I belong to a piano Yahoo group and recently started a thread on "favorite keys." I was wondering if other pianists had keys they preferred playing in, listening to, etc. Or if there were keys that they hated playing in. Or if they had any preference at all.
My favorite keys are C minor and E-flat major. Both keys have three flats, so there is something that I must like about three flats. They probably mold more easily to the hands, I would guess. And I despise playing anything in E major, for some reason. Maybe it's just harder for my tiny hands to play. I also love flats and do not love sharps. Weird.
As far as listening, I like things that have a C-natural and a G-natural in them. And for composing, I tend to gravitate to the old stand-bys, C minor and E-flat major.
Still, it's interesting to read the things that have been said in the past regarding "affective key characteristics"--or the mood set by particular keys.
Someone on the list posted Affective key characteristics from Christian Schubart's Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806), translated by Rita Steblin in A History of KeyCharacteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. (UMI Research Press, 1983) . Pretty interesting stuff. Here's what it said:
Completely Pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naïvety, children's talk.
Declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key.
A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its crying.--Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key.
The key of triumph, of Hallejuahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key.
Melancholy womanliness, the spleen and humours brood.
Feelings of the anxiety of the soul's deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depresssion, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out of horrible D# minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key.
The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.
Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major.
Complaisance & calm.
Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave.
Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief utered when hurdles are surmounted; echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered lies in all uses of this key.
A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language.
Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love,--in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key.
Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike.
Key of the grave. Death, grave, putrefaction, judgment, eternity lie in its radius.
Grumbler, heart squeezed until it suffocates; wailing lament, difficult struggle; in a word, the color of this key is everything struggling with difficulty.
This key includes declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one's state of affairs; hope of seeing one's beloved again when parting; youthful cheerfulness and trust in God.
Pious womanliness and tenderness of character.
Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope aspiration for a better world.
A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key.
Strongly coloured, announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring coulors. Anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair and every burden of the heart lies in its sphere.
This is as it were the key of patience, of calm awaiting ones's fate and of submission to divine dispensation.
The site includes other interpretations of the "mood" set by a particular key. I don't know which (if any) were written prior to equal-tempered keyboards. But it's interesting reading (if you're interested in this kind of thing).
For example, Scriabin thought of "C" as "red" and "B" as "pale blue," and Charpentier's Regles de Composition (ca. 1682) sees F major as a key of "furious and quick-tempered subjects." Helmholtz's Tonempfindungen, on the other hand, sees F major as a key of "Peace, joy, light, passing regret, religious sentiment."
My favorite keys are the keys of "all languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul" and "love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God." The key I like least is that of "noisy shouts of joy." Why am I not surprised?