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ChoralNet: Doctrine of Affections

From: Lee, Ginny, Rebekah, Sam Allen

Date: Thursday, January 28, 1999 9:27 AM
Subject: Doctrine of Affections

I am facinated by the concept that certain keys possess certain
qualities. (Doctrine of Affections) I am interested in more info. on
this topic if you are aware of resources. I am not finding much on
music lists, research books or web sites.

Also, I would be interested in knowing how you approach this belief:
1) Were you aware that this belief ever even existed?

2) Do you believe certain keys possess certain qualities?
If yes, what qualities to which keys?
Is it general mood, i.e. "brightness/ doleful, etc."
or more specific, i.e. "Db soars with impetus to motivate and
move the spirit"

3) If you do not embrace this belief, what was your rationale for
rejecting it?

4) If you do embrace this belief, does it affect how you select music
for performance/worship? How?

5) Historically, are you aware of certian composers who gravitated to
certain keys or modes? And for what reason?
I know Andrew Lloyd Webber loves Db for his love songs.


Date: Thu, 28 Jan 1999 11:31:03 -0600
From: "Dr. James R. Johnson"
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

One of the definitive treatises on the doctrine of affections in
Johann Matteheson's Der volkommene Kapellmeister of 1739. You are not
going to be able to find this kind of information on-line; you'll need
a good research library. You will encounter not only the general
topics you discuss of "appropriate" key areas - afektenlehre; but also
"appropriate" motives - figurenlehre. Best of luck with a very
intriguing topic....
Dr. James Johnson
Augustana College
Sioux Falls, SD


Date: Thu, 28 Jan 1999 12:51:36 -0500
From: John Howell
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

>I am facinated by the concept that certain keys possess certain
qualities. >(Doctrine of Affections)

The affections were certainly not limited to the choice of keys, but
embraced much more. I've never studied them specifically, so can't
suggest and specific reading.

In the days before the use of equal temperament, there is no question
whatever that different keys had different sounds, especially on
keyboard instruments. The same was true for woodwind instruments, not
only because of the way the holes were tuned but because on many
woodwinds there were bright notes and dull notes. On stringed
instruments the keys that allowed the open strings to resonate were
brighter and those that didn't were duller. For singers, there should
be no difference among keys, but when singers tune to a keyboard that
is no longer true.

These acoustical facts explain quite well why composers tended to
publish pieces in sets of 6 or 12, each in a different key. Each one
would, in fact, sound rather different. This isn't metaphysical, just

When equal temperament is used, there is no longer any acoustical
basis for differences in affect among keys, and it becomes nothing BUT

Or so I have long believed.


Date: Thu, 28 Jan 1999 12:50:20 -0700
From: Mel Unger
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

I would start with Rita Steblin's book on key characteristics (UMI
Press, I believe); unfortunately I don't have my copy here at home and
so I don't remember the exact title.

Date: Thu, 28 Jan 1999 17:34:12 EST
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

I'd like to know more about this too. A couple of years ago I
purchased a beautiful bas-relief from Design Toscano in Chicago. It's
a recasting of a mold taking directly from a Florentine Renissance
original, and has seven musical notes on a staff with seven babies
(heads) over the respective note. Each baby's face represents a
different human emotion, following the early belief that each tone
corresponded to a specific emotion.

Interesting stuff. Let me know if you find out more.


Date: Thu, 28 Jan 1999 19:21:55 -0500
From: Alton Thompson
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

Some questions were asked here about the "Doctrine of Affections." The
concept is basic: most first-year music history students are
introduced to it, and performers of baroque music have long been
keenly aware of it. Yet many theory classes present keys as only so
many abstractions and never clue students in on the poetry of their

18th century composers recognized only "the affections,"
representedin music by certain keys and gestures. This recognition was
labeled a"doctrine" by later researchers. It was not a system, just an
approach.A number of traditions carried over into the 19th century and
our owntime. The traditional association of E minor with death, for
example,was familiar to Brahms when he chose that key for his last

Are these associations "innate"? Beyond the perception of "weight"
ina minor key that we don't hear in a major key, which can be traced
tothe lowered scale degrees, I don't see how they can be. What we call
anE was closer to an F for the musicians who first made the
association,and even at the time musicians didn't agree on what the
different keysrepresented (see the book mentioned below).

I view key associations as a kind of iconography. In religous
visualart of the 17th or 18th centuries, for example, a unicorn
representsChrist. A composer intrigued with that association might
then composemusic where Christ is represented by the sound of a solo
horn. E-flatwould then become a "Christ key" in this composer's piece
because it isa good key for horns. If the composer uses the musical
image oftenenough, and if enough composers pick up the idea, you have
a tradition.

After investigating the relevant articles in the New Grove
Dictionary,anyone interested in learning more about this subject will
want to havea look at this book:

Rita Steblin. "A History of Key Characteristics in the
Eighteenthand Early Nineteenth Centuries." 3rd edition.
University of Rochester Press, 1996.

A fascinating subject! I hope this information helps.

Date: Thu, 28 Jan 1999 20:29:21 EST
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

I believe that most "Western Ears" no longer ascribe to this due to
the adventof Equal Temperment. Although I am just beginning my
research into thisrealm, I believe the music of East India contains a
philosophy that certainkeys and (chord relations) align with either
Passion - Compassion and Sun(Bright) - Moon (Dark). The music
theorist W.A. Mattieu is quite detailed inhis discussion of mood and
key relationships and his text on Harmony is a goodsource for you to

Date: Thu, 28 Jan 1999 20:38:36 -0500 (EST)
From: David Griggs-Janower
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

I think John Howells' pints are well taken. Certainly keys sounded
different in the non-equal temperament days, and on different
instruments. And they still sounded different on some instruments
even after equal temperament. D trumpets were brighter than C
trumpets, so it's probably not a coincidence that festive works were
often in D for Bach, Handel and their successors. I still think D is
brighter than Bb, whether for orchestra, band or chorus. Is it
becuase I'm used to the way pinaos are tuned? Or becuase I'm used to
the way instruments sound in various keys, especially (to my ear)

But doesn't a violin player still sound bright in E, with that open
string? I wonder how much of this is a function of the physical
aspects of instruments...

Date: Fri, 29 Jan 1999 00:06:08 EST
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

I know I shouldn't get involved in this one, BUT I can;t help but
disagreewith Fritz. I feel that a lot more is involved here than just
Major andminor. There is an enormous difference in sound quality of
one note fromanother and one key from another. I have a kind of
"perfect pitch" which, forme, has always been determined by the unique
quality of each individual noteand it is with that "quality" that I am
able to recognize various pitches. Iam sure that certain pieces of
music are written with just that particularquality in mind. ie.
Liszt Etude in d-flat Major. No other key would workfor this
composition. Same thing for Chopin A-Major Polonaise or for
thatmatter the difference in the e-flat and d-major settings of the
BachMagnificat - two very different pieces of music even though they
are only 1/2step apart.

Date: Fri, 29 Jan 1999 09:55:37 EST
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

This is a fascinating topic and one that was frequently discussed in
18th-century writing. The most thororough study that I know of is
Frederick T.Wessel's 1955 PhD. Dissertation at Indiana U. entitled
"The Affectenlehre inthe Eighteenth Century"

Date: Fri, 29 Jan 1999 06:30:32 -0700 (MST)
From: "James D. Feiszli"
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

On Thu, 28 Jan 1999, David Griggs-Janower wrote:

> I think John Howells' pints are well taken. Certainly keys sounded

I'll take a few pints, myself.... (sorry, David, I couldn't

> different in the non-equal temperament days, and on different
> instruments. And they still sounded different on some instruments

As the small vocal group to which I alluded earlier in
the year worked on pythagorean tuning, the various modes defintely
began to take on distinct "flavors", so to speak. Jim Johnson
has already addressed the subject, so I won't duplicate that.
But remember that the period from c.1500-1700 was a transition
from modal harmony to equal temperament, major-minor harmony
and it stands to reason that the characteristics of modal
scales would have at least influenced the composition of
music of that time and even later .. just as you find references
to the sesquialtera rhythms of the Renaissance as late as
Brahms and Bruckner.

Date: Fri, 29 Jan 1999 10:22:57 -0800
From: James Kempster
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

Very Interesting,
Agreed, key relationships and "affectations" are subjective and
culturaland therefore unavoidable. But, for most of us, as musicians,
ourinterest is not in the empirical truth of key effects or if there
areintrinsic musical laws at work. Our interest is whether or not
composerschose certain keys because they believed in the expressive
capability ofa certain key. One of the purposes of performing music of
prior times isto re-live the culture of that prior time. If, for
example, Mozart chosethe key of Eb for "The Magic Flute" because he
believed in a mystical,"Masonic" quality within Eb, as some maintain,
then we ought to try tounderstand that.A simplistic discussion of
musical phenomena can be found in "Music, TheBrain, and Ecstasy" by
Robert Jourdain.

Date: Fri, 29 Jan 1999 17:03:42 EST
Subject: Doctrine of Affections?

Just a quick note on possible confusion: 1) The as I recall, the
BaroqueDoctrine of Affections had more to do with the several
psychological states or"affects" that humans possess and the ability
of art or music to evoke these,than with the properties of particular
keys. They thought it best to progressthrough these emotions one at a
time, hence the tendency in Baroque music foreach section to have a
distinct mood. 2) Although some associations of key toideas seem
obtuse (eg. Eb = heaven, C major = earth, etc.), we should
rememberthat there actually were audible differences between keys
because of thetuning systems used prior to the introduction of more or
less exact Equaltemperament. Some of these very real differences may
have been the basis forlater, more fanciful characterizations of keys.
Incidentally, I think it wasthe AGO that put out a tape several years
ago demonstrating some of thesedifferences -- quite an ear opener!
Dan Ratelle

Date: Fri, 29 Jan 1999 18:43:21 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

One contributor finally mentioned something I expected to see in
manyreplies: our perceptions of key significance are not only shaped
by thepossibly artificial connections that composers made in the past,
but byconditioning in our own lives. Without perfect pitch, I can
still pick amiddle C out of the air on many occasions, and I'm sure
it's because I'vesimply heard and played so many pieces (especially as
a child) in C major.We know that this kind of familiarity can breed
contempt; choruses oftensound much better when they transpose CM to
C#M, or FM to F#M, and soforth... I'd say that the psychological
responses we make to the morecommon keys can actually contribute to
the tendency to go flat. Doesn'tthe "sharp sound" of F#M make us feel
somehow brighter than when we sing in FM, at least some of the time?
(I know a conductor who says that it"rings" better, again perhaps a
collective disenchantment with thefamiliar FM sound.) On the other
hand, Gb is the same as F# on ourpianos, and many think of 6 sharps
much differently than 6 flats... Isthe difference in quality really a
matter of self-trickery?

I apologize if this is beating a dead horse -- my youth often
obscuresmy better judgement about what to say in the company of
seasonedprofessionals! I suppose the only conclusion I have reached
in mypersonal experience is that rarely-encountered keys like G#m can
trulyaffect a singer's response to the sound. There's nothing wrong
with goodol' Gm, but in unaccompanied music, why not play around and
perhapsdiscover a great way to help singers' intonation? Of course, a
move fromEbM to EM might have a *negative* effect, for some reason
that neitherconductor nor singer can adequately explain. Hmmm. A
rose is *not* arose...

Date: Fri, 29 Jan 1999 21:41:12 -0600
From: "Daniel Farris"
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

Try looking first into Greek treatises on "ethos" and in the
translations ofGreek treatises into Latin by Boethius. Here you will
find the root of theaffection theories. After reading these, then
look at the last 200 years ofliterature.

Date: Sat, 30 Jan 1999 21:42:41 -0500
From: Alton Thompson
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

John Howell wrote:

> As an aside, I note that JS Bach chose the key of C major, the

Indeed. As a marginal note to John's aside: every appearance of
thechorale "O Sacred Head" in the St. Matthew Passion subtracts a
sharp ora flat from the key signature. When Christ is abused by the
Romansoldiers, a single flat remains; at the moment of his death, the
keysignature is empty.

It was mentioned earlier that E-flat was associated with "heaven"
andC major with "earth." The suggestion was then made that
theseassociations may have developed from the audible differences
betweenkeys in unequal temperament. Certainly unequal temperament
played itsrole in shaping the tradition. 18th century fans of unequal
tuningtended to talk of the intervallic differences in keys *as if*
they werelike the Greek modes discussed by Plato. Of course, the
differencesweren't really as drastic as that, as advocates of equal
temperamentwere quick to point out. Maybe an out-of-tune interval can
serve art,but usually it's just out of tune.

Still, other reasons exist for the associations made with E-flat
andC. The "heavenly" key of E-flat major has three flats, rendering it
tothe reader of music a very "Trinitarian" signature. Similarly,
Mozart'sMasonic music is cast in E-flat (or its relative minor)
because Masonicsymbols also tend to come in triplicate. C major gets
to represent"nature" mainly because every pitch in it is "natural."
It's linked withinnocence, childhood, and naivete for the same reason.
It's the keyHansel and Gretel pray in. Conditioning helps here, too.
The first keyencountered by young, beginning musicians is C. As our
colleaguementioned, that primal memory of C can stick with you long
after yourmusic (and your life) have grown more complicated!

Date: Sun, 31 Jan 1999 21:25:19 -0600
From: Sharon L Hettinger
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

You might also look into Messiaen's music and his entire approach
tocomposition. Messiaen "saw" colors, and assigned colors to
pitcheshimself. Quite exciting.I have perfect pitch (such as it is):
I don't see colors, but certainly--to me-- keys differ in brightness,
darkness, etc. Db--for instance--is"warm"; DM is "bright"--etc.

It's a lot of fun, and very interesting to try and determine
whatcomposers may have thought about in their approach to
compositions...butunless I can document something, I don't care to put
words, so to speak,in their mouths! : )

Date: Fri, 29 Jan 1999 13:45:43 +1000 (GMT)
From: Bevan Leviston
Subject: Re: Doctrine of Affections

In on Fri 29 Jan, Lee, Ginny, Rebekah, Sam
Allen wrote:
> I am facinated by the concept that certain keys possess certain

I remember creating an assignment for postgraduate music students on
this topic. Each student was allocated a key, and after a week had to
present his/her case in our simulated courtroom to apply for a
'patent' for that key. They were expected to present numbers of
exhibits (mainly short performances) to support their case. It proved
a particularly useful exercise for extending musical insight as well
as a extending a number of non-musical skills useful to professional
musicians. In fact, over the years, I have received letters from many
parts of the globe from ex-students who fondly remember the value of
that workshop. I would recommend it as a teaching exercise, but the
lecturers used as judge and opposing counsel should have plenty of
experience. They should also be prepared to pace their examinations of
the arguments presented so as to maximise the learning process for all
concerned (see below).

Another project from the past may be useful to this discussion. We
once broadcast a series of radio programs based around this subject in
which, among other things, we performed the same works in different
keys, different temperaments and different pitches. The following is
an excerpt from the program notes I wrote for those programs.

"As a (not very good) composer and (not too bad) conductor and
performer, I come in contact with the 'colours' and 'feelings' of keys
on an almost daily basis. In the following series of programs we will
be examining our reaction to keys in the Western art music tradition.
The following is a summary of some the concepts which will be explored
in these programs.

With the rising popularity of fixed tuning instruments such as
keyboards in the late Renaissance, temperament became a major issue
that had a very real effect on the sound of different keys. This was
simply because that an interval such as a third was different in
different keys. 'Remote' keys often sounded so bad in certain
temperaments as to be unusable.

With the gradual move towards equal temperament during the 18th
Century, not all felt the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.
Even Bach's 48 (despite what you will read in many text books) was not
written for equal temperament. It was written for the "well tempered"
tuning system that maintained some characteristic 'colour' for
different keys while rendering all of them listenable. Apparently,
Bach was not prepared to submit completely to the grey totalitarianism
of equal temperament which makes all keys sound equally bad.


Instrument prior to the 20th Century sounded different in different
keys. With developments to instruments over time, these differences
have been smoothed out but have by no means disappeared.

In certain keys, a Baroque flute will have to use a number of 'fork
fingerings' which produce a softer more diffuse sound. The festive key
of D major allows the trumpets to sound their most brilliant and the
sympathetic resonance of the open strings to add body to the sound.
The same piece played in E flat (if indeed that was physically
possible) would sound much more subdued.

Even today, ask an instrumentalist in which key their instrument
sounds best and they will usually have very definite ideas -
particularly if you ask an alpenhorn player!

When writing for organ, I am aware that most pedal boards go down to
C. I therefore know that I can get richer and more impressive tonic
chords in C or D than I can in B flat. When writing for a choir whose
basses fade out below F and sopranos start to screech above A it will
influence my choice of key. Similar considerations apply with many
other instruments.

Many of us remember our learning days and how we reacted if we opened
a piece in 7 sharps with copious double sharps scattered all over the
page. The way a piece looks on paper has a subtle psychological effect
on the player. A piece notated in G sharp may well evoke different
psychological responses from the performer than the same piece notated
in A flat.

Another psychological effect is created by 'how it falls under the
fingers'. Transposing a 'black note prelude' by a semitone may not
create a detectable change in timbre but it may well effect a
performer's interpretation of the music.

As a conductor, one becomes aware that the acoustics of some spaces
are kinder to some keys than others.

Other environmental factors may also come into play. I was once
organist and choirmaster at a church where, for quarter of an hour
before the start of the service, the church bell (pitched at roughly A
flat) was continuously rung. This obviously had a strong influence on
which keys 'felt right' immediately after the bell stopped ringing.

Conductors are strongly aware of relative key relationships when
designing programs, even though audiences are probably becoming
increasingly desensitised in this area. The practice by commercial
radio of running unrelated pieces into each other has done far more to
break down a feeling for tonal relationships than Schoenberg's 12 tone
system ever could.

The pitch at which a chord is played is significant to the way it
sounds. Play a triad near middle C on the piano, then play it a couple
of octaves lower. It is muddier and, many would say, less pleasing at
the lower pitch. That is because, among other things, the notes of the
chord are producing 'difference tones' that are mixed in and
discordant with the original chord. These effects become more
distinctive at lower pitches, so a chord in C will sound physically
different from the same chord in D.

Just how much the absolute pitch effects our perception of a key needs
to be approached with some scepticism. If it were the chief factor in
our 'feeling' for keys then we should have entirely different feelings
for keys from the great composers of they 18th Century. Pitches of
instruments like organs often differed greatly, but in the main, their
C major was something like a semitone lower than our C major. If Bach
was playing today on the Sydney Opera House organ, would he feel
compelled to transpose his solo organ works to the pitch for which
they were originally written?"

(Note: In the student exercise mentioned above, the opposing counsel
waited until the last student had put forward the case for a patent on
their key before pointing out this obvious fact. Those who had based
their argument on an absolute pitch 'feel' for a key had often given
the strongest arguments against their own case. If absolute pitch was
the chief criterion, then what Bach felt about E flat major should be
what we now feel about D major. That sent a number of them back to the
drawing board and proved for some of them to be a useful introduction
to more rigorous scholarship.)

The way we react to different sensory stumuli differs from culture to
For instance, a given colour evokes different responses and feelings
depending on the culture in which you have been raised. Some directors
of marketing campaigns have lost their companies millions of dollars
by not knowing their basics in this area. These cultural attributions
usually commence with a logical physical reason, but the attribution
remains long after the initial reason disappears. For instance, if dye
of a certain colour was once rare and expensive in a certain culture,
it may have become associated with royalty (the only ones who could
afford it). That colour will probably remain associated with royalty
centuries after it has become affordable by all.

Let us take one key as an example. I am someone who has grown up
loving Mozart and his profundity when in his G minor mood. I am
therefore unlikely to use G minor as a basis to compose a piece of
frivolous fluff. It would be like wearing a rotating bow tie into the
Vatican. I'm sure Ravel felt the same. Composers and performers
continue and perpetuate key associations long after the most obvious
audible differences produced by temperament and instrumental
limitations have disappeared.

Some of our cultural attributions in Western art music probably go
back as far as Medieval modes. These had their strong aural
differences and theorists of the time attributed numbers of non-
musical associations with each. By the mid Renaissance, variants of
two modes had started to dominate (now called major and minor).
Although theoretically possible for any mode to be performed at any
pitch (or 'key') it was most convenient for diatonic instruments (e.g.
harp, psaltery, dulcimer, etc.) if they were performed at their 'white
note pitch'. It is no accident that Bach's Dorian Prelude and Fugue is
in D. So it is likely that by the early Baroque period, some keys had
a cultural attribution which was a hangover from modality.

This does not mean that cultural attributions cannot change with time.
Even a cursory comparison of Bach and Shostakovitch's Preludes and
Fugues in all keys will highlight some strong divergences.

Many composers have used keys for extra-musical connections. Mention
the Holy Trinity to Bach and he's likely to be off into 9/8 (3 groups
of 3) and of course 3 flats. He is likely to 'sign' some of his works
with a B A C H (i.e B flat) which in turn has implications for choice
of key. Our concert 'Music to Delight the Eye' later this year will
also examine visual influences on the choice of key.

A number of musicians associate visual colours and mystical
associations with various keys and chords. I have not been able to
experience these associations - maybe because I have not had the
appropriate chemical assistance.
However, until I can write music of the quality and power of a
Scriabin and (particularly) a Messiaen, I am in no position to dismiss
their writings as mere 'New Age meanderings'. It only spurs me on to
learn more about the varied responses created by different keys in
Western art music. I hope this series of programs has the same effect
for you.

Bevan Leviston
on April 10, 2007 10:00pm
I'd like to know where to look for more historical backgrond, and examples of the doctrine of affections