutral, like the sadness of D minor and the happiness of C major have completely cancelled out

  • D minor: A tad melancholic, but easy to make it sound happier

  • G minor: Second most variable of keys, more angry than D minor

  • C minor: Most variable of all the keys, change one factor and the emotion you get out of C minor is completely different, 1 minute powerful, next minute funerial

  • F minor: Always melancholic, I call it The Key of Death because of just how melancholic and funerial it sounds to my ears

  • Bb minor: Constantly angry or tense, no sense of relief, trapped within the minor sonority when it for all in the world wants to be major, Desperate to find that major sonority but never finding it

  • Eb minor: Jazzy, Interesting

  • Ab minor: The only key for which I haven't heard enough of to hear a key character

  • C# minor: Nocturnal, a tad melancholic, but mostly nocturnal

  • F# minor: Melancholic, not as much as F minor though

  • B minor: Back to square one

  • E minor: Lost in a maze

But again, I have heard this argument against key characters in equal temperament:

Equal temperament means that all the half steps are equal. You could play Beethoven's fifth in A minor and it would still sound just as powerful as the original C minor because of how Beethoven treats the Fate Motif as the building block of the entire symphony. Therefore, there are no key characters in equal temperament.

But, I hear those key characters. And that is with all the music I hear apart from the harpsichord recordings of Bach, being in equal temperament. Everything else though, from Pachelbel's Canon in D to Beethoven's fifth to Liszt's Ballade in B minor, I hear in equal temperament. And yet I still hear key characters for all of the major keys and most of the minor keys. And, I wouldn't hear nearly as much power in an A minor transposition of Beethoven's fifth, even if everything else is kept the same. It would feel way too shallow for the dynamic arc if it were transposed to A minor.

Why is it that I hear key characters in equal temperament tuning? Is it because I have perfect pitch? Is it because I grew up listening to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, etc. and each of those composers treated different keys differently(Like how Beethoven's most dramatic works are almost always in C minor)? Why am I hearing key characters when the tuning makes it so that no key is unique?

  • Sounds psychological... like some alternate version of synesthesia Dec 19 '19 at 9:12
  • Listening to some music must put you into turmoil ! With absolute pitch, what frequency is your A? What happens if that pitch is off by 50 cents?
    – Tim
    Dec 19 '19 at 9:20
  • 1
    Can you describe how you test this? Take a MIDI recording, play it with, say, a synth FM piano, and transpose the track it +1, -1, +2, -2 semitones ...? Dec 19 '19 at 11:48
  • 3
    I also have absolute pitch, and It's a bit amusing to me how strongly I disagree with most of your key characterizations. For example, I find that A flat major is the most morose and saddest of all major keys, and B flat minor is just plain desperate--it's never yearning to sound like a major key to me.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 19 '19 at 12:44
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    Perhaps of interest: wmich.edu/mus-theo/courses/keys.html
    – fdb
    Dec 19 '19 at 13:09

You have already suggested the most likely component: the historic tendency of composers to compose in certain ways for certain keys, based ultimately on their really different character in earlier, non-equal temperament tunings.

Another component is that although orchestral instruments are all theoretically capable of playing all keys in equal temperament, there are still typical differences in sound based on, for instance, how open strings are tuned, or the "home key" of wind instruments. Subtle differences, but they do exist.

  • The historic character of some keys has little to do with tuning and much to do with which instruments were pitched in related keys. For example, D major was stately and majestic because it was the key of trumpets, which were considered stately and majestic.
    – phoog
    Dec 20 '19 at 8:05
  • @phoog I agree. I would argue, additionally, that the "stately and majestic" quality of trumpets had something to do with their pure fifths and thirds in their home keys. Dec 20 '19 at 16:05
  • In the baroque era, of course, trumpets only played in their home keys, so nearly all baroque trumpet music is in D. I suspect that the stately association is more cultural than anything else: trumpets were used at court and for military signaling before they were used in orchestras, so when they were incorporated into orchestral music it was in music written for occasions of state or otherwise to evoke a stately or martial affect. I would think that any generalized association of pure thirds with majesty would have come from that rather than being its cause.
    – phoog
    Dec 20 '19 at 16:26

Do you have the same sensation also just with a piano?

There is a difference between an equal tuning and a well tempered tuning and while pianos nowadays have a equal tuning and should not, physically speaking, have any differences between the scales, orchestrates, instruments and musicians for classical music might, maybe even unconsciousness, switch to a more tempered but not equal tuning.

Even further, since certain scales have to be said to have certain qualities, they were used more often for certain types of music. If you plan to write a heroic piece and therefore use D Major, than that D Major sound heroic. Kind of self fulfilling prophecy.

  • I personally have some fairly strong key characterizations, and the most common type of music I listen to is solo piano music.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 19 '19 at 12:46

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