The Color of Key

by Gary Powell

Emma Kate Tsai, an often contributor to my site, has posed this excellent question regarding the perceived color of tonal centers:

I have to write a research paper on music and how it collaborates with another art. I’m reading this new novel about a guy who can hear the tonality of people. I talked to my prof about it and she said that a lot of composers think people have “tonality”, in other words, certain keys are uplifting, others are somber. What do you think? – Emma Kate Tsai

color of key

Yes Emma, composers have always talked about the idea that the key of E Minor does not “feel” the same as Eb Minor even though they are only a half-step apart. There is often agreement that tonal centers on black keys have a darker tone than tonal centers on white keys. It’s possible that this perceived audio difference is more visual, and even tactile as well, in that the pianists’ fingering shifts deeper into the keyboard when playing black keys. As an antidote to this, I encourage myself to compose in all keys to eliminate compositional patterns that one develops when playing only in Bb Major, for instance. If a songwriter or composer does notice that she prefers certain tonal centers or keys, like I mentioned, it may be more about muscle memory, which comes from familiarity with chord voicing in certain keys, than about any measurable or even perceived auditory color differences. I do hold, however unreliable the science is, that we can and do perceive a difference in the tonal nature of the keys we choose to play in.

Studies show that people with perfect pitch hear the character of a pitch instead of what we generally assume; that they are simply hearing the frequency. This is one argument to support the idea different keys do indeed express a unique tonal color or quality. Much of my knowledge on the related topic of perfect pitch comes from my old friend Rae Moses, another frequent contributor to my site. Rae is the Director of Choral Music for Carl Fischer Music and a concert pianist who has perfect pitch. I hope Rae will add his take on this topic with a comment below.

“The fingers tend to be a little bit predictable unless led by the brain.” Brian May, Guitarist for Queen – As an aside, in 2007, Brian May received his PhD in Astrophysics.

I truly suspect that these tonal preferences are born from a mix of an unmeasured sense or feeling, a simple habit, or the shape of an individual’s hand, or a player’s eye sight, or that the piano stool was too low when we were young, making the flat keys harder to reach. We are indeed complex beings.

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How does the “Color of Key” effect what we hear and why do we prefer to play in one key over another? http://tinyurl.com/89dtz3

All Content of Gary Powell’s Site is Licensed Under a
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by Gary Powell

Emma Kate Tsai, an often contributor to my site, has posed this excellent question regarding the perceived color of tonal centers:

I have to write a research paper on music and how it collaborates with another art. I’m reading this new novel about a guy who can hear the tonality of people. I talked to my prof about it and she said that a lot of composers think people have “tonality”, in other words, certain keys are uplifting, others are somber. What do you think? – Emma Kate Tsai

color of key

Yes Emma, composers have always talked about the idea that the key of E Minor does not “feel” the same as Eb Minor even though they are only a half-step apart. There is often agreement that tonal centers on black keys have a darker tone than tonal centers on white keys. It’s possible that this perceived audio difference is more visual, and even tactile as well, in that the pianists’ fingering shifts deeper into the keyboard when playing black keys. As an antidote to this, I encourage myself to compose in all keys to eliminate compositional patterns that one develops when playing only in Bb Major, for instance. If a songwriter or composer does notice that she prefers certain tonal centers or keys, like I mentioned, it may be more about muscle memory, which comes from familiarity with chord voicing in certain keys, than about any measurable or even perceived auditory color differences. I do hold, however unreliable the science is, that we can and do perceive a difference in the tonal nature of the keys we choose to play in.

Studies show that people with perfect pitch hear the character of a pitch instead of what we generally assume; that they are simply hearing the frequency. This is one argument to support the idea different keys do indeed express a unique tonal color or quality. Much of my knowledge on the related topic of perfect pitch comes from my old friend Rae Moses, another frequent contributor to my site. Rae is the Director of Choral Music for Carl Fischer Music and a concert pianist who has perfect pitch. I hope Rae will add his take on this topic with a comment below.

“The fingers tend to be a little bit predictable unless led by the brain.” Brian May, Guitarist for Queen – As an aside, in 2007, Brian May received his PhD in Astrophysics.

I truly suspect that these tonal preferences are born from a mix of an unmeasured sense or feeling, a simple habit, or the shape of an individual’s hand, or a player’s eye sight, or that the piano stool was too low when we were young, making the flat keys harder to reach. We are indeed complex beings.

Helpful? Copy, Paste, then Tweet it!
How does the “Color of Key” effect what we hear and why do we prefer to play in one key over another? http://tinyurl.com/89dtz3

All Content of Gary Powell’s Site is Licensed Under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License

.

4 thoughts on “The Color of Key”

  1. How does culture affect our pereceived key color? Maybe if fugues from Dracula movies were in major keys we’d associate major with dark , evil and somber. There is a defined emotional response to minor keys, but I don’t know if that is because of culture or the key itself.

  2. Thanks for quoting me and this is a fascinating topic. Are there books on this? There should be? I wonder about the dark vs. light notion of music, as well as the color of tone. Interesting, but one struggle I had with my music course was how to write about it and how to conceptualize written concepts as auditory.

  3. Singer Ayana Haviv suggested this site for further investigation:

    http://www.syn.sussex.ac.uk/

    “Synaesthesia is a joining together of sensations that are normally experienced separately. Some synaesthetes experience colours when they hear or read words, whilst others may experience tastes, smells, shapes or touches in almost any combination.”

  4. Synesthesia has been adpated into our every day lives more than we might think.  During the Summer of 2012 I took a course at the University of Texas with Prof. Michelle Habeck called “Color in Design.”  As a theatrical stage director I’ve always been fasinated with matching “the mood” of scene, aria, song, etc. with the colors presented on stage.  Whether it’s through costumes, scenery, or lighting.  What I learned in Prof. Habeck’s course is that we are predispositioned to these color “moods” in most aspects of our lives.  For example, go into any Starbucks in the USA.  What colors are there?  Warm browns and greens and maybe some muted reds.  These colors tell us to “relax” and “stay a while” – and while you’re at it, buy some more coffee.  Also, notice the calming music often played at Starbucks, if you want even more proof – collect the monthly free music cards they give away for ITunes, most of these tunes sound like a chill evening on a soft couch.  

    If you need more proof, let’s take the other extreme.  McDonald’s, fast food, these resturants often offer bright colors, like red and yellow which keep us on-edge and foster the fast-dining experience.  What music is being played here?  In most cases there isn’t any music and if there is it’s more than likely going to be rock or pop.  Some might think that this is a way to “appeal to the masses” but actually it’s a carefully planned out way to “move the masses.”  

    In my work as an opera stage director and designer I try to keep this in mind.  If a composer sets a piece in minor, particularly flat minors (Eflat, Dflat, etc) I hear/see this as maroon, hunter green, maybe even a rich brown.  Where as sharp minors (rare in opera) I might hear as gray, steel, navy, dark purple.  This is a strange consept until you see it done wrong.  What if you had a commedic scene set in a bright FMajor tonality but everything was black and dark purple?  Or a death scene in CMinor with bright yellows and oranges.  Your ears tell you one thing and your eyes tell another.  It would be the equivallant of walking into a McDonalds resturant that was decorated with fine wood furniture and maroon tableclothes.  You’d be hunting for the matredi to get your table reservation.  

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