Key Colour and me
Michael writes about how he sees ‘Key Colour’ and has some poetic inspiration for you...
Setting the tone
For composers, keys are just like background colours to a painter. I think of it like the under-painting that an artist would start with when he or she is preparing a canvas. It sets the picture up for how it has to look in the end. Composers do the same thing when they choose a key for a piece - it sets the mood. I also think of chords and intervals as the individual colours and brush strokes that are added as the work is built up and the finished composition is like the completed picture.
We know people even see different colour casts through each of their own individual eyes, so ears are not going to be that different. It's all a question of perception then, but in the end, I think most people would agree that the sky is often 'blue' and Van Gough's Sunflowers are a quite 'yellow'. Even if not everyone has experience of key colour in this way personally, we have to allow that it does exist for many musicians.
The aural spectrum...?
If I think of the key of C Major as a central point (like many musicians, for me it’s a ‘light’ colour - bright yellow or sometimes white), then go down the spiral of fifths (F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb), I find I’m going into softer deeper colours. F for me is ‘ivory’ and by the time I get to A flat, it’s olive green. Things change quite suddenly at D flat which for me is a ‘soft’ purple. G Flat’s a soft midnight blue and C Flat is a dark moonlit sea... If on the other hand, I go up the spiral of fifths (G, D, A, E, B, F#, C#), the colours get more intense - a bit more 'harsh'. Like many other musicians I’ve discussed this with, for me, D is a ‘happy’ orange and B is a ‘steely’ blue. Easy for me to get carried away (not literally, I hope), but you get the idea...
C Major is bright and straightforward - not just because people think of it as it’s easy to play on the piano. Often it’s chosen to express simplicity and innocence. On the whole, sad songs tend to avoid D Major and B Flat Minor would be an unlikely key for a comedy number! Some musicians even go further and liken a key colour to what in painting would be called 'tone' as distinct from 'shade' - i.e. how 'red' is the red of a particular key.
The choice of key is rarely arbitrary
So it's not just a case of whacking it up a couple of tones then to make it easier to sing? No. Choosing the right key helps the composer to express a personal musical interpretation of a lyric or poem. The choice of key is rarely arbitrary.
And if you're considering changing the original key of a song, please, as Yeats says, 'Tread softly' because you may be treading on a composer's dreams...
So what key would your setting be in?
I've been inspired by this poem a number of times. What colours do you see when you read Yeats's poem?... What keys are you inspired to think of when you read it?
'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven' - W B Yeats