31 October 2006

SMS and Viral Chamber Music

SMSing
DSM: Both of us are, I know, season ticket-holders. But each of us travels a lot, so we each also attend a lot of individual concerts. And in our home cities, there are conservatory or other performances that get added on—things that we attend when we can, but we don’t subscribe to. And when we attend chamber music events in our home cities, I know we routinely see many new people who take the initiative to come to a particular event. Is there a contest between Subscriberly Commitment vs Single-Experience Choice?

CMT: Not a ‘contest’ as such—just a continuing evolution of existing audience segments, and the emergence of new ones. I do think about this and ask myself “What makes me choose the single-event things that I go to?” Often, it’s the “unusualness” of the program that attracts me, or my good luck at being able to experience a particular artist or ensemble I haven’t heard before. It’s the “purple cow” effect that marketing theorists have written about in the past few years.

DSM: Chris Anderson’s phrase ‘long-tail’ is about durable under-served niches and hyper-specialized market segments. What we’re talking about is instead about transient niches, things that appeal because they address particular unmet needs I have right now, but that I may not have later on. Or I may still have the needs later on, but I won’t necessarily be able or inclined to act on fulfilling them later on.

CMT: Subscribers are obviously essential to performing arts organizations’ operating budgets. And that’s why those organizations’ staff members work so hard to cater to the needs of that committed, more permanent segment of their constituencies. But a lot has changed over the last 10 years, and arts consumers’ habits have changed as well. People’s schedules are more complicated; their competing commitments are more numerous and less predictable with regard to day of week—these factors are behind the growing single-ticket, long-tailed, on-demand crowd.

DSM: That’s true. But I also think an opportunity's being missed to further expand the season-ticket market—a season ticket is a planned program of activity for yourself. Reserving a part of your busy calendar that would otherwise be pre-empted by myriad other things. It might help chamber music presenters to market their series or season-ticket offerings in somewhat the way that spas and healthclubs market their services. It’s planning ahead, investing in your overall well-being. And, maybe if you did it this way, the “membership” would be structured so that the payments for the season subscription would be in monthly installments like a healthclub. You’d still get significant discount compared to à la carte single-ticket event purchases—but not as big a discount as the normal subscriber who pays for the whole season up-front. A monthly installment plan like this would probably work better for younger people and families with kids, too.

CMT: We’re always interested in how we can better deliver the chamber music experience. I think a lot could be translated from Starbucks’ specialty coffee-experience marketing to chamber music marketing.

DSM: And ‘viral’ marketing. How to get your audiences to do your marketing for you. Word-of-mouth marketing.

CMT: Some chamber music presenters are beginning to use text-messaging SMS, I know. “Thanks to the wonders of cell phone text-messaging technology, we're able to send you event reminders right on your phone. Just enter your full phone number and select your service provider from the drop-down list, and we'll beam a message to your phone at the appropriate time.” This is they way the blurbs read on the websites of the chamber groups that are doing this.

DSM: You have to make sure your cell phone provider offers text messaging (aka "SMS") and that this service is enabled for your account/phone. Most cell phones these days come with it. And most telecomm firms offer it as a free service, but some cell phone providers do charge for incoming messages. Then again, others don't. So if you're not sure, you need to contact your provider. (If they do charge, it's likely inexpensive — like, 2 cents per message in the U.S.)

CMT: Be aware that the reliability and timeliness of these messages depends on the phone company. The chamber music presenters may hold up their end of the deal and send out the reminders on time — but your phone service provider, who forwards the message to the subscriber, might introduce a delay—which could be hours. This totally depends on your service provider. So there’s a chance that some who experience delays could be disappointed. Doesn’t happen too often, but, just the same, there is that opportunity for hitches. If people start relying on an automated service, then the reliability of that service does assume a greater importance. That’s something the chamber music presenters will have to monitor.

DSM: In 2004 the Auckland Theatre Company and Chamber Music New Zealand launched a text messaging project called Txt2U to enhance the loyalty of its existing audience and encourage new attendees - particularly young audiences - through the targeted use of this new technology to encouraging younger audiences to attend chamber music concerts. It’s specifically designed to reaching 18 to 25-year-olds. I think the jury’s still out on how effective that program’s been. Finland has, I think, had a similar youth audience development program.

CMT: Developing younger audiences is a priority, you’re right. Through the online communication, the SMS subscribers receive information that helps them to be aware of world-class chamber music performances that would interest them. And for those whose social circles have a definite affinity for classical ensembles, it provides inspiration for their own music-making and gives them a wider appreciation of the artform. A certain number of technology-avid older audience members reportedly appreciate the SMS messaging option, too.

DSM: Keep in mind too that the interactive/bidirectional capabilities of SMS haven’t yet been exploited for reaching these chamber music market segments. All that’s out there right now is basically the unidirectional ‘reminder’ text messaging. But you could just as well set up the application to accept replies of various types from the recipients, for those who wish to send SMS replies. Or you could V-cast MP3 audio samples and/or 3GP video samples of what a particular chamber program will have in it, straight to the person's cell phone. Much more likely to put concert attendees in seats! Those options could be a very dynamic and informative medium for chamber music market research and audience development. There’s no reason why it has to be the passive, unidirectional thing. That was just the simplest way to begin. All the current mobile video services suffer from limited quality and awkward navigation beyond the first push. But it's a start!

You can convert your MPEG or other video files into a master V-cast sample at 15 frames-per-second in 220x176 pixel format—you can do that much for free by using Ulead.com's free trial of their video software. I use Video Studio 10. Then you run it through a 3GP encoder—such as the one from from IMTOO.com—to convert your video sample to a cellphone-compatible 3GP file, and then move the file onto your website to push to subscribers’ cell phones. So it’s easy—definitely something that chamber music presenters can experiment with, and not decimate their modest budgets.

CMT: Today’s audience segments who are using web-based and SMS and other media are sensitized to the program offerings’ tags that organize the flow of information. Things you can do that can help increase chamber music organizations’ eTailing promotions’ effectiveness:
  • Optimize tags, meta description and meta-keywords
  • Include these keywords in the copy on the page, whether it’s a webpage or an SMS message
  • Create copy on category/subcategory pages and alt tags where applicable
  • Create alternative categories when appropriate
  • Utilize internal linking (for example, provide convenient embedded link-out from cellphone SMS text message to chamber group’s website if the use wishes)
  • Provide hyperlinks from main category to subcategories
  • Examine singular vs. plural word forms to see which one gets searched more
  • Make sure the program names and series names reflect the keywords.
Here are some recent things you might like to see:


And here are some hard-copy things you’ll like:



SMSing




30 October 2006

Black-Key Biomechanics

Black Keys
CMT: When we were together last time, you were talking about the natural anatomy of the fingers and biomechanics of how the pianist’s or composer’s hands lie upon the black keys. Did you know that there was an orthopedic surgery journal article about twenty years ago about “E-flat hand,” involving a pianist whose injury primarily affected the ability to play in E-flat? This was by McGregor and Glover, surgeons at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow. The injury mainly concerned abnormally reduced flexion between the index finger and middle finger of the pianist’s right hand. They surgically divided the intertendinous connection between the extensor tendons of the two fingers on the dorsum of the right hand—the dexterity to navigate the black keys, especially in E-flat and C minor, was restored. Well, okay; great. But the notion of an injury differentially affecting performance in just one key, though—that’s just bizarre. Surely that “E-flat hand” title of the article must’ve been some sort of very bad hand-surgeon humor, don’t you imagine? Ian McGregor was a very senior consultant at that time—an editor of that journal even? He could get away with hyperbole, pulling legs a bit. They weren't serious, though!

DSM: Well, yes and no. The concept of an injury exclusively affecting playing in one key but absolutely no other keys is pretty implausible. But the notion of some gradation—some disparity of the relative impact on performance fluency among different key signatures—that does, I think, ring true. How about wrist injuries? Have there been any reported relationships of disabilities of the wrist—to playing fluency in black-intensive key signatures? The way the hands advance in black keys toward the fall-board might be expected to give rise to some susceptibility to wrist-injury-related differences, don’t you imagine? Generally, the wrist should be about on a level with the second joint of the middle finger, when the fingers are properly rounded. The knuckles will then be a little elevated. In fact, they’ll naturally take care of themselves, all things considered. But this changes subtly when you’re on the black keys a lot.

CMT: No—I’m unable to find any papers that’ve been published on wrist lesions’ effect on the ability to play in different key signatures as such. Hand surgery has only a limited role in alleviating pianists' difficulties. Apart from deQuervain’s and nerve-entrapment syndromes, there are few indications for hand surgery. Stabilizing a metacarpophalangeal thumb joint is pretty successful—there are a number of orthopedics hand surgeons doing this in pianists’ hands. Also, performing arthrodesis in painful and unstable distal interphalangeal (DIP) joints is routinely done with good results. The indications for orthopedic surgical procedures on the trapeziometacarpal joint are more controversial—the decision requires more cautious evaluation, the procedure is by no means ‘routine’, and the results aren’t currently as reliably or predictably good. Of course, wrist fractures and rheumatoid arthritis and carpal tunnel and focal dystonia and Linburg-Comstock syndrome and other things do have a big impact on playing overall. But I’ve been unable to find any studies of wrist anatomy or abnormalities differentially affecting fluency in particular keys. Oh, we continually have to work on equal finger development, Czerny-style. As you say, we can never make all our fingers equal—we’ll never make our fourth finger as strong as our thumb no matter what exercises we do. Instead, we learn to so compensate the weight and pressure of each finger so that all can produce serviceably uniform, nearly equivalent sounds. So, injury-type natural experiments aside, are there exercises involving the wrist that inadvertently produce differential effects regarding fluency in different keys?

DSM: Chopin’s étude in sixths is a good example, I think. This study needs a quiet, limpid touch—gliding rather than forceful motion. Play it at first pianissimo—the wrist low, the knuckles a little elevated, the fingers flat. In preparation for each pair of notes raise the fingers and let them down—not with a hard touch, but with a soft one. A composition like this needs to be abstract, ethereal, not quite of this earth.

CMT: Fingers’ reaching for the notes, the passing of the hand in the air and the final gentle fall on the key—not in undue haste to get there, but with confidence of reaching the key in time. What goes up must come down. This barcarolle is not easy! There’s plenty of work in it for flexible hands: it’s a study in pianissimo playing—in power controlled, held back, restrained.

DSM: On violin and other string instruments, too, we have to beware. If there be flat keys here, you’d better fortify your fourth finger! I should stretch my first finger up—or my fourth finger down—in order to play a flatted or sharped note, and my second and third fingers should stay exactly where they usually are in first position. That avoids the problem of drifting out of tune by not coming back to the right place on the string. An irritating new habit that I’ve picked up is letting my left hand slowly drift closed so that my first finger is in the right place but my fourth finger is too close, so I’m playing flat notes all the time. Shifting into half position can cause this—when I shift back to first position my hand has closed up a bit. I’m going to have to struggle to break this bad habit.

CMT: For my piano calisthenics, I play diatonic or chromatic octave scales with four repetitions or more on each note, using the fourth finger for black keys. By the way, the biomechanics of the hand on modern keyboards—has been examined at length by Kroemer and Meinke. There are several phases of finger movement that have been identified:

  • Preposition: This is the phase that controls how the note will sound. It does this by determining where over the point of sound (distance) and what energy state the tip of the finger will have before gravity is allowed to take over. Any of several movements may be seen, ranging from nothing (for pianissimo) to a visible lifting of the limb away from the keyboard before it drops (for a loud and percussive fortissimo). The muscles of pronation and supination in the forearm invariably participate in this phase, and give the tiny movement a rotary component. They are large enough to develop and direct momentum in the limb yet small enough to be capable of the fine control needed to give the striking member the exact amount of speed and force that will produce the required sound. The fingers move into position to act as a conduit for the combined downward vectors, but does so against no more resistance that the resting tension of the hand held in “neutral.”
  • Grasp: From the time gravity is allowed to act on the limb until movement away from the key, the only active forces are those sufficient to prevent the deviation of the wrist and finger from neutral position. At this point the fingers are passive conductors of force. If more than one finger is to play, the opportunity presents itself through motions of the arm and forearm to direct relatively more of the available force into one or the other, thus giving a different tonal quality and intensity to each of the tones produced. In particular, no other increased intrinsic tension is present, such as might be seen if the next finger to play began to stretch toward its target position. If the note is to be held, the limb presses the key to the key bed by the force of gravity alone until the note is released. If it is not, then the momentum imparted to the limb by the rebound from the key bed is used to “propel” it into the next reach.
  • Release: Defined as the point at which all downward vectors of force have disappeared from the playing finger, release should probably not be considered complete until the playing finger has reached neutral position and intrinsic (isotonic) forces are at a minimum. When possible it will use the rebound from the key bed as a force propelling the finger away from the key. The trajectory of movement away from the key will be such that this movement assists rather than opposes the next reach.

DSM: You have to somehow passively conduct the energy that’s produced by other parts of your body. First of all, the element of control resides in that period of time just before gravity is allowed to act, the preposition portion of the cycle. Gravity has to carry the mass of the forelimb through the point of sound if it is to be utilized as a force. Any attempt to control the sound after the preposition phase interferes with this. Because the movements associated with preposition are so small, little is known about them.

CMT: Also, the shorter the cycle (keystrokes in quick succession), especially when the passage is loud, the more the player’s forced to utilize extrinsic forces to maintain a level of kinetic energy in his or her upper limbs. This way, passages that seem to defy the limits of human physiology are within reach.

DSM: Wristen’s recent papers have looked at specific matches of the player’s hands to the keys. Small-handed pianists preferred a smaller 7/8-size keyboard. The maximum angle of hand-span while playing a difficult piece was about 5° smaller radially and 10° smaller ulnarly for the 7/8 keyboard compared to the full-size keyboard. That led to perceived greater ease and better performance as rated by the pianists who were studied.

CMT: Look also at Miyazaki’s experiments, where he asked his subjects to identify tones by pressing the corresponding key on a piano-like keyboard—on which the black keys are smaller and further away from the subject. Could it be, they wondered, that people identified black keys more slowly because the black keys are biomechanically harder to reach? They conducted an experiment where all the buttons were geometrically equally easy for the fingers to reach. But they discovered that white keys were nonetheless identified more quickly and with fewer errors than the black ones. So there’s more going on here besides the geometry of the keyboard design—there’s also visual perception and neuropsychology of black vs white recognition.

DSM: There’s also the muscle memory—routinized associations of digits positions on keys. The thumb always stays on the white keys, never on black keys. The fourth finger always plays a black key when there is a black key to be played in the scale. The fifth finger is only used at a starting place, a stopping place, or a turning-around place. These are rules that brook not very many exceptions. And Miyazaki didn’t do the full inverse experiment with the black and white in reversed configuration.

CMT: Yes, all of these factors interact with each other. We learn to be aware of the physical activity and sensual nature of touching the keyboard in a wide variety of ways. We attend to the way a finger moves from white key to black key in the production of a melodic phrase. Awareness is also given to the way the hand must stretch, contract and shape itself to a particular melodic pattern. In this fashion, the body learns how to measure musical time in a tangible way thereby creating an exact correlation between aural thought and physical response and measurement.

DSM: We were talking about flat fingers a few minutes ago. Advantages of the so-called flat-finger position (FFP) are that this position simplifies the pianist’s finger motion and lets the fingers to relax a bit. The number of muscles needed to control the finger motion is smaller than in positions where the fingers are more curled—because all you have to do is to pivot the whole finger around the knuckle. In the curled position, each finger has to uncurl with precision every time it hits a note, in order to maintain the correct finger angle with respect to the key. The motion in FFP uses only the main finger-actuating muscles needed to press the keys. In curled positions, there’s a “latency” or delay to the finger motion; it’s more difficult to begin the finger motion and control it. The easiest way to move the finger tip rapidly in fully curled positions is to move the entire hand—and that slows things down a lot—big inertia constraint.

CMT: So with the curled position you need more physiological reserve to play at the same speed as you’d need with FFP. Contrary to conventional wisdom, you can play faster with flat fingers than with the curled position because any amount of curl will entail some curl-related latency or delay. This is important when the speed produces stress when you face a difficult passage. The amount of stress is greater in the curled position, and this difference can be enough to make you hit a speed “wall”.

DSM: There are discussions in the piano literature in which it’s claimed that the lumbrical and interossei muscles are important in piano playing, but to-date there’s no research to support these claims, and it’s not known whether these muscles play a part in FFP. It is generally believed that these muscles are used mainly to control the curvature of the fingers, so that FFP uses only the muscles in the arms to move the fingers and the lumbricals simply hold the fingers in position (curled or FFP), thus simplifying the movement and allowing for greater control and speed for FFP. Thus there is uncertainty today about whether the lumbricals enable higher speed or whether they cause curl paralysis.

CMT: Although FFP is simpler, I think all beginners should learn the curled position first and not learn the flat position until it’s actually needed. I do this with my students. If beginners start with the easier FFP, they’ll never learn the curled position well. Early players who try to play fast with FFP are likely to use fixed-phase parallel-set playing—they are then prevented from getting good finger independence. This makes for inadequate control, uneven speeds—lots of problems, lots of bad habits to break. Sandor calls the FFPs “wrong positions,” but Fink recommends certain positions that are clearly FFPs. I think it’s just a question of when to introduce the student to FFP.

DSM: Interestingly, most pianists who learn on their own use mostly FFPs. Jazz pianists—many of whom took lessons at some time in their youth but have been essentially self-taught in adult life—use FFPs more than classical pianists. And because many jazz pianists have inferior technique—but get by with it because there is less technical difficulty in jazz than in classical piano—the inferior technique tends to be spuriously blamed on the [self-styled, naïve] FFP. It’s lack of instruction and lack of critical coaching, not the use of FFP!

CMT: Regardless of FFP vs curled, the fourth finger is problematic for most people. Part of this arises from the anatomy of the muscles and tendons—it’s the most awkward finger to lift. That, in turn, makes it difficult to play fast and avoid hitting wrong notes. But the problem is worse in the curled position because of the complex motion and the latency that the curling of the finger induces. In the simpler flat-finger configuration, the problem is alleviated, and the fourth finger becomes more independent and easier to lift. If you place your hand on a flat surface in the curled position and lift the fourth finger, it will go up a certain distance. If you do this with FFP, the finger tip will go up a lot more. So it’s easier to lift the fingers, especially the fourth finger, in FFP. The ease of lifting reduces the stress when playing fast. Also, when trying to play difficult passages fast using the curled position, fingers 4 and 5 sometimes curl too much, creating more stress. These problems are diminished by using FFP.

DSM: Another advantage of flat-finger is that that position increases your reach because the fingers are already extended and straight. You can see this in videos of Horowitz and Gould. For this reason, pianists with small hands tend already to use the flat position for playing wide chords, often without realizing it. However, such people can feel “guilty” about the lack of curl and try to increase the curl. In doing this, they generate stress in the hand.

CMT: Another advantage of the FFP is that the fingers are pressing the keys with the part of the fingers with more flesh than at the finger tips. There’s some controversy about which part—the finger tip vs the fleshy part—is more sensitive to touch, in terms of the number of nerve endings and the degree to which the thickness of skin, or callus, or other factors.

DSM: With flat fingers, you can play the black keys using most of the large underside areas of the fingers; this large surface area can be used to avoid missing the black keys that are easy to miss in the curled position because they are so narrow. So it’s a good idea to play the black keys with your flatter fingers and the white keys with the fingers that have more curvature in their anatomy.

CMT: When your fingers are stretched out flat, look, you can reach further back towards the fallboard. It does require a little more force to depress the keys because of less leverage stemming from the shorter distance to the key bushing. The resulting heavier key weight allows you to play softer pianissimo. So the ability to move closer to the key bushing results in the ability to increase the effective key weight. The heavier key weight allows more control and softer pianissimo.

DSM: The FFP also allows louder fortissimo, especially for the black keys. There are two reasons. First, the area of the finger available for contact is larger and there is a thicker cushion, as explained above. Therefore, you can transmit a larger force with less chance of injury or pain. Second, the increased accuracy resulting from the larger contact area helps to produce an authoritative and reproducible fortissimo. In the curled position, the probability of miss-keying narrow black keys is pretty high—especially at fortissimo.

CMT: The ability to play fortissimo more reliably is something I hadn’t thought of before. But I’d be careful when you using FFP playing fortissimo. You’re risking hyper-extending those tendons, especially for finger 5.

DSM: I think practicing FFP should begin with the B major scale. In this key, all fingers play black keys except and 5th finger and thumb. The fingering for the right hand is standard for this scale, but the left hand has to start with the fourth finger on B.

CMT: The flat finger position is a sensitive diagnostic for technical deficiencies because of the difference in mechanical leverage at the metacarpal-phalageal joint. The fingers are stretched out longer.

DSM: If you have difficulties playing flat-fingered, try some black-key parallel-set exercises. Play all five black keys with the five fingers. Play the two-note group with thumb and forefinger and the three-note group with the remaining three fingers. There is an intermediate position in which the fingers are bent down only at the knuckles. This is called the “pyramid” position because the hand and fingers form a pyramid with the knuckles at the apex. This pyramid position is good for fast passages because it combines the advantages of the curled and flat positions.

CMT: We need a broader definition of “flat finger” playing. The straight FFP is just an extreme case, and there are lots of variations of positions between the totally flat position the curled position. In addition to the pyramid position, you can bend the fingers at the first joint from the knuckle—the “spider position,” for example. Most curl-related latency comes from bending the third phalanx of the finger. This can be demonstrated by bending only the third phalanx (if you can) and then trying to move that finger fast. The FFP simplifies the brain’s motor cortex task. Because you don’t involve the flexor muscle of the third phalanx, there are 10 fewer flexor muscles to control, and these are particularly awkward and slow muscles. So flat-finger technique that minimizes dependency on them can increase your playing speed. The flat-finger position gives more control because the relaxed third phalange is like a shock absorber—there is more flesh between the bone and the key surface. Playing with a curled position is like driving a car without shock absorbers.

DSM: You may want to lower the bench in order to be able to play with the flat part of the fingers. When the bench is lowered, it usually becomes necessary to move it farther away from the piano to provide enough room for the arms and elbows to move between the keyboard and the body. I used to sit too high and too close to the piano, which is not noticeable when playing with curled fingers. So using FFPs give you a more forgiving way to optimize the bench height and location.

CMT: At the lower heights, the wrists might sometimes fall below the level of the keyboard while you’re playing. Sitting farther away from the piano also gives you more space to lean forwards in order to play fortissimo. The extra reach, the large contact area, and the added cushion under the fingers—these make legato playing easier and quite different from legato using the curled position. The FFP also makes it easier to play two notes with one finger, especially because you can play with the fingers not parallel to the keys and use a very large area under the finger to hold more than one key down.

DSM: We should talk, too, about when you need the curled position. This position is not really an intentionally curled position but a relaxed position in which there’s a natural anatomical curl to the fingers. If you have a relaxed position that’s too straight, you may need to add a slight curl in order to get an optimal curled position. In this position, all the fingers contact the keys at an angle somewhat greater than 45 degrees (the thumb might make a somewhat smaller angle). There are some movements that are necessary for playing the piano that require the curled position. Some of these are: playing certain white keys (when the other fingers are playing black keys), playing between the black keys, and for avoiding poking your fingernails into the fallboard. Especially for pianists with large hands, it’s necessary to curl fingers 2, 3, and 4 when 1 and 5 are playing the black keys in order to avoid jamming fingers 2, 3, and 4 into the fallboard. One of the biggest disadvantages of the curled position is that the extensor muscles aren’t exercised as much as with FFP. The flexor muscles are able to overpower the extensors, and this creates control problems. In FFP, the flexor muscles are relaxed and not exercised as much. In fact, the flexor tendons are stretched out, and the fingers more flexible in general—less crampy. I wonder whether the incidence of focal dystonia is less in pianists who use FFP a lot, compared to those who primarily use curled positions…

CMT: What about the pedagogical controversy—whether we should play mostly with the curled position and add the FFP whenever necessary, or vice versa, as Horowitz did? I think a legacy of clavichord and fortepiano pedagogy is being visited upon the seventh generation of concert grand players here. Liszt suggested that each movement of the finger was connected with the whole process of movement of the playing arm, and that each rhythmic and dynamic change was linked to an inner pulse. One of Liszt’s rules was that technique doesn’t depend on exercise per se, but on the technique of exercise. Chopin also mentioned the importance of integrating hand, wrist, forearm and upper arm motions for piano playing. This is part of what led to the diversity of opinions that we see today among pianists regarding correct finger action.

DSM: Think about how FFP and what that entails for the position of the hand relative to the forearm and upper arm—how these are related to bench height. It’s easier to play with flat fingers when the bench is lower. There are lots of pianists who discover that they can play better with a lower bench position. Horowitz and Gould were examples. They claimed to get better control from FFP and the lower bench. There’s no good reason to sit overly low as Gould did, though—because you can always lower the wrist to get the same effect.

Here are some resources that may be of interest:

And here are some relevant sources worth looking at:





28 October 2006

Your Flat Affect

The Real Schwarzwald
DSM: Vladimir Feltsman’s treatment of Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat major last night was wonderful! The conversational gestures—written by Haydn for Frau Marianne von Genzinger in about 1790—evoked a delightful range of diverting topics. Really cheerful—optimistic. Not contented, mind you, but happy with life—expressing gladness for the friendship these two shared. I was reminded of how extroverted and sanguine E-flat can be.

CMT: To suggest that features that evoke those emotions in one person are universal to all persons—or are caused by a specific key signature—is deeply misguided. How could it be that a universalized emotion is determined uniquely by any key? E-flat major sounds happy because it conveys the idea of a happy emotion through how the composition is built—not because it’s in E-flat major per se. Oh, yes, lower transcriptions or arrangements are always less bright than the higher versions. Transposed lower versions tend to sound muddy and darker than the original. But why not E? Why not F? How much difference could a half-tone or a whole-tone make?!

DSM: Well, surprisingly small shifts can and do change the whole complexion of things. I've seen this when a string piece is played with a shifted A—for example, A=415 Hz instead of A=440 Hz—a difference of 6%, basically one step. I've got a CD recording of some Haydn string quartets with gut strings tuned at A=415 Hz, and I've got another recording of the same pieces played with modern instruments at A=440 Hz. The higher versions are distinctly brighter. I don’t always associate a specific emotion with a certain key, but my perception of the work is modulated by the brightness of the higher pitch.

CMT: In reading Rice’s book on Salieri, we’re reminded that Salieri was a believer “Key Characteristics” or key-colors—attributions of specific emotions (or at least ‘moods’) to most keys. I’d thought such assignments had to be in the literature somewhere, so I looked—the book by Rita Steblin has tabulations of them. And here's Rice (p. 110): “Another extensive list of key characteristics appeared… by the Italian violinist Francesco Galeazzi (1758-1819) in Vol. 2 of his treatise, Elementi Teorico-pratici di Musica (1796)… Galeazzi’s opening remarks are as follows: It is certain that the wise composer begins with the choice of key in order to support the character of the words. It is true that a clever artist knows how to express any affect in any key, and knows how to write a cheerful composition in the key of E-flat and a sad one in D. But, he will certainly have to confess that doing so presupposes great skill, long experience and the best judgment in the choice of chords and in the arrangement and disposition of the parts. It clear that all the keys of modern music, although they all have the same proportions and intervals, nevertheless have different characters, which is of importance for the composer to know intimately. Here are the principal characteristics of the keys:

  • C: Vogler 1779: Pure; Schubart 1787: Pure, innocent, simple, naïve; Knecht 1792: Cheerful, pure; Galeazzi 1796: Grandiose, military, serious, majestic
  • G: Vogler 1779: Naïve, innocent, rustic pleasure; Schubart 1787: Rustic, idyllic, calm, tender, love; Knecht 1792: Pleasant, rustic; Galeazzi 1796: Innocent, simple, indifferent
  • D: Vogler 1779: Enlivening, heroic, impudent; Schubart 1787: Triumph, rejoicing, war-cries, marches; Knecht 1792: Pompous, noisy; Galeazzi 1796: Cheerful, gay, tumultuous, fests
  • A: Vogler 1779: Sharp, amorous, tender passion; Schubart 1787: Love, satisfaction, hope, cheerfulness; Knecht 1792: Cheerful, bright; Galeazzi 1796: Harmonious, cheerful, affectionate, playful
  • E: Vogler 1779: Fiery, piercing flames; Schubart 1787: Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure; Knecht 1792: Wild, fiery; Galeazzi 1796: Piercing, shrill, youthful, harsh
  • B: Vogler 1779: None listed; Schubart 1787: Strong, wild passions, glaring colours, despair; Knecht 1792: None listed; Galeazzi 1796: Harsh, piercing, cries of despair
  • F: Vogler 1779: Dead calm; Schubart 1787: Complaisance, calm; Knecht 1792: Gentle, calm
    Galeazzi 1796: Majestic, shrill
  • B-flat: Vogler 1779: Twilight; Schubart 1787: Cheerful love, hope; Knecht 1792: Lovely, tender
    Galeazzi 1796: Tender, soft, sweet, love, grace, charm
  • E-flat: Vogler 1779: Night; Schubart 1787: Love, devotion; Knecht 1792: Splendid, solemn; Galeazzi 1796: Heroic, majestic
  • A-flat: Vogler 1779: Plutonian realm (?); Schubart 1787: The grave, death; Knecht 1792: Black, night; Galeazzi 1796: Gloomy, low, deep
  • D-flat: Vogler 1779: None listed; Schubart 1787: Degenerate, unusual feelings; Knecht 1792: None listed; Galeazzi 1796: None listed
  • G-flat: Vogler 1779: None listed; Schubart 1787: Triumphant after fierce struggles; Knecht 1792: None listed; Galeazzi 1796: None listed

Generally speaking, a “None Listed” means that the writer regarded the key as valuable only for transitions from one key to another, not a proper key to set music to. Of the four lists, Galeazzi comes closer to what many people see as the moods associated with Mozart’s choices of keys. This could be either because Galeazzi approaches this from the viewpoint of opera—the idiom that typifies Mozart’s use of key-color—or that Mozart’s efforts had by 1797 become associated with the prevailing ‘standard’. Or else it’s just coincidence.

DSM: One bit of evidence that particular keys convey no inherent emotions is the Mozart Clarinet Concerto’s middle movement—in D, a generally happy key for Mozart—but it’s used there to evoke a melancholy affect. So, is D happy or melancholy? Neither. But a counter-example is the popular early 20th-Century American composer, Irving Berlin, who ostensibly composed all his songs in one key, regardless of their subject material. They were then transposed to keys that “fit” the mood that he intended.

CMT: Don’t you think our response to different emotional values in different keys is more a learned or trained response than an inherent one? Is C minor really a gloomy key, or has enough gloomy music been composed in it so as to make the listener hear ‘gloomy’ in the key regardless of how it’s used?

DSM: Amazingly, C minor does strike me as intrinsically and reliably gloomy. Other keys are more neutral to my ear. Oh, yes, my analytical bent strongly predisposes me to deny that a key signature manifests any specific mood. Yet, if I’m being honest with myself, how would I go about proving that there’s no emotion associated with a particular key? I mean, while there’s no absolute requirement to prove that there isn’t an emotional tag to a particular key, we do see that most people assent to a suggestion that there is such an emotion tag. Is this just alacrity on their part? How do we know? Do we find someone who has absolutely no knowledge of music, and play such people the same piece in different keys and ask them to describe the emotion they perceive each time? Do 18FdG PET or functional MRI imaging of the brain when each of the different keys are used? We easily could do that these days, you know!

CMT: My argument would be that the evolution of music over the centuries has caused particular keys to be identified with particular emotive forces. If Bach and Telemann all produced happy works in D, then the public and other composers tend to empirically associate that key with that affect. The durability of that de facto “Happy-D” association would span generations and centuries. It’s part of our received culture. Subsequent composers emulate the effects achieved by their forebears, and audiences relate newer works in D to the older ones.

DSM: So if there’s emotion in there, it’s because generation after generation invests in its being there. The tables in Steblin’s book show how composers and the public viewed the keys during their times. Perceptions have evolved over time. But these old lists do provide a gauge for what we expect from keys, not what they are.

CMT: The reason why a work in D major sounds triumphant is because that’s a good key to use when the composer wants to write parts for, say, standard B-flat trumpets. It’s the trumpets’ qualities that generate the triumphal affect—not the key of D major. Mozart uses D major in sacred music during movements such as “Hosanna”—a triumphant mood. And Süssmayr wrote Sanctus in D major so the trumpets can bring home a triumphal “Holy, holy, holy.”

DSM: Look, there’s little doubt that G minor’s a special key for Mozart. He only used it to evoke a particular shade of melancholy. But that doesn’t mean that the key intrinsically carries that emotion. It’s just how Mozart perceived it in the context of instruments of his day and the color and timbre that they had.

CMT: The issue isn’t one person’s emotional attachment to a particular key signature, but rather whether each key signature creates a similar emotional perception in every person. I don’t think that any correlation like that has been or can be established—and surely not a causal connection. It’s a little like Wittgenstein and philosophy of language. The consensual, empirical correlation of the semantics of a key is weak and inconsistent. Nowhere near causal or intrinsic!

DSM: What you’re saying is valid, I’m sure. And my inner scientist agrees with you. But I’m astonished by how strong my certainty of the semantics of chamber music is! And why did Mozart reserve some of his most tragic statements or moments for C minor, and Beethoven too? It can’t be for just surface-level mechanical reasons! On the modern 88-key piano, there’re relatively few technical performance constraints or anatomical constraints that would compel a composer to write in a particular key. Oh, yes, a piece can be played in any key whatever—something Mozart demonstrated when he toured by transposing entire pieces extemporaneously! But he did that as a curiosity! He was not only showing off—he was also challenging the then-current Enlightenment salon notions about natural philosophy and key color. He was playing with—stimulating and maybe poking fun at—the prejudices and pretentions-to-knowledge of his patrons!

CMT: Your positing tragedy severity levels in music is curious. Maybe a set of pieces can be rank-ordered from least tragic to most tragic. And—seeing how impressed you are with the durability of your own perceptions of these minor keys’ affects—maybe if you revisit your ranking of the pieces over the years you’ll even be consistent with yourself. But you can’t guarantee that others would agree on your rankings. The order of their rankings will surely differ from yours!

DSM: Sure! But a disperson of opinion—the lack of total, unanimous agreement does’t mean that there is total lack of demographically-prevalent, mostly-concordant understanding. When in other human linguistic realms do you ever have perfectly concordant agreement on semantics?! Why can’t we say that E-flat is predominantly happy and loving and triumphal—allowing for some hold-outs? Why can’t we acknowledge that D minor is sad, very sad, to a majority of hearers? And, as for key selection being made based to a considerable degree upon mechanistic issues—which trumpets to use and which clarinets to employ and so on—yes, it does involve practical, instrument-construction-related, physics-related, and anatomical reasons. The existence of those very real considerations doesn’t prove the impossibility of a neuropsychology of key color and mood perception in music! The two concepts are completely independent, logically speaking. In Mozart’s A major piano concerto, K. 488, the clarinets play in the first and last movement. Why don’t they play in the middle movement? Did Mozart suddenly decide that he did not like clarinets? Isn’t it true that F-sharp minor is a “forbidden key” for those instruments? Do you deny that performance technical practicalities can and do constrain the composer’s selection of key?

CMT: No, I don’t deny that. But look at the piano sonatas—with those, there’s no need to think about the practicality of keys for any other instruments. We have the C minor fantasia and sonata for solo piano. We have the fugue for two pianos in C minor. Since there’s no need to coordinate keys with the contingencies and constraints that affect other instruments, Mozart chooses C minor. Now the A minor piano sonata is beautiful, but it’s a related key—the relative-minor of C!

DSM: I’ll see you and raise you Mozart’s C minor piano concerto—which is way more tormented sounding than the D minor! It corresponds closely to Beethoven’s 32nd sonata, in my mind.

CMT: And, tell me: why is the C minor Mass in C minor?!

DSM: Mozartian clairvoyance! His muse did it—Mozart himself wasn’t responsible! No, silly! Where Mozart’s hands gravitated to on the keyboard—a spark of Eureka!—and he likes a key and timbre that started out happenstantially as he was sketching—he just went with it! Why do you have to project your own methodical, polishing ways onto genius composers?! There is the Heideggerian toolness of the instrument used for the sketching; the gestalt of it; the inner game of it. He didn't deliberate consciously over it, probably; he just did it! Oh, and we have something that I’ve mentioned to you before—Mozart’s middle movements, the andante/adagio archetype that Solomon talks about. In many of Mozart’s sparkling pieces—the Sinfonia Concertante, for example—the middle movement is in C minor, the relative minor of E-flat. Also in K. 271’s middle movement, the tragic opening statement is in C minor. Tragic, sure’n’ if it isn’t!

CMT: I don’t disagree that the choice of keys has practical motivations. And I’ll grant you that frequently, when practical instrument-related considerations aren’t a factor, Mozart still chooses C minor. Many musicologists have discussed how A minor works in Mozart’s A minor Sonata. It’s more shocking sounding—maybe appropriate for the circumstances at the time. It’s not the dark, ordinary C minor you’re raising with your other examples.

DSM: Of course, reasonable people can always agree to disagree. I’m searching this in one of my books. Do you think that Chopin and Schumann were sensitive to color issues in choice of keys?

CMT: Well, yes. I think that key choices by 18th-Century composers was mostly a matter of practical concern. The keys were predominantly chosen to accommodate the instruments that they wanted to feature—including the smaller keyboards in those days. But I still maintain that, for any key to hold emotion separate from the harmony, we’d all have to sense the same emotion. We’d all have to feel bright and sunny when listening to any piece in A major. We don’t.

DSM: What we really need is a datamining algorithm to check which keys would’ve been available to each composer, and then impute association-rules for the key selected by the composer. Practical keyboard considerations—you might say that the key of C is more difficult to play in than D or E because the hands are in a more stretched, extended position, making the thumb more awkward to go under when it needs to. D and E and A are easier fingering than C is. And F can be difficult even though it has only one flat—because of the thumb problem when going from B-flat to C when that’s required. In Mozart, there are a great many scale passages, yet he presented these keys rather than others even though technically nothing forced him to do this.

CMT: Incidentally, that’s supposed to be why Czerny wrote his exercises for dexterity in certain keys—to get the player to build consistency regardless of the key.

DSM: When we look at Bach—the French Suites, for example—the range of the notes covers a span that’s narrower than Mozart’s piano sonatas. Yet several are written in keys where there’re lots of accidentals.

CMT: Thinking about the evolution of the piano and as the piano keyboard got larger—why would Chopin write Nocturnes and Études in these really bizarre keys? Schubert wrote an Impromptu in G-flat. You've got to admit that these pieces could’ve been written in other keys that would have been simpler for the performer and the composer.

DSM: Have you ever heard of a March composed for the piano in G-flat? Then why an Impromptu in G-flat?

CMT: If you play Chopin, you know that you’d better be prepared to play even double-flatted notes! I’m not saying I’ve got a monopoly on the truth, but for every argument you make that practical and biomechanics/ergonomics considerations dominate the decision, I could offer counter examples where they don’t! So, then what do we do?

DSM: Look at this! The Études Nos. 12 of both Op. 10 and Op. 25— both of the No. 12’s are in C minor. The No. 11 of Op. 10 is in the relative E-flat major.

CMT: Once upon a time, I played horn concertos. There are a lot of ’em in flat keys—E-flat or F or B-flat. The reason is that the instrument sounds especially resonant there. And it’s more nimble in those keys—rapid fingering is easier in those keys, and the physics of the air-column in the instrument is more congenial to an elegant, virtuosic execution. Fewer worries, fewer clams.

DSM: What is this, a chicken-egg scenario? Did Mozart “love” the key and then write music to fit, or did he write music then find a key to make it fit the instrument ?

CMT: I think Mozart’s Piano Sonatas were primarily if not solely based on his improvizations and sketching. They were then written out and he chose a key that made them fit the instrument at hand. I think the music takes priority, not the key. If the key signature evoked emotion in his mind, or great importance, why doesn’t he ever mention it? Hanslick says “The key of A flat major does not always indicate romantic feelings, the key of B minor always misanthropic ones, every triad a feeling of satisfaction and every diminished seventh a feeling of despair. Aesthetically speaking, these rudimentary associations vanish when subordinated to other organizing principles.”

DSM: You’re an ex-pat brass player, now among the tribe of keyboardists! You're in Rome and ought to do as we Romans do—you haven’t considered yet how the tempering/tuning of the piano affects things. In the Young temperament, for example, the keys of C, F, G, B-flat and D are much smoother sounding than in Equal Temperament (ET). E-flat and A are almost identical. So the majority of keys are the same or better than ET in terms of consonance in the thirds. Having the five most remote keys possessing a higher degree of expressiveness is just a bonus! When you consider the overwhelmingly prevalent use of seven “better” keys in classical music, it’s hard to ignore the benefit they offer. Is it coincidence that the frequency of key usage in Beethoven’s, Mozart’s and Schubert’s piano works correlates to the amount of tempering in tonic thirds?

CMT: Notice the frequent recourse Beethoven has to E-flat—either it’s an idiosyncrasy of his, or a convenience he availed himself of—of using a key that’s in the middle of the circle of fifths. But without that, we see that the number of times he uses any given major key is in proportion to the levels of dissonance in the key’s thirds, assuming Well-Temperament. Notice how often he uses C (8 times), G (12), D(7), A (5), E (4), B (1), F-sharp (1), C-sharp (0), A-flat (4), E-flat (15), B-flat (6), F (11). Notice the progression? It mimics the rank-ordered prevalence of dissonance in well-temperament. Also, see how much he uses F-sharp and B, the most dissonant keys, and what sort of music he writes in A-flat (the Pathetique and a funeral march, among other things). Take a look at these, too:
  • E-flat Trio No. 1
  • E-flat Sonata No. 4
  • E-flat Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3
  • E-flat Quintet in E flat for Piano and Winds
  • E-flat Sonata No. 13
  • E-flat Sonata No. 18
  • E-flat Bagatelles, Op. 33
  • E-flat Variations and Fugue in E flat, “Eroica”
  • E-flat Piano Concerto No. 5, “Emperor”
  • E-flat Sonata No. 26, Das Lebewohl
  • E-flat Bagatelles, Op. 126
  • E-flat 7 Variations on “Bei Mannern, welche Liebe fuhlen” WoO 46
  • C minor Sonata No. 05
  • C minor Sonata No. 8, “Pathetique”
  • C minor Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 7
  • C minor Piano Concerto No. 3
  • C minor Sonata No. 32

DSM: When we look at Mozart, the same correlation is there—in Schubert’s piano music, too. And when we look at composers who worked in a more Equal-Tempered area (Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Debussy), we see the reliance on the keys change to suit the new fashion. Equal-Tempering was “in” in the late 19th Century.

CMT: Examining the composers’ output in the mean-tone era, we see a total avoidance of the so-called “wolf keys”. Isn’t it phenomenal that these composers concur regarding key choices—in the same basic pattern—and that in each “temperament era" the levels of dissonance in the keys and the key usage show so much conformity?

DSM: I think the qualities of temperament exerted a big influence on composition—the choices of keys the composers made. The influence was structural, glacial, pervasive. It isn’t like they would’ve achieved this degree of concordance by pedagogy or any social means. It was the temperament in the instruments. It was in the air they were breathing. You can go ‘inside’ composers’ works and show that their modulations create coherent progressions of dissonance leading to resolutions if Well-Tempering is used, and that these progressions of dissonance tend not to occur in any key but the one that was chosen. I realize that the evidence—indeed, evidence of this type—is more persuasive with a pianist than with people who have other training.

CMT: The defining characteristic of Well-Temperament is the allocation of dissonance between the keys. Everybody gets some dissonance; nobody is privileged or spared. But some keys were more equal than others, to paraphrase Orwell. There was a common form to all Well Temperament schemes. The common form was that the “all white note” keys of C major and A minor (no accidentals in the key signature) contained the most harmoniously-tuned major thirds—more in tune than modern Equal Temperament. The other “simple” keys such as G or F or E minor were slightly tempered. Keys with yet more accidentals (requiring the use of more black notes) were allocated a greater amount of dissonance. So there's a range of harmony and dissonance available to the composer, and the range is non-uniformly distributed among the key signatures.

DSM: Piano technicians know that, I guess, but many of us players never had occasion to learn about it. Associations between emotional response and musical harmony are very old—they were discussed in ancient Greece even. Certain tunings (modes), were considered warlike—others were regarded as peaceful. Some tunings, according to Plato, should not be heard by developing young minds, while exposure to others was considered essential to intellectual development.

CMT: By Beethoven’s time, the concept of “Key Character” (different keys’ indexing specific emotional meanings) was in full bloom. The widely read and influential list of keys and their affective qualities, written by Christian Schubart and published in 1806, contained the fashionable descriptions for all major and minor keys. In this list, he describes the “character” of keys:
  • “C minor. Declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. ---All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key.”
  • “E major. Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E major.”
  • “C-sharp minor. Penitential lamentation;.......sighs of disappointed friendship and love lie in its radius.”
  • “C major is completely pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naivety, children’s talk”

These were the descriptions for 19th-Century audiences who expected and wanted to be emotionally moved in more or less predictable ways. Modern sensibilities don’t as readily submit to such control. But we are still affected by the composer’s use of dissonance and harmony if the contrasts are there.

DSM: In a significant number of people, consonant intervals cause physiological reactions like decreased heartrate, respiration, pupil dilation, and so on—consistent with a sedating, vagal, vasodilating response—while highly-tempered (dissonant) intervals tend to cause stimulating adrenergic sympathetic activation. This says that differing levels of physical consonance and dissonance are neuropsychological tools for a composer intent on eliciting emotional responses from the audience.

CMT: Accepting that any specific emotional “meaning” a musical key represents is an ineffable quality (since “meaning” is subjective and depends on far more than the tuning), it’s still obvious that so-called Just intervals have a different musical nature and effect from tempered ones. The piano sonata form allows wide opportunity for a composer to structure musical tension with points of relaxation— to ove the listener from edgy anticipation to tranquil resolution. This is how tonality and color work!

DSM: André Félibien in 1666 was the first to establish yellow, red and blue as the basis of the color system for pigment and reflected light. At the same time Newton was making his first experiments with prisms and transmitted and refracted light. And in 1672 he associated tonal intervals with the colors in the spectrum, ‘for the Analogy of Nature is to be observed’ (Hypothesis Explaining the Properties of Light, 1675). There are lingering remnants of cosmological thinking in Newton too when he traces connections between colors, notes and planets. A relationship between color and musical intervals now seemed to have a physical foundation, and the idea had Newton’s authority to support it. Praise for Newton’s Opticks (1704), in which he returned to the analogy, was widespread in England, France, Germany, and Russia. Because of Newton, ideas of the relationship between color and music developed rapidly in the 18th Century.

CMT: So, despite our apprehensions about any theory concerning intrinsic association of keys and moods, we both agree that E-flat delivers bold, jolly, triumphal effects. And we agree that it’s a very good key for brass instruments. Three of Mozart’s completed horn concerti and Haydn’s famous Trumpet Concerto are all in E-flat major, and so is Anton Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony with its prominent horn theme in the first movement. Another famous heroic piece in the key of E-flat major is Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). And how about these?
  • Trumpet Concerto in E-flat - Haydn
  • Great Gate of Kiev (the last movement from Pictures at an Exhibition) - Moussorgsky
  • Nocturne in E Flat Op.9 No.2 - Chopin
  • Quintet in E flat for Piano and Winds, K. 452. - Mozart
  • Schubert Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat major, D. 929 (Op. 100) contains the dreamlike qualities attributed to Schubert today.
  • Cello Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 1010 - Bach
  • Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor, BWV 1011 - Bach
  • Sonata in C minor for violin and harpsichord, BWV 1017 - Bach
  • Sonata in E-flat major for flute or recorder and harpsichord, BWV 1031 - Bach
  • Prelude Op. 11, No. 19, in E-flat major - Scriabin
  • Prelude Op. 17, No. 2, in E-flat major – Scriabin

DSM: Look at the String Quartet, in C minor, Op. 18, No.4 - Beethoven’s most emotional choice of keys - the Fifth Symphony, as well as the Violin Sonata No. 7, both turbulent works, are written in this key. String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 74 - Beethoven slow movement covers some dark emotions

CMT: And don’t forget that Berlioz said that E-flat minor is inherently “vague and very mournful.”

DSM: Enhance the musical text! Provide the emotional nuance of the moment! Make the result an organic unit! The process necessarily includes the choice of keys—usually tending for the darker colors provided here by E-flat minor with five songs, and B-flat minor, with four. The sharp keys (A,D and G majors) are used in only four instances, these being for the more joyous motifs.

CMT: It’s written for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. It is in three movements: Largo—Allegro Moderato, Larghetto and Allegretto—and this structure closely mimicks sonata form. The first movement is a sonata-form Allegro, discourse passed from instrument to instrument, usually with the piano introducing a theme and accompanying while the oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon playing variations on it. The Larghetto is typical of a Mozart 2nd movement—soft yet lively. The Allegretto is similar in structure to the first movement—only faster.

DSM: And then there’s Beethoven’s Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Winds, Op.16. C minor has the relative key E-flat major, three flats. So that’d be as much a problem for someone having anatomical fingering difficulties in E-flat. Have you ever sustained any hand injuries that affected your ability to play some key signatures more than others?

CMT: No, but it’s an interesting thing to speculate! A great natural experiment that probably has been inadvertently repeated a number of times over the centuries! We should look into that! Now, of the two piano concertos that Mozart wrote in a minor key, one of them is in C minor, No. 24, K. 491. C minor has connoted heroic struggle since Beethoven’s time. The fact that Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 is in C minor contributed to it being nicknamed “Beethoven’s Tenth”. And three of Anton Bruckner’s ten numbered symphonies are in C minor. Think, too, about these:
  • Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV 546 - Bach
  • Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 - Bach
  • Invention No. 5 in E-flat major, BWV 776 - Bach
  • Invention No. 2 in C minor, BWV 773 - Bach
  • Sinfonia No. 5 in E-flat major, BWV 791 - Bach
  • Suite in E-flat major, BWV 819 - Bach
  • Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1: Prelude and Fugue No. 7 in E-flat major, BWV 852 - Bach
  • Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2: Prelude and Fugue No. 7 in E-flat major, BWV 876 - Bach
  • Toccata in C minor, BWV 911 – Bach

DSM: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat major, Op. 81a, known as the Les Adieux, is considered one of the great piano sonatas of his middle period (others are the Waldstein, Op. 53 and Appassionata, Op. 57). The title Les Adieux implies that it’s programmatic. The French attack on Vienna, led by Napoleon in 1809, forced Beethoven’s patron, Archduke Rudolph, to leave the city. Yet there’s disagreement about the nature of this piece—or at least about the degree to which Beethoven wished to confer a programmatic nature on it. He titled the three movements “Lebewohl,” “Abwesenheit,” and “Wiedersehen,” and supposedly regarded the French “Adieux” was an inadeequate translation of the feeling of the German “Lebewohl” (Kolodin, 1975). The sonata has three movements:
  • Das Lebewohl (The Farewell); Adagio - Allegro
  • Abwesenheit (The Absence); Andante espressivo
  • Das Wiedersehen (The Return); Vivacissimamente

CMT: The sonata opens in a 2/4 time Adagio with a simple motif of three notes, over which are written the three syllables Le-be-wohl (‘Fare-thee-well’). This motif is the basis for both the first and the second subject groups. As soon as the exposition begins, the time signature changes to cut-time and the marking is Allegro. The Andante espressivo might be misunderstood as an introduction to the final Vivacissimamente, but you look closer and finds beauty and depth here. The movement is 2/4 time, a natural to connect it to the finale.

DSM: The finale, also in sonata form, starts exuberantly on the dominant B flat in 6/8 time. The first subject is introduced in the right hand and immediately transfers to the left hand, where it’s repeated twice with an elaboration of the arrangement in the right hand. Before the second subject group begins, there’s a bridge passage, introducing a phrase that goes from G-flat major to F major—first through these forte arpeggios, then in a delicate piano-marked passage.

CMT: We should probably think, too, about pedagogy. These key-colorings don’t spring, full-formed, out of nothing! As kids, we acquired these perceptions gradually—with successive exposures to particular pieces in particular keys. According to Chopin, teaching might ought to begin in B major because the scale fits the different lengths of the fingers very naturally. But the five sharps are tough for young students to read, which is why C major is usually used instead.

DSM: And according to Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel, the lead guitarist character in the cult-classic comedy film, This is Spinal Tap), D minor is the saddest of all keys. So—Hey!—maybe the rationale for Guest's ridicule—of the idea that every minor key is the same under equal temperament—is that the key-color idea is wrong because it's neglecting something important. For example, when a minor piece uses the tonic D, it's often the Dorian mode—the same as a natural minor but with a sharped sixth. This carries a sadder, more emotional affect than a regular natural minor, don't you think?

CMT: With one flat, D minor's one of two flat key signatures that requires a sharp for the leading tone (the other is G minor). Guitarists say D minor the flattest key that's practical to play. And in Domenico Scarlatti’s 555 keyboard sonatas, which often borrow mannerisms from guitar music of the period, 151 are in minor keys, and D minor is the most often chosen minor key㬜 sonatas in all! Have you thought about these?
  • The Art of Fugue, entirely in D minor - Bach
  • Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor - Mozart
  • Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor - Rachmaninoff
  • English Suite No. 6 in D minor, BWV 811 - Bach
  • French Suite No. 1 in D minor, BWV 812 - Bach
  • Partita No. 2 for Violin in D minor, BWV 1004 - Bach
  • Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 - Bach
  • Sonata in D minor for 2 violins and keyboard, BWV 1036 - Bach
  • Concerto for 3 harpsichords and strings in D minor, BWV 1063 - Bach
  • Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 – Bach

“A fine instrument, the piano,” he remarked. “There is certainly something to be done with a piano, if you know how to do it... Some keys are harder than others—the black notes.”
“Yes; what of the black notes?” asked Michael.
Then a feat of marvellous execution began. Michael had taken an evil pleasure in giving his master, for whom he slaved with so unwearied a diligence, something that should tax his powers, and he gave a great crash of laughter when for a moment Hermann was brought to a complete standstill in an octave passage of triplets against quavers, and the performer exultantly joined in it, as he pushed his hair back from his forehead, and made a second attempt.
“It isn’t decent to ask a fellow to read that,” he shouted. “It’s a crime; it’s a scandal."
“My dear, nobody asked you to read it,” said Sylvia.
“Silence, you chit! Mike, come here a minute. Sit down one second and play that. Promise to get up again, though, immediately. Just these three bars—yes, I see. An orangutang apparently can do it, so why not I? Am I not much better than they?”

  — E.F. Benson, Michael



DSM: Chopin’s Op. 10 and Op. 25 Études illustrate the necessity of keeping your fingers close to the keyboard, with your hand well into the black-key area, so that your thumb can move easily between black and white keys.

CMT: The No. 3 Étude, Op. 10, in E major—an example of “split-hand voicing” (two different dynamic levels occurring simultaneously within one hand)—poses considerable control challenges. Think of the biomechanics or ergonomics of the hands! As the right hand plays both melody and harmony, the key of E major demands that the hand be positioned well into the keys near the fall-board, since the thumb has to move form G-sharp to A and back. Throughout the piece, using thumbs on black keys necessitates keeping both hands close to the fall-board. Subtitled “Tristesse,” this Étude displays a melody so beautiful that Chopin said he had never written another one as good as this. “A study in expression” as von Bülow said, it never fails to move listeners, particularly when the haunting theme returns after the middle section’s outbursts—the fourths and sixths.

DSM: The No. 5 Étude, Op. 10, the celebrated “Black Key” Étude in G-flat major, features entirely pentatonic right-hand triplets on the black keys only. Never at a loss for an opinion, von Bülow disparaged it as a Women’s Salon Music Étude. But it’s graceful, delicately witty—benignly naughty—and it requires smooth, fingers and a supple wrist. In the fourth bar, third group, third note of group, the Klindworth and Riemann version has E-flat instead of D-flat. Mikuli, Kullak and Von Bülow use the D-flat. Now, which is right? The D-flat is preferable. There are already two E-flats in the bar. The change is a good one.

CMT: Étude No. 2, Op. 25, in F minor (4 flats) highlights the importance of keeping a “small hand” and concentrating on an energy flow from finger to finger with minimum finger motion. The use of chromatics in both parts necessitates keeping the hands close to or on the black keys. A tiny toccata in understated, whirring triplets—has always been known in France as Les Abeilles (The Bees), yet Schumann heard it “as the song of a sleeping child.” Huneker concurred: “No comparison could be prettier, for there is a sweet, delicate drone that sometimes issues from childish lips, having a charm for ears not attuned to grosser things.”

DSM: All of this is, of course, a very old subject—several centuries at least. Apart from the fact that the pitch is not the same, A minor and D minor basically work on the same pattern (the tonic, a minor third, a fifth and sometimes the octave). Yet, if you’re a singer, you absolutely know that one scale is easier than another.

CMT: Imagine a vocal piece is written in D major, with the highest note F-sharp. If you want to have it in G major (thus “saving” one sharp in the key signature), the highest note will become a B, which will be much more difficult to get.

DSM: I used to sing tenor in a SATB choir—some scales are definitely more difficult to cope with than others. I remember that F major tempts the singers into singing a shade flat. As soon as the tune is transposed into F-sharp major, that temptation’s gone.

CMT: Finally, instrumentalists will tell you that their instrument doesn’t sound the same in different keys. Yes, before Bach keyboard instruments were not “tempered”—using a different key signature caused them to sound differently. But the allocation of dissonance also occurs in the construction of wind instruments and in the tuning of string instruments. It’s just not a standard part of the instrumentalist’s pedagogy these days!

DSM: A lot of people—including Charpentier, Helmholtz, Hoffman, Gide—swear that keys are indexical of moods. Some hear it, others don’t. If you have to ask, then you’ll never know—to paraphrase Louis Armstrong.

CMT: I understand that Cole Porter preferred to play only in F-sharp, and had a transposing piano made with a lever on it that he could adjust to cause the piano to sound in other keys while he continued to play in F-sharp—sort of like a guitar or violin capo. Here’s another one of those key-color lists:
  • C Major - Completely pure, innocence, simplicity.
  • C Minor - Declaration of love or the lament of unhappy love.
  • D-flat Major - A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace.
  • C-sharp Minor - Penitential lamentation, intimate conversation; sighs of disappointed friendship and love.
  • D Major - The key of triumph, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key.
  • D Minor - Melancholy womanliness, brooding.
  • E-flat Major - The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation.
  • D-sharp Minor - Feelings the soul’s deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depresssion, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear breathes out of horrible D-sharp minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key.
  • E Major - Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete delight.
  • E minor - Naïve, womanly innocent declaration of love, lament without grumbling; sighs accompanied by few tears; imminent hope of resolving in the pure happiness of C major.
  • F Major - Complacence and calm.
  • F Minor - Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave.
  • F-sharp Major - Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief utered when hurdles are surmounted; echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered.
  • F-sharp Minor - A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language.
  • G Major - Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love,--in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key.
  • G Minor - Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike.
  • A-flat Major - Death, grave, judgment, eternity lie in its radius.
  • A-flat Minor - Grumbling, heart squeezed until it infarcts; wailing lament, difficult struggle.
  • A Major - This key includes declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one’s state of affairs; hope of seeing one’s beloved again when parting; youthful cheerfulness and trust in God.
  • A minor - Pious womanliness and tenderness.
  • B-flat Major - Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope for a better world.
  • B-flat minor - A quaint creature, dressed in the garment of night, surly. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide.
  • B Major - Strongly colored, announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring colors. Anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair and every burden of the heart lies in its sphere.
  • B Minor - The key of patience, of calm awaiting ones’s fate and of submission to divine dispensation.

  — Schubart, 1787



DSM: Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor, Opus 28, Number 20—it’s part of the repertoire of every pianist and is played frequently at funerals and memorial services. It features emphatic chords that descend to the depths of the piano’s range. The more I think about this key-color/emomtion topic, the more I’m led to think that the issue has less to do with the timbre of the registers of the instrument and the orchestration, than it has to do with the dynamics and rhythmic gestures that a given key can support with human flesh on the ivories. A felicitous conformity to the anatomical realities enables the pianist to achieve a particular affect more effectively in one key than in others. It isn’t purely the pitch and registration that do this—it’s the interaction between the biomechanics/anatomy of the human hand and the key signature—a particular choice of key signature is enabling of—permissive of—a range of colors and affects, a different range than would be favored by other key signatures. In summary, I think it’s a mistake to conclude that the emotional effects of a composer’s choice of key signature are due solely to the line and harmonic texture. Instead, you have to include the effect of the phrasing—and that, in turn, is highly dependent on the anatomy and the geometry of the keys and the keyboard. Just play a MIDI file with the key-acceleration and other parameters turned off. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

CMT: And my story is that Haydn had had several prior conversations with Marianne Genzinger about key color, prior to his writing the sonata in E-flat, Hob. XVI:49. Frau Genzinger had asked him to explain how the various key signatures work their magic—their wildly different moods and affects. And Haydn responded by loaning Marianne his copy of Schubart's writing, which had just first been published a couple of years before Haydn wrote this sonata. So, later, when he gave Marianne the sonata in E-flat, she knew quite well what the choice of E-flat likely signified. This sonata was a private message between them, one that would’ve been opaque or cryptic to others. E-flat was an affirmation of the Haydn-Genzinger friendship, of his admiration for her. Here are some online materials you might like:



And here are some additional interesting materials: