When people first start to get to grips with the concept of harmony in music (from a Western point of view at least), the words ‘major’ and ‘minor’ quickly enter the conversation. As a young musician, I distinctly recall being told by my teacher that the major keys are happy and the minor ones are sad. It was a way of helping me and other students distinguish between these two types of key and chord that to an extent works, but presents a limited view of tonality.
This is because not only the key of a piece determines how we hear it but the tempo, the rhythms, the instrumentation and not least, the performance. All these factors can greatly alter or influence how we hear music. As such, the pieces I highlight in this article are for me, dark and in minor keys. You might very well feel quite differently and that is the joy of music.
Darkest Minor Keys
Certain composers seemed to favor certain keys when writing music. Beethoven is thought to have poured out his deepest despair and heroism through the key of C minor. If you translate this into his compositions then you would need to include the Piano Sonatas Op.10: no.1 (1795-8);
Op.13 The ‘Pathétique’, (1798);
and his last sonata the Op.111.
The Third Piano Concerto; Op.37, and the 5th Symphony, Op.67, are also in C minor and show Beethoven at his tempestuously best with the shadows of darkness never far away.
Rita Steblin in her book ‘A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries’ (First Printed in 1983), provides a whole range of characteristics of keys that she claims were commonly accepted to be true during this period. In her account, Stebilin refers to F minor as one of the darkest minor keys with “groans of misery and longing for the grave”. Looking at the key of E flat minor we find the blackest of keys, described by Steblin as having “feelings of anxiety and the soul’s deepest distress.” Interestingly, and by contrast, Steblin makes a case for A flat major being the key of Death that would have been recognized by composers of the time for that significance.
JS Bach like any other composer wrote music whose timbres were dark. The key of D minor is often associated with graver moments in JS Bach’s phenomenal output. Pieces in this key include the famous Toccata and Fugue BWV. 565 and the extraordinarily beautiful but complex ‘Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue’ for harpsichord, BWV. 903.
Even in Bach’s lifetime, this composition was recognized as something of unique value not only for its masterful handling of form but for its intricacies and virtuosic demands. The Toccata and Fugue have been used for so many films and has almost become synonymous with malevolence. Does the key of D minor bring the dark color to the piece, maybe because when it is played on a full-sized organ the ‘pedal D’s’ are enough to make even the most robust individual fill with fear?
Moving forward in musical time, Richard Strauss makes full use of the b flat minor scale in the opening bars of his ‘Alpine Symphony’.
The scalic passages are played in the lower ranges of the orchestra that certainly has a bearing on the effect, but it is important to note that Strauss deliberately chooses this to bring to mind the darkness before the first light of dawn.
There is much speculation over Mozart’s choice of a darker minor key. I have often felt it could be either D minor as at the start of ‘Don Giovanni’;
or A minor as his Piano Sonata No. 8 (K.310).
Both of these works are steeped in moments of tragedy and sadness. The emotional impact of each of these fine compositions seems at times, very dark, and a direct vehicle of expression for Mozart’s feelings. Others feel that G minor was Mozart’s darkest minor key with works like the 25th and 40th Symphonies; and the magnificent String Quintet, K. 516.
The addition of the second viola in this composition makes for a particularly dark sonority in this quintet whose mood is gloomy.
When considering the color of a minor key it may be of note to pause for a moment and explore synaesthesia. Many composers through the ages have either been confirmed as having synesthetic abilities of certainly showing some signs of it. In his book ‘Musicophilia’, (2007), neurologist Oliver Sacks discusses the condition at length and is worth reading if this area of music interests you.
What Sacks outlines is that synaesthesia comes in a variety of forms but can link color and music. One of the most prominent composers who exhibited synaesthesia was Olivier Messiaen. He is credited with saying that ‘when I see colors, I hear sounds’. Messiaen’s colors were as varied as the human imagination can provide, from gold and brown to deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple’. Darker tones could for Messiaen be ‘caused’ by lowering chords by an octave but such was the complexity and intimacy of Messiaen’s relationship with color, it is almost impossible to fully understand his experiences.
Other composers like Scriabin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Berlioz, and Wagner were thought to by synesthetic. Scriabin’s works like ‘The Poem of Ecstasy’ (1908),
and ‘Prometheus: The Poem of Fire’ (1910), are thought to be derived from his understanding of the relationship between colors and harmony.
The darker keys for Scriabin according to his accounts are Ab, which oddly parallels with 17th and 18th Century interpretations. Some stories claim that Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin could not agree on the color for E flat major, Scriabin siding with red-purple whilst the Rimsky-Korsakov settling firmly on a darker blue.
It is also possible to analyze keys according to their audible frequency and perhaps this is a way that synaesthesia functions in humans. If we accept that a dark blue has a wavelength of 463.03 Angstroms then this equates to a ‘D’, one of the darker colors perceivable by the human eye. The science is more complex than this but it illustrates a small point, connecting color and music in the physical world.