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Classical Notes

D Is for Dark

Posted at 4:49 PM on January 5, 2007 by Rex Levang (6 Comments)

A while back, a listener contacted us about something that we had said on the air. We had referred to a certain key as "dark," and the question was, Just what does that mean?

Fair question, and the best response I could come up with is that "dark," in music, is often used to describe minor keys, and low-pitched instrumentation. Describing music is a tricky business, once you get past adjectives like "loud" and "soft," and I can understand why announcers and writers would use whatever creative means are available to try to convey the mostly non-verbal experience of music in words.

But calling music "dark" is modest, in comparison with some of the extravagant images and associations devised by musicians of the past in order to describe the different key signatures.

E-flat major is the key of love and devotion, according to one commentator. According to another, it is cruel and hard. D-flat major cannot laugh, but it can smile. E minor is like "a maiden robed in white with a rose-red bow on her breast." For still others, keys evoke colors. E major is green, according to Rimsky-Korsakov; or yellow, according to Amy Beach.

Reactions such as the above -- often contradictory, so you've been warned -- have been compiled on this fascinating Web page.

Comments (6)

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