Ideas on an Aesthetics of Tonality

Here are highlights from Christian Schubart‘s Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806) – describing the emotional qualities of different musical keys.

I had seen this before, and it seemed a bit random until I grouped the entries according to the mixolydian harmonic notes which they contain (instead of just listing them with the major and minor flavors of each key next to each other).  By doing this, we can contrast the passive, negative outlook for the Minor key against the robust, active expression of the same emotion in the Major key.

I also listed these major/minor groupings in order of musical fifths, starting with the keys related to our “magic” key of B-flat mixolydian, then its fifth – F, then its fifth – C, etc.  It’s interesting that Schubart’s findings closely match my own hypnotized synesthesia – with the emotional flavor of the keys getting steadily darker and less pleasant the more harmonically distant from B-flat they become – with the very last key in the cycle (A-flat major) actually described as “the key of the grave”!

Here we go:

Keys based on B-flat mixolydian mode:

  • Eb Major (Bb myx – F dor) – the key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.
  • C Minor (Bb myx – F dor) – 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

Keys based on F mixolydian mode:

  • Bb Major (F myx – C dor) – Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope aspiration for a better world
  • G Minor (F myx – C dor) – discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike

Keys based on C mixolydian mode:

  • F Major (C myx – G dor) – Complaisance & Calm
  • D Minor (C myx – G dor) – Melancholy womanliness, the spleen and humours brood

Keys based on G mixolydian mode:

  • C Major (G myx – D dor) – Completely Pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naïvety, children’s talk
  • A minor (G myx – D dor) – Pious womanliness and tenderness of character

Keys based on D mixolydian mode:

  • G Major (D myx – A dor) – 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
  • E minor (D myx – A dor) – Naïve, womanly innocent declaration of love, lament without grumbling; sighs accompanied by few tears; this key speaks of the imminent hope of resolving in the pure happiness of C major

Keys based on A mixolydian mode:

  • D Major (A myx – E dor) – The key of triumph, of Hallelujahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key
  • B Minor (A myx – E dor) – This is as it were the key of patience, of calm awaiting ones’s fate and of submission to divine dispensation


Keys based on E mixolydian mode:

  • A-Major (E myx – B dor) – 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.
  • F# Minor (E myx – B dor) – A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language

Keys based on B mixolydian mode:

  • E Major (B myx – F# dor) – Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major
  • C# Minor (B myx – F# dor) – Penitential lamentation, intimate conversation with God, the friend and help-meet of life; sighs of disappointed friendship and love lie in its radius

Keys based on F# mixolydian mode:

  • B Major (F# myx – C# dor) – Strongly coloured, announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring colours. Anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair and every burden of the heart lies in its sphere
  • Ab Minor (F# myx – C# dor) – Grumbler, heart squeezed until it suffocates; wailing lament, difficult struggle; in a word, the color of this key is everything struggling with difficulty

Keys based on C# mixolydian mode:

  • F# Major (C# myx – G# dor) – Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief uttered when hurdles are surmounted; echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered lies in all uses of this key
  • D# Minor (C# myx – G# dor) – Feelings of the anxiety of the soul’s deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depresssion, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out of horrible D# minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key

Keys based on G# mixolydian mode:

  • Db Major (G# myx – D# dor) – A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its crying.–Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key
  • Bb minor (G# myx – D# dor) – A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key

Keys based on Eb mixolydian mode:

  • Ab Major (Eb myx – Bb dor) – Key of the grave. Death, grave, putrefaction, judgment, eternity lie in its radius.
  • F Minor (Eb myx – Bb dor) – Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave.

Translated by Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. UMI Research Press (1983). Plagiarised from various
(acknowledged) sources by Paul Guy

Of particular note, in relation to my own synesthesia:

  • B-flat mixolydian: I say “soul”/God – he says, “conversation with God”
  • F mixolydian: I say heart/body – he says, “aspiration for a better world
  • C-major: I say pure consciousness – he says, “children’s talk
  • G-major: I have always thought of as a key which embodies trees and nature, and he says “rustic”

We do disagree about E-major – but in his day, things were sometimes tuned down a little (A=515 Hz), so his E may be closer to my E-flat.  Also, he describes B-minor as “patient”.

But Schubart’s description of B major matches my personal experience with band break-ups catalyzed by songs played in the key of B – “Anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair and every burden of the heart”.  That seems to sum up what I’ve seen when we’ve played songs in that key!

It has been suggested that Schubart’s attribution of emotion to certain keys was due to the slight variances in the intervals between the notes in the temperaments used in his day.  The confluence of his findings with mine – based on harmonic, just intonation – and not a “temperament” at all, to me, reinforces the notion that the vibrations themselves carry a certain emotional weight, based on their harmonic association with our magic vibrations of 7.2 Hz for B-flat, and 5.4 Hz for F.

These emotional annotations give us a palette of colour and emotion for pure musical expression according to the vibrations of nature.  Although, I’ll stick with my own!


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