Reflections through the centuries on “The People’s Key”
“I find C major to be the key of strength, but also the key of regret.”
– Bob Dylan
This is part one of our journey through the musical keys. It is a continuation of our exploration of synesthesia, the ability of many musicians to see colors in each musical key. That phenomenon, which was lambasted as fiction or delusion for many decades, is now known to be real, and much more common than ever thought. Nor it is a disease or some sign of mental illness, as has been suggested. It’s a talent, not unlike a gift for writing music. Its existence is proof that each musical key in western music has its own distinct character. Whether or not one associates colors with keys, it affirms the understanding that each key has a definitive mood of its own.
It’s a subject that has expanded and diminished in popularity during certain eras. In the 19th century it became quite in vogue, but that faded during most of the 20th century. Now what was once considered laughable is being taken seriously again. New scientific research exploring how the human brain perceives music, and how the brains of songwriters and musicians differ from non-musical brains, establishes the veracity of that which musicians have understood through all these years. That although our musical keys are built on the same patterns, each contains its own set of sonic frequencies which does distinguish each.
But can a human actually hear those distinctions? Are there truly colors associated with each key, or is that just fanciful thinking? Are our ideas about the properties of keys intrinsic to the music itself, or based on associations?
One way of answering these questions is to compare the various texts and ideas about these affective properties of musical keys. It’s interesting to see how many of these qualities are quite similar from text to text, and are consistent up to modern times. Past scholars explored it by comparing orchestral works in each key. Nowadays we can do the same with the music in our currency, popular songs.
To that end, we are offering expeditions into the core of the musical keys. We will provide many examples of famous songs all in the same key, as well as historic definitions of each from various sources.
To start this journey, we will begin with the key of C. It is the most fundamental of keys, in that it has no sharps or flats. And on the piano keyboard, it consists of all the white notes, and no black notes.
It has been called “the people’s key,” for its ability to be a key of communication, and to clearly express a message to the masses. It’s the reason why countless commercials with music are in C.
A quick comparison of ideas about C major are rather consistent. It is said always to be about innocence, purity, and even holiness. As an example, The Beatles’ “Let It Be” is in C major, as is “Imagine,” by John Lennon, and also “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. All in C major, and all with an aura of holiness that links them.
A perusal through 19th century texts on the subject are also consistent with the tone of innocence, virtue and holiness.
The German poet-musician Christian Schubart wrote a book on the aesthetics of music in which he devoted a chapter to key characteristics. Published in 1806, it aligns with the same ideas about C Major. It is a key, wrote Schubart, which is “completely pure.” Its character is: “innocence, simplicity, naïvety,” and “children’s talk.”
He also wrote, “One expresses innocence and simplicity with uncolored keys . Gentle, melancholic feelings [ are expressed] with flat keys; wild and strong passions with sharp keys. C major is quite pure. Its character is innocence.”
It’s an easy assumption to make that his feelings about this key are shaped by how it appears visually on the keyboard or the page. On the keyboard, it is the only major key consisting of all white keys, with no black keys. On the page it is the only major key that has no sharps or flats. Does this visual purity bleed into his response?
All white is the color of the wedding dress traditionally worn by the virgin bride. It represents that which is pure, unsullied, and innocent. Is that why he ascribes a sense of holiness and innocence to it?
This theme of C major as innocent, virginal, and maybe even holy connects all these texts: In 1876, Ernst Pauer, a composer-professor-author who studied music with Mozart’s son Franz wrote about the character of keys in The Elements of the Beautiful in Music.
His feelings about C major amplify the same qualities. It is a key, he wrote, “full of innocence, earnestness, deepest religious feeling.” Its presence, he wrote. provides “a pure, certain and decisive manner,”
Pauer was one of the first to provide examples of orchestral music in C major, so his readers could draw their own conclusions. Which is exactly the method we are using ourselves, but with popular songs.
The compositions he chose as examples in C major are:
Mozart: arias, “Dove sono” and “Vedrai carino.”
Weber: “Chorus of the Maidens” from Der Freischütz
Beethoven: Quintet op. 29 Finale of Symphony no.5.
Mendelssohn: air “Oh rest in the Lord” and “Lauda Sion.”
Haydn: “The Heavens Are Telling”
Now in the 21st century, those who write about this subject also align with this prevalent feeling about C major. Paolo Pietropaolo is a Canadian musician, writer and radio host. From 2012-2013 he produced and hosted The Signature Series radio show. Each episode was dedicated to the characters of each key. Rather than start with C major, he ended with it, calling it in his last episode “the final key.”
He defined each key with human traits, in terms of appearance, age, and even gender. C major, however, according to him, is the only key which is not identified as male or female but both. Perhaps this is because it’s the only key he considers under-age, not sexualized yet. He doesn’t state that directly, but suggests it when he portrays C major as “a young child skipping down the street.”
Although he does ascribe degrees of intelligence to some of the other keys, of C major he mentions no intelligence at all. “When you look into C major’s eyes,” he wrote, “the innocence there instantly captures your heart.”
Which brings us to the present. The summer of 2020. Here is a short list of some of the most famous popular songs in C major. Think about them, or listen, and determine on your own if you can discern the singular character of C major in each of these songs.
Songs in the Key of C Major
“Let It Be” by The Beatles
“Imagine” by John Lennon
Tom Petty, Learning To Fly (in C Major)
Amy Winehouse, “Rehab”
Carole King, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”
Hank Williams, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”
Cyndi Lauper, “Time After Time,” written by Cyndi & Rob Hyman
Elton John, “Daniel,” with words by Bernie Taupin
“Something” by The Beatles (Written by George Harrison)
“Tiny Dancer” by Elton John (Lyrics by Bernie Taupin)
“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen