I mentioned the other day that Dvorak’s String Sextet was written in “A major, that most divinely innocent of keys.” Now a reader writes to ask:
Is there something intrinsic to the key of A major that makes it more innocent than any other? Is it innocent only when strings are playing in it? What about a piano? If it’s a brass sextet playing, is A major more or less innocent than B-flat major? Does the emotion a key conveys depend partly, mainly or entirely on what instrument(s) is (are) playing? Were you being whimsical?
I heard Billy Joel say once (1985) that he hated E major. I couldn’t imagine having a feeling about a particular key. I still can’t.
Any help in assuaging this bafflement would be welcome.
Wonderful questions all, and fearsomely difficult to answer–impossible, really, though I’ll do what I can.
To begin with, I was being perfectly serious about the key of A major. I think most musicians feel that certain keys have “characters” or “personalities,” though I suspect they feel this way because they have come to associate those keys with specific pieces of music. For instance, I associate A major with a cluster of celebrated compositions whose expressive content I would describe as somehow suggestive of innocence. In addition to the Dvorak Sextet and Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet and A Major Rondo for piano duet, Mozart wrote a great many such pieces, most famously the the A Major Piano Concerto, K. 488, and the Clarinet Quintet. D minor, by contrast, is widely thought to be a “demonic” key, threatening and unstable, whereas G major strikes most musicians as warm, friendly, and down to earth. (I once told Nancy LaMott that she was “a real G-major kind of girl,” and I didn’t have to explain to her what I meant.)
All this, of course, begs my reader’s question: are there intrinsic, non-arbitrary reasons why so many composers have tended to choose specific keys in which to make certain kinds of music? Donald Tovey, the great English musicologist, believed that all such key-related associations had to do with the relative “distance” of a given key from C major. (The larger the number of sharps or flats in the key signature, the greater the distance, and the farther the key is removed from the fundamental stability and repose of C major, the “home key” of Western music.) In addition, most musical instruments have perceptibly different tonal qualities when played in particular keys or key families.
Alas, none of this really explains what makes A major sound innocent, so in an attempt to shed more light on the matter, I looked up “key” in the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and found this paragraph:
Keys are often said to possess characteristics associated with various extra-musical emotional states. While there has never been a consensus on these associations, the material basis for these attributions was at one time quite real: because of inequalities in actual temperament, each mode acquired a unique intonation and thus its own distinctive “tone,” and the sense that each mode had its own musical characteristics was strong enough to persist even in circumstances in which equal temperament was abstractly assumed. Though highly specific with respect to different repertories and listeners, these expressive qualties fall into two basic categories, which conform to the basic difference–often asserted as an opposition–between major and minor: major is heard to be brighter and more cheerful than minor, which in comparison is darker and sadder.
You have to know quite a bit about music to make sense of the middle part of this “explanation,” but it’s worth noting that according to the author, the “expressive qualities” of given keys are often “highly specific” with respect to individual listeners. Since I experience the expressive qualities of keys as something like a cross between a color and an emotion, “hating” the key of E minor would be like hating, say, dark blue-green, a notion that strikes me as alien but not altogether absurd (one might well speak of “hating” fear, just as you might hate the taste of cauliflower). In any case, other musicians have had prejudices similar to that of Billy Joel: Sviatoslav Richter, the great Russian pianist, mentioned more than once in his diary that he disliked the key of F minor.
It’s probably worth mentioning that I had perfect pitch when I was a working musician, but that I lost it when I stopped playing an instrument regularly and fell out of touch with the physical materials of music-making. I still have perfect relative pitch, but my mental key center has sagged a half-step. Ask me to sing an A and I’ll sing an A-flat (unless I stop to think about it, in which case I’ll remember to transpose the note I hear in my head up a half-step to compensate). Nevertheless, the Dvorak String Sextet still sounds innocent to me.
I sometimes wonder whether lay listeners who lack this kind of perceptual sensitivity might possibly experience music in more or less the same way that an achromatically color-blind person (that is, someone who sees the world in black and white) experiences visual stimuli, at least when compared to someone like me. To be sure, I’m not a synaesthete: I don’t see specific colors when I hear specific sounds. I do, however, experience key signatures and harmonies in a way I take to be analogous to the perception of color, and because I have perfect relative pitch, this also means that I always “know where I am” when listening to a piece of tonal music.
Let me try to explain myself a bit more impressionistically, though I don’t know whether it’ll help. When I listen to a piece of tonal music, be it a symphonic movement or a three-minute song, I feel as though I’m listening to a short story or novel being read aloud rather than looking at a painting. On the other hand, I experience this musical “story” as a kind of perceptual space through which I move at a rate of speed determined by the composer, in rather the same way that one might envision the “world” of a novel in pictorial terms. And though this space is abstract–I don’t “see” anything when I listen–I’m definitely in a “place” where significant events are unfolding in a meaningful order, even though their meaning cannot be expressed in words or represented by colors and shapes.
That makes sense, doesn’t it? No? Well, I’ll try one last comparison: if you’ve ever seen a plotless ballet by George Balanchine, that will give you a very rough idea of what I’m experiencing when I listen to music.
UPDATE: Sarah writes to remind me of those wonderful lines from Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”: “There’s no love song finer/But how strange the change from major to minor/Ev’ry time we say goodbye.” (Here’s the best recording of that perfect song.) She also passes on this great one-liner:
My favorite quote about keys was attributed to the klezmer clarinetist Sid Beckerman, though he probably stole it from someone else: “D minor: it’s not just a key, it’s a living!”
That’s a musician’s joke.