Key colour and me
Abstract image

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.

People have known about key colour for a long time, but now is identified by some psychologists as a kind of ‘synesthesia’ (having simultaneous sensory experiences) – hear a particular sound and instantly see it as a colour in your mind’s eye. Consequently, it’s likely to be highly subjective. It is certainly a matter of sensitivity – but when you talk to composers and musicians generally, there seems to be a remarkable consensus on the question of key colour.

It’s a touchy subject though, because there is a danger of suggestibility about it. Also, just as with colour vision, there are probably as many cases of key-colour blindness as there would be in any population.

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…

But why? Well, just a suggestion, but it could be similar to a light spectrum that can be seen by the eye. Musical keys may be an expression of a kind of “aural spectrum” with some being more suited to particular moods than others, rather like the way in which there are blue and yellow flowers in spring and more red and orange ones in summer according to the seasonal light in different parts of the spectrum.

Some keys have even become associated with shades of colours (how light or dark the colour is). In turn, these become associated with moods. Again the seasonal analogy, for example; A Major has often been used to express a light green ‘situation’ – spring and new green shoots. Whereas, A Minor has a late autumnal feel – vibrant with deep reds and browns. G Minor is often associated with dark shades – approaching black, but not as black as E Minor or E Flat Minor – both intensely dark.

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.

Sunflowers in Yellow and Purple
I suppose if you go back to Van Gough’s Sunflowers and imagine he’d chosen green for his flowers against a purple background, the effect would have been be quite different. It’s the same with Monet and his Haystacks – all different pictures in different ‘key colours’ to express different ideas and emotions.  So there’s a similar thing going on when the composer chooses a key.

It’s definitely a lot more complex than just what would be a comfortable key for a singer to sing the song in. The composer would not have chosen the key with just the singer’s comfort in mind – although many have written with an particular singer’s voice colour in mind.

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.

You probably already do this so forgive me, but the next time you’re choosing a song for a programme, let the key colour help you. It could even be that if it’s not very comfortable for you to sing the song in that key, then maybe the song is telling you that it’s not a good choice for your particular voice type.

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
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with the golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams beneath your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams…

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