Despite having written about it twice before, it sometimes seems like a well kept secret that I have sound-color synesthesia. I do! This means that I “see” colors when I listen to music, but it also — and more importantly for today’s post — means that when I sit down to write music, I start by imagining colors, and those colors guide me to the sounds I need. Over the years that I’ve been composing, I’ve built up a pretty robust system of key-color associations, and today I’m going to provide a peek under the hood and actually list them out.
Now, not all of these associations are entirely original or inexplicable. F#, for example, is almost entirely pilfered directly from Olivier Messiaen, and I am hardly the only person to think of flats as being somehow “warmer” than sharps. This isn’t surprising. I have been deeply immersed in the Western musical tradition for practically all of my life, and it would be considerably more surprising if none of that had seeped in to the subconscious parts of my brain that automatically associate things with other things. Still, however much this is tainted (tinted?) by outside influences, at the end of the day, it’s the network I have in my head, and it’s a powerful shaping force for the music I write.
- C# Major — Deep, dark blue, almost ultramarine, tho in the upper registers, it can get as light as a clear autumn sky. C# is a remote key, removed from everyday goings-on. It’s a key for abstraction, for working thru complex problems without having to tie them to anything earthbound. It’s arcane, but it is accessible; it’s a safe space, a refuge for rigorous principles to interact and sort themselves out.
- F# Major — Bright pink, but on the redder side. Not quite raspberry, but the impression isn't far off. This is the key of transcendent, radiant love, the key of ecstatic fulfillment and giddy intoxication. (Is this a mis-reading of Messiaen? This is probably a mis-reading of Messiaen.) There’s definitely a possibility for an erotic undercurrent here, but it’s not necessary or inevitably required. Any kind of overwhelming love will do.
- B Major — Tarnished brass, or, more precisely, a complex and shifting mixture of muddy greens and yellow browns that approximates the patina of an old and much-used doorknob. A key for adventuring, for setting out on voyages whose dimensions cannot be exactly grasped from the start. Optimistic, but with a pronounced thread of nausea (seasickness?) buried somewhere deep below.
- E Major — Black, or, at maximum luminosity, a very dark purple. E minor is death, and the parallel major isn't much better: At best it’s the key of laying down to rest after a long struggle, of relaxing and gently fading away full of peaceful acceptance, but at worst it has the glittering, hard-edged allure of a fatal trap.
- A Major — Bright red, but a cold, slick red, like a stop sign in the rain. A is tricky: It can be a key of discovery, but it can also be a key of over-complicated things breaking under their own fiddlyness. Think of it as an elaborate and temperamental device that, if you look at it wrong, can result in a hopeless snarl, but, when the stars align, is also capable of marvels.
- D Major — Fresh, shiny green, the color of the first spring leaves before they grow into their mature shades. D is a key brimming with bright-eyed inquisitiveness and excitement. If it’s a little naïve in its enthusiasms, well, it can be forgiven on account of the sheer joy of its youthful enthusiasm.
- G Major — Dark, mature green, like oak leaves at the height of summer. Languid and deeply self-assured, G is a key for the kindly aspects of untrammeled nature — the deep forests, the wide open prairies, the gentle slope of a rolling hill. It's a key that has no need of contemplation, because it’s already sorted out the deep issues of life.
- C Major — Light, powdery blue, shot thru with translucent seams. C is deeply deceptive: It seems playfully simple, almost child-like, but trickery is always afoot and in the blink of an eye you can wind up somewhere quite unexpected. (This is probably indebted to notation: A piece in C has the same key signature as a piece that isn't in any key at all.)
- F Major — White. Not radiant or shining, but solid, clean, dependable. Whatever the contemporary equivalent to home and hearth is, that’s what F major is. It’s security, it’s safety, it’s the cozy comfort of knowing you are surrounded by love. At times this can become a cloying stasis that must be escaped, but if you can get back after leaving, F will always welcome you in again.
- Bb Major — Canary yellow, matte and smooth and even. Robust and jolly, Bb is probably on the way to the bar if it's not there already. It’s not drunk, mind, just cheerful and looking forward to a night of boisterous camaraderie. Perhaps a shade simplistic (or, if you’re feeling charitable, down-to-earth), Bb is not going to ask whether life really is as good as it seems.
- Eb Major — Radiant, glowing brown, like dark-stained wood in a beam of strong, clear sunlight. Eb is amused by your shenanigans. Wry and knowing, it keeps a low profile at first, but that's only to cover for deadpan delivery of snark. Can also be conspiratorial and let you in on its latest joke.
- Ab Major — Brilliant scarlet, perhaps with a hint of orange. Warm and dry to A major's cold and wet. The key of bombast and braggery, cocky to the point of overconfidence. Could be getting set up for a nasty fall, but its bluffing could be just what’s needed to save the day.
- Db Major — A complex, composite color: A deep blue-green teal, but with a perpetual layer of yellow slipped on in front. Db is the key for pastorales — as hysterically inaccurate as that is, historically. Unlike G (and, to a lesser extent, D), which conjures up natural vistas devoid of human activity, Db will allow shepherds and cows, cultivated fields and rustic wagons. There’s a dance impulse here, tho plainspoken lyricism also abounds, and tambourines are never far away. A key that is content with simple things, and sees no need to seek beyond its borders for more.
- Gb Major — Another composite, this time with a dark, almost bitter, green ground and an overlay that's a rather paler yellow than Db’s. A sallow key all around, irritable and short-tempered. Resents being drawn into things and would much rather be left to its own devices.
- Cb Major — A wan, ghostly yellow, almost more of a memory or an echo than a real color itself. A hint of manilla folders, or dyed hair that has long since had its tint bleached away by the sun. Is Cb even a real key? Doubtful. A home for impossibilities, for rumors in which one doesn't put much stock. Heavy and effortful, the embodiment of lethargy, protesting mightily against the strain of doing anything at all. But also a little unnerving: You don’t like the prospect of the things that live here spilling out into less hypothetical tonics. On reflection, probably best not to think about it.
(Minor keys are more complicated, so I’m going to set them aside for now.)
Obviously, these are abstracted ideals — when it comes to the finicky details of on-the-ground composing, these characteristics blur and recede into the background: Not every single E chord (let alone every instance of the note E!) is an ominous death knell, nor does every feint towards G mean that all problems are resolved. The smaller-scale the chord or passage in question is, the less likely I was using it with it's above-listed meaning in mind instead of just pulling on it for harmonic or structural effect (tho the color will still be there, make no mistake). It's really on the largest scales — the tonics for whole movements, or even multi-movement works — that these associations come most strongly into play, and they are absolutely on my mind when I'm first plotting out how a new piece is going to go. (Or deciding which keys to use for which characters in a musical. It's not a coincidence that Gary — the obnoxious and overbearing straight guy in Window — shows up in the key of Ab. [link goes to YouTube])
I also want to reiterate that these are purely my associations — while they may be colored and shaped by other composers’ conceptions that I’ve run across as well as more general associations from the history of Western music, I am adamantly not making the claim that anyone else has or has ever had these specific associations with each of the keys. This might be useful information for looking at my work, but it’s going to be pretty useless if you’re trying to make sense of Beethoven or Higdon. This list isn’t “What the Keys Mean in Western Music”, it’s “What the Keys Mean to Me”.
So there you have it. When I sit down and plot out a piece in terms of its key, that’s what’s running thru my head!