Wednesday, March 17, 2010

notes on key

In talking about music, it's common for people not just to remark on the general character of a piece, but to relate said character to the particular key the piece is in. This is, I'm convinced, one of those conceited things that trained musicians do to try to say something consequential about the music they're playing when they can't think of anything more substantial.

I'm not trying to deny that various composers impugn certain characters to certain keys. Especially before the widespread use of equal temperament in the late 1700's, different keys were actually made up of different intervals, and so really did sound different. The association of different pieces with certain keys by later composers clearly affected their own compositions. There's also the psychological anchoring of our pitch universe around C major, which generally causes us to think of sharp keys as "brighter" than flat keys. We make this association because modulation within a piece of music to a sharper key area sounds "bright," but the C major anchor is completely arbitrary. Thus, Beethoven once remarked that he could tell whether a composer had penned a piece in g-flat major or f-sharp major, without looking at the score, simply by the character of the piece, even though the keys are enharmonically equivalent. It all depended on whether the composer was thinking of the key of the piece as six fifths on the flat side of c major, or six fifths to the sharp side.

In addition, the physical characteristics of different instruments clearly affect the way music sounds in different keys. Pieces written for b-flat clarinet will sound different in other keys because of the different fingerings and other stuff about clarinet I don't understand; similarly for piano pieces that include more black notes than white, etc.

Nevertheless, the rather widespread notion that scales on different pitch levels have intrinsic characters of their own can't possibly be true. In an equal-tempered system of tuning, all the intervals in every major scale are identical, and all the intervals in every minor scale are identical. The only intrinsic difference between scales starting on different pitches is, of course, the pitch level.

I hear people remark all the time about why a composer would write a piece in a given key, but rarely does anyone ever mention the most obvious reason given above: it sounds "right" at that pitch level. Any piece you know would probably sound really wrong if displaced by an octave. Most pieces would sound weird displaced by a fifth in either direction too. Displacing something by a half-step or a whole step is a much smaller change, but still affects our perceptions. [This is, incidentally, why composers often include a lot of octave jumps in the second section of the recapitulations of sonata movements, but rarely in the expositions. They composed the theme for the dominant key in the exposition; in order to make it sound "right" in the tonic in the recap, they often include it in different octaves as a sort of balance.]


  1. THat's a great posting Sam Post! I always wondered if it was just ignorant me that couldn't figure out why different keys were said to have different emotional resonance or character -- when except for major and minor and starting pitch the keys are in the same relation to each others -- what I now know to call because of the -- um -- had to look back -- because of the equal-tempered system of tuning. Mom

  2. Ok one more comment for tonight.

    Sam, I am going to begin with a story:

    Circa freshman year in college I had an existential crisis over the issue of key as it related to Baroque music. Because A was often turned to 415, everything was a step down. How could the opening of WTC II have been conceived in B major, when it was so CLEARLY meant to be in C major?? This really caused quite a deal of stress. During a long train ride, I was listening to a recording of my favorite Vivaldi Cantata, and wondering how it was possible that the music I was hearing, which sounded unbelievably D-major was actually notated in E-flat major. All of a sudden, something bizarre happened: for a brief flash, the piece was in E-flat! And then back again to D. But I tried to listen harder--and again! E-flat! By the end of the train ride I could listen to the entire piece either in D major or in E-flat major. There was such a completely different quality to each version, it was really as if I were listening to two different recordings.

    My conclusion (def worthy of capslock): KEY HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH PITCH!

    When people talk about the brightness of C major, they are not talking about the brightness of a collection of frequencies, they are talking about the brightness of all white notes. The way our instrument is visually set out, we pianists should have the greatest sense of key--because we are the most conscious of different patterns of white vs. black notes, which is all that a key really is.

    When the contemporaries of Mozart described B-flat major as regal and A major as amorous, they were really onto something. Listening to "Ah perdona al primo affetto" from Clemenza di Tito transposed simply would not make any sense.