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MUSIC KEYS AND EMOTION: 2017 EDITION

Throughout history, attempts have been made to assign emotional states and moods to musical keys. To give just one example: the German composer and organist Christian Friedrich Schubart's Ideen Zu Einer Aesthetik Der Tonkunst, published in 1806, lists his opinions of key-mood correlation.

One music theory course from Western Michigan University elaborates: "The association of musical keys with specific emotional or qualitative characteristics was fairly common prior to the 20th century. It was part of the shared cultural experience of those who made, performed and listened to music. When Mozart or Beethoven or Schubert wrote a piece in a Ab major, for example, they were well aware of this was the 'key of the grave' and knew that many in their audiences were as well." (Musical Key Characteristics)

What I am attempting now is my own take on assigning moods and emotions to musical keys. My reasons for doing this are:

-the topic fascinates me, and I've long held the opinion that you cannot take a song and cover it in a key different from the original without vastly altering the song's meaning.
-to update these associations using modern songs and genres as my examples
-to begin building my own database of which songs are in which keys (SongKeyFinder I'm not satisfied with, and also certain keys are missing from it altogether)
-personal disagreement with some of Schubart's conclusions. F Major to me has an utterly bittersweet sound that he doesn't mention at all. I can hear it in so many songs in that key.
-so other people can share and describe the emotional associations which they hear in certain keys. I'm especially interested in how people from non-Western cultures interpret these keys, and also to hear from anyone with synesthesia, to see if there is a correlation between music key and color.

(Note: all 12 minor scales here are Natural Minor, as opposed to Melodic Minor or Harmonic Minor)

ABOUT THE PIECES OF MUSIC SELECTED:

Each of the 24 main keys is accompanied by 4 songs played in that key. (I might expand the number later on)

-I tried to find musical pieces from a wide variety of genres and styles, although my knowledge of some of them is limited.
-I prefer pieces which contain a larger number of melodies, chords and pitches, to provide a fuller illustration of what the key sounds like.
-the list contains music that should be fairly well known to a contemporary audience, along with some lesser known pieces which were chosen based on my enjoyment of them OR how well I thought they fit a certain key.
-each key features songs that both conform to the dominant mood of the key, and songs which defy the dominant mood. This is something important to keep in mind. If you're trying to capture a certain mood with a song you're writing, it doesn't mean you absolutely must use a certain key or the song will be a failure. E Flat Minor is a key that sounds to me like the terrors of hell. Yet there are cheerful sounding songs in this key, "Higher Ground" by Stevie Wonder as an example. But I do think it's easier for some keys to capture certain moods than others, this is what I mean by a key's "dominant mood".
-this list is a work in progress. If you see a mistake that I've made, such as getting a song's key wrong, let me know and it'll be corrected. If you have suggestions for songs in certain keys, please list them. The quality of the list will improve with more and more input from PerC's users.

The 24 Keys

C MAJOR
Purity and angelic innocence, the sound of this key is our return to the womb we were born in, a time when all we knew was goodness and safety.

"Unchained Melody" by The Righteous Brothers
"Like A Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan
"Jealous Of The Angels" by Donna Taggart
"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by The Band

C# MAJOR
Introspective and lost. Being spiritually lacking. Searching intensely for the thing that will make you complete.

"He Doesn't Know Why" by Fleet Foxes
"Chariots Of Fire Theme" by Vangelis
"Heat Of The Moment" by Asia
"Tears Of A Clown" by Smokey Robinson And The Miracles

D MAJOR
Supreme joy and lightheartedness. The bright, sunny day. The golden glory of the arrival of God.

"Hallelujah Chorus" by George Frederick Handel
"The Middle" by Jimmy Eat World
"Fat Bottomed Girls" by Queen
"Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd

Eb MAJOR
Selfless devotion, tender wholesome love, stimulating conversation, and romantic, pleasant evenings.

"Don't Dream It's Over" by Crowded House
"Holiday" by Weezer
"The Longest Time" by Billy Joel
"When We Were Young" by Adele

E MAJOR
Wild, youthful and exuberant. Hot temperatures and hot passion. Interestingly despite this, is easily saddened.

"William Tell Overture- Finale" by Gioachino Rossini
"Badlands" by Bruce Springsteen
"Fat Lip" by Sum 41
"Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen

F MAJOR
Bittersweet and dramatic. A rush of sweet smiles and poignant tears, flowing together until indistinguishable. My personal favorite key. Maybe it's a Type 4 thing.

"Neighborhood 1 (Tunnels)" by Arcade Fire
"Paradise" by Coldplay
"Afterlife" by Avenged Sevenfold
"What A Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong

F# MAJOR
Grieving, or in intense pain. Struggling onwards under suffering and incredible resistance.

"Tonight, Tonight" by Smashing Pumpkins
"Gypsy" by Fleetwood Mac
"Story Of My Life" by Social Distortion
"Don't Talk, Put Your Head On My Shoulder" by The Beach Boys

G MAJOR
A happy family life and togetherness with close friends. Living in peace and harmony with the natural world. I've always associated this key with country music.

"Take It Easy" by The Eagles
"You're Gonna Change Or I'm Gonna Leave" by Hank Williams
"Redemption Song" by Bob Marley
"The Way It Is" by Bruce Hornsby And The Range

Ab MAJOR
Celebration of the sacred and the holy. Family togetherness, home and hearth, just like G Major. Has an unmistakable wintry, Christmastime sound.

"Linus And Lucy" by Vince Guaraldi
"In The Mood" by Glenn Miller
"The Living Years" by Mike And The Mechanics
"Let It Go" by Idina Menzel

A MAJOR
This key is the sound of humans soaring, flying, climbing higher. It also sometimes points to life after death.

"Wonderwall" by Oasis
"Lazarus" by Porcupine Tree
"Tir Nan Og" by Alcest
"Stand By Me" by Ben E. King

Bb MAJOR
Wistful, melancholy and aching with regret. Just like Ab Major, this key is very effective at producing an icy, wintry atmosphere.

"Purple Rain" by Prince
"Return To Innocence" by Enigma
"Rag Doll" by The Four Seasons
"Star Wars Theme" by John Williams

B MAJOR
The dreamy nostalgia of arriving home after a time of absence, being in your hometown, pleasant reflections on childhood hopes.

"The Boxer" by Simon And Garfunkel
"Hoppippola" by Sigur Ros
"By Your Side" by Sade
"Limelight" by Rush

C MINOR
The presence of ghosts and spirits. Planning something sinister and criminal in secrecy. Self-consciously cool and fashionable. Seems common in jazz and swing music.

"Passacaglia And Fugue" by Johann Sebastian Bach
"This Is Halloween" by Danny Elfman
"Tank!" by The Seatbelts
"Sweet Dreams" by The Eurythmics

C# MINOR
Utter darkness, and the realization that something terrible has happened. Trapped within a nightmare.

"Moonlight Sonata: First Movement" by Ludwig Van Beethoven
"There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" by The Smiths
"Stumble Then Rise On Some Awkward Morning" by A Silver Mt. Zion
"Gimme Shelter" by The Rolling Stones

D MINOR
Deeply haunting, like eternal sorrow. Staring into the face of death as he approaches. Spinal Tap was right about this one.

"Requiem - Lachrymosa" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
"Gimme Gimme Gimme" by ABBA
"Suteki Da Ne?" by Nobuo Uematsu
"Black Magic Woman" by Carlos Santana

Eb MINOR
Diabolical. Absolute terror. The arrival of the wicked one. You can practically see the flames of hell in this key.

"Angel Of Death" by Slayer
"King Of Kings" by Motorhead
"Take Five" by Dave Brubeck
"I Heard It Through The Grapevine" by Marvin Gaye

E MINOR
The sound of soothing, of all your wounds and worries being washed away in the rain. Can also be a shot of pure adrenaline, aggression and excitement. This is the key most representative of the heavy metal genre.

"War Pigs" by Black Sabbath
"Master Of Puppets" by Metallica
"Nights In White Satin" by The Moody Blues
"Fragile" by Sting

F MINOR
Enduring suffering and hardship with a stoic face. Striving to be honorable and dignified, maybe even noble.

"Dream On" by Aerosmith
"Mad World" by Gary Jules
"Istanbul, Not Constantinople" by They Might Be Giants
"New Divide" by Linkin Park

F# MINOR
Restlessness, feeling constrained and impatient, eager to break free and experience adventure.

"Kinetic" by Arcturus
"Harder Better Faster Stronger" by Daft Punk
"Miserere Mei" by Gregorio Allegri
"Texas Flood" by Stevie Ray Vaughan

G MINOR
When you hear this key, you know you're in peril, your life may be at risk. Your heart races and you dash to escape into the night.

"Chop Suey" by System Of A Down
"Dream Brother" by Jeff Buckley
"Computer Love" by Kraftwerk
"Sakura Drops" by Utada Hikaru

Ab MINOR
Strong and confident, almost swaggering. Looking down upon others from a position of dominance.

"Ice Queen" by Within Temptation
"Hit The Road Jack" by Ray Charles
"Thrift Shop" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis
"Down In A Hole" by Alice In Chains


A MINOR
Pious devotion to God, accepting, agreeable and benevolent. Can sound like gentle spring breeze or cold chills. Seems common in blues music.

"Stairway To Heaven" by Led Zeppelin
"Heathens" by Twentyone Pilots
"I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man" by Muddy Waters
"Hidden Place" by Bjork

Bb MINOR
The point where morale is lowest, there is little reason to be optimistic and the storm pours down on you in sheets.

"Serenade Melancolique" by Pyotr Ilytch Tchaikovsky
"Sunday Bloody Sunday" by U2
"Summertime" by George Gershwin
"The Sad Mafioso" by Godspeed You Black Emperor

B MINOR
Courageous and enthusiastic. Encountering obstacles and challenges and overcoming them. The music of the happy warrior.

"Katamari On The Rocks" by Yu Miyake
"Fire On High" by Electric Light Orchestra
"Climbing Up The Walls" by Radiohead
"In The Hall Of The Mountain King" by Edvard Grieg
 

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Cool thread man. I don't have moods for all the keys, but here's the moods for some of my favorite ones:

D Minor: Sadness, despair, death, mourning, melancholy, hopelessness. Depending on the type of minor key it is, I usually see/hear green and black or blue and black with a little white.

A Minor: A subtle sadness or melancholy, anger subdued, introspection, romance, passion, a sense of being alive amidst the chaos, even a faint sense of happiness. I see/hear red, yellow, and brown.

Eb Major: A mellow key, there's a smoothness about it, and it brings a sense of calm and introspective wonder, a peace in the darkness. I hear light to medium blue, and black with shades of white.

C Minor: Darkness, introspection, loneliness, depression, sadness, brooding, ominous. I hear blue, black, dark brown and dark blue.

G Minor: One of the happier sounding minors, with a sort of bouncy quality to it. There's an earthiness there, and a sense of soul. I hear gold, yellow, with hints of blue, brown, and faint traces of white.

E Minor: Anger, lust, war, aggressiveness, violence, sex, raw passion, death, brooding, but sometimes it can have a calm floating quality to it, even something that feels more like a labyrinth of thoughts and emotions. Depending on the type of minor, I ususally hear/see red, deep red, black, white, and hints of purple, green, and white.

B minor: Despair, death, passion, aggressiveness, lust, longing. I hear/see red, purple, with traces of black and gold.

G major: Cheerful, but with some soft sadness just under the surface. A generally happy key unless going towards minor. I hear/see gold, orange, yellow, with faint hints of brown, red, and white.
 

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Also, I'm curious what you make of modal music, or music that has multiple or ambiguous key centers? What about atonal music or non Western music? Do you have similar emotions/colors for those ones?
 

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PART I:

Without looking at your descriptions of the keys:

C Major: Like cerulean but not too intense, fading into a duller but still bright light blue. Hints of white, shape kinda rounded at the top, like a filbert brush. Saturation goes up or down depending on high/low notes. There is a lightheartedness. Imagine you've been energetic but as soon as talking to a special someone you wind down and are in this soft mood.

C# Major I see somewhat of a "<" shape consistently in a slightly dull but also light form of golden mustard. Sometimes a white streak is seen here or there. There's something that is barely a question, somewhat of a tease. There is optimism towards to future, but also a thought. A beckoning of some kind, recalling the past for answers or asking the universe to show what lies ahead. Not much of a doubt so much as a feeling it'll be well.

D Major: I see reddish hues of violet, looking like small lights. Purple and small white dots, some black in the foreground which appears a bit smokey, distant blues. Feels like a moment before you anticipate being thrown into a moment of ecstasy.

E♭ Major: I can't really see anything that I can say. But overall feeling is one of being comfortable with oneself. Like settling down after a long day with just time to yourself.

E Major: Pink that comes out in waves, slowly fading to nothing. And smaller waves that are more orange or more violet. They burst, just as the feeling of creativity and exploration.

F Major: Likewise can't distinguish a color, but deep blue/indigo/violet contrasted by light red circles are what come to mind immediately. The feeling is that of an anxiety, mild or no, that comes along with a decision. Standing on a precipice of what seems to be a slight change but can ultimately change everything.
 
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Wow, this is really awesome...
(and some amazing song choices in there)

I'll have to take more 'note' (get it? Note? ahaha) of what keys my most loved songs are in...

It raises a question though...what about when you CHANGE the key of a song? Surely it still has the same vibe?
Yas? No? Thoughts?
 

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Wow, this is really awesome...
(and some amazing song choices in there)
Thank you so much for this, glad you liked it! Couldn't forget Australia (Crowded House), could I? :wink:

It raises a question though...what about when you CHANGE the key of a song? Surely it still has the same vibe?
Yas? No? Thoughts?
To some people it might. I'm not one of those people though. I wrote in the post: "I've long held the opinion that you cannot take a song and cover it in a key different from the original without vastly altering the song's meaning". One musician on Youtube, Oleg Berg, has a hobby of converting songs in major key to minor key and vice versa. Changing "Hit The Road Jack" from from Ab Minor to Ab Major, results in a number of people commenting that "it sounds like Christmas music"; I'm in agreement with them. The strong, swaggering mood I hear in Ab Minor is totally gone.


I don't think transferring a major key song to a different major key is quite as dramatic, but even then, I've been in the situation of listening to an album/studio recording of a song I love, then listening to the artist perform it live and it's in a different key, and the emotional impact is often stilted. I'm having some difficulty coming up with a concrete example for this though, maybe in a little while I'll have found one.
 

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Thank you so much for this, glad you liked it! Couldn't forget Australia (Crowded House), could I? :wink:



To some people it might. I'm not one of those people though. I wrote in the post: "I've long held the opinion that you cannot take a song and cover it in a key different from the original without vastly altering the song's meaning". One musician on Youtube, Oleg Berg, has a hobby of converting songs in major key to minor key and vice versa. Changing "Hit The Road Jack" from from Ab Minor to Ab Major, results in a number of people commenting that "it sounds like Christmas music"; I'm in agreement with them. The strong, swaggering mood I hear in Ab Minor is totally gone.


I don't think transferring a major key song to a different major key is quite as dramatic, but even then, I've been in the situation of listening to an album/studio recording of a song I love, then listening to the artist perform it live and it's in a different key, and the emotional impact is often stilted. I'm having some difficulty coming up with a concrete example for this though, maybe in a little while I'll have found one.
le interesting.
 

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small update on Ab Major: found this in the comments section of a Youtube video for "The Living Years":


I assigned a "Christmas-time" mood to Ab Major and this comment is further evidence in my favor.
 

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For me, key has no meaning. I define key as being based on a particular pitch of the 12 tones in Western music. Mode, however, has meaning and mood to me. Mode I define as the overall quality of the key, like major and minor. Mode and key used to be the same thing before the modern system of equal temperament, which the linked article explains in another linked article. Equal temperament means that the instrument is in tune with itself, no matter what key it plays in, like the modern piano. E major(before it was called that) was very different from D major(before it was called that, or even sounded like that) back in the day. The two did not sound "major" or similar at all. Today E and D major maintain the same exact intervals between each of their pitches; they just start on different notes.

 
If you like math, think of two keys in the same mode as being two lines with the same slope. They are parallel, and each point on one line corresponds to each point on the other line. There is nothing between the lines that would actually sound different. Lines go to infinity both ways; each musical key goes to infinity up and down. They will both sound exactly the same eventually.
Different modes, however, are like two lines with different slopes. Modes have different sounds, and it's easy to tell one from another.


But, fascinatingly, each of you hear differences between two keys in the same mode, even two keys that are only a half step away. I also hear differences, but I don't equate it to key, but range.

 
Math again... Lines go on forever, but the piano keyboard is only 88 keys. Instruments don't have an infinite range, and neither does our hearing. So the key that a particular instrument plays is like a line segment. It's a finite range, and between finite ranges, the differences are more audible.


Using brass instruments as examples. Brass instruments love to play in F, Bb, Eb, and you'll find a ton of band music in those keys. A "color key" that I hear used in band literature is Db. It has a lot more flats than bands find easy to play, and you can hear that. In a good performance with good players, each performer should be able to play each note with perfect tuning across the ensemble. But Db still doesn't sound like Bb. The timbre(tone color) is different. The instruments aren't playing in the home range, and they are using different valve combinations and having to adapt differently. (Non-keyboard instruments have to do drastic things to fight physics and play in tune with themselves.) I find Db to sound very rich, deep, and smokey (or out of tune and awful if it's a rough ensemble) because the tone colors of all the band instruments in that range sounds that way.

I blame modes and different scalar systems for what makes music really sound different to me. There isn't only major(ionian) and minor(aeolian), but the other remnants of the church modes of old (lydian, mixolydian, dorian, phrygian, locrian). There are whole tone scales, which Debussy liked, and lots of other arrangements of pitches to make different sounds.

I may make another post if you want to know more history and musical jargon and how instruments work and stuff :)
 

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Well, I just looked up the keys for 20 different songs I have on music playlists of mine and the most common were E Minor (5 songs) and F Minor (3 songs). Most of the songs were in a minor key, except for two who were F Major and one that was C Major. The two that were F Major (one of them was Bloodflood Pt. II by Alt-J) definitely fit the "bittersweet and dramatic" description.
 

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When I used to play piano, the d minor scale was always my favorite scale to play. I especially loved to play it at a normal speed when going up the scale and slow it down as I was going down the scale. It just stood out so much for me for some reason. Your interpretation of the emotion of the d minor scale seems about right.

This is a really awesome thread. For several years now, I've really been intrigued by art, and I've thought about ideas like personifying music and seeing what music says to us. I've created narratives for instrumental songs, which is somewhat similar to what you are doing. Your thread is just a creative and really fun idea, maybe even psychologically or telling.
 

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The interval structure of the scale is 90% of the emotional value. And that's most likely due to the predictability of its overtones.

The pitch has some value too, but it's more situational, as in, how the arrangment is structured to be perceived by the ear, vs the whole body. Because low sound freqs impact the body more, a composer needs to exploit the low end of the instruments so that the more dramatical messages (those which matter more) coincide with a drop in resonances.

As to how much to drop for the right dose of drama depends on the individual, and is affected by the place as well, so anyone claiming that "xx frequency = xx emotion" is really only talking about oneself in a vacuum.
 
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