Why not set yourself a goal during this time of social distancing? Our short courses are a perfect place to start. Any questions? Email us!
Explore #WeAreOCA
Skip Navigation

The True Subtlety of Music

If, as many history text books direct us to, we believe that tonality lay down and died between the great 20th century wars, then we have to resign ourselves to having lost not only a vital organ in the apparatus of the musical body without which longer term survival is unlikely, but we are also in danger of losing a basis upon which to understand the reasons for the invention of much of the music written since the middle of the 17th century, the period during which the Modes fell out of use.

A diagram of the key relations in western harmony (image by Redheylin)

Pythagoras first formulated the concept of musical sounds being organised in scales about 2,500 years ago, and the system not only had a great influence on musical performance and, eventually, composition, but also became a constant challenge to the ingenuity of composers who had to continually find new ways of making their music from that very well established set of formulae and materials.   The succeeding system of keys, much influenced by those Modes was, within a century of their emergence, already being powerfully explored by Bach in, for instance, the first book of his Wohltemperierte Klavier, the ‘well-tuned keyboard’ which consisted of 24 pairs of pieces, a prelude with a following fugue, that demonstrated without doubt a system of tuning could be devised to make all the degrees of the 12 major and 12 minor keys be made to sound the same.
The challenge was taken up with dazzling success by innumerable composers of genius who clearly delighted in the search for new things to say in just 24 keys, none of which were seen as a confinement or restriction to inventiveness.    The key identity was then of great importance.   Now our tonal senses are so jaded that most of us barely recognise a modulation, let alone the different atmospheres created by a composer’s choice of key.
In Haydn’s time symphonists favoured D and B flat major.   Mozart expressed himself quite differently in A or E flat major, or in G minor.  Both Beethoven and Brahms had emotionally strong symphonic attachment to C minor and D major, as did Alban Berg to D minor – surprising perhaps for one of the sometimes called ‘12-tone gang’.   Schubert so loved travelling between keys that his listeners occasionally became quite unsettled, manipulating as he did so skilfully with devices that are now hardly noticed.     Wagner, Mahler and Sibelius all used tonality and key centres powerfully, relying on their listeners to appreciate not just the noise their music made, but also the subtlety with which they had moved the whole musical texture from one level to another.
Not recognising what is happening is rather like being asleep on a barge and missing the exciting differences in water levels as it passes through the locks!   A blazing A major chord must have been like meeting God face to face for Olivier Messiaen, for it seemed to symbolise a vision of heaven itself – and G major would not have done it at all!    It is therefore worth wondering what has happened to the musical perception of our times that has made us so insensitive to keys now.
Why were composers once able to make such glorious work from the same modal materials for over two millennia, and then for a while do the same with tonality, but by the 1920s, after a mere 300 years, be forced to admit that tonality had defeated their imagination and inventiveness?   The ‘death of tonality’ certainly seemed to win over the cognoscenti who, perhaps themselves deficient of an ability to recognise key or keycraft, declared all that tonal stuff to be passé.  And yet, even though in a primitive way it is still tonal, is there any sense of key whatsoever in the grinding barrage of noise that fizzes from those headphones passing us in the street or the repetitive thumping that make some vehicles almost levitate from the tarmac?
Have we lost forever the true subtlety of music?


Posted by author: Patric
Share this post:

18 thoughts on “The True Subtlety of Music

  • I have always been puzzled by the assertion that A major was in some way, other than pitch, different in expressive possibilities from, say F# major. I know that some keys fall better under the fingers on various instruments but is there really a difference, other than pitch between F# and G major? If so how did the change from ‘old pitch’ to the current standard pitch affect this? Surely this means that the old F# is now G and so the meaning of pieces has changed. And what about a piece written in Ab as opposed to G#?
    Do I just need to listen/study more or am I just a tin-ear? 🙂

  • I share Peter’s puzzlement. However E major feels different to Eb major (which sounds altogether warmer to me even on the piano) but this may just be where I perceive it to be in my vocal range perhaps. Peter makes a good point about Baroque pitch which ought to feel different when singing say the B Minor Mass but I have to confess I don’t really notice this perhaps because I am concentrating on getting the notes right. Thank goodness I don’t have perfect pitch and have to mentally transpose as some of the Lay Clerks in Gloucester do.
    I suspect string players are well aware of the differences. Also some of the really upmarket chamber choirs sing in what I think is Just intonation and have their chamber organ tuned to a particular system of intervals which is subtly different from the normal Equal Temperament. The Hilliard Ensemble sing in Pythagorean. (I just try to get the notes approximately right but I do find that the more I sing and conduct the more sensitive I become to intonation).
    Thanks to Patric for his cry of anguish about popular music today but I can assure him that a love of harmony and all the other subtleties of music are alive and kicking within the many amateur choirs and orchestras in this country as I’m sure he is aware. Wouldn’t it be nice however to hear people humming Cole Poreter and Lennon and McCartney again?

  • I was very interests to read your thoughts on tonality and thought I would add a few of my own. As a musician, ( classical orchestral bass player) I remember a week with the BBC Scottish Symphomy Orchestra playing music bt the Greek composer, Zenakis, who wrote via the computer, quarter tones and complex rhythms. After a week, the string players noticed that their instrumments were not sounding as they should. The constant quarter tones and lack of harmony had interfered with the way that the wood resonated. Old instruments were designed to vibrate to the natural law of harmonics, as discovered by Pythagoras. This is physics and what most classical music is based on. Equal temperament or mean temperament, the instruments are designed to sound their best by vibrating from the bass of the chord with the overtones enriching the sound. By playing music that did not use this tonality, the instruments suffered. ( as well as the musicians.
    As for the difference between A flat and G sharp, it takes a good knowledge of harmony and a study of tuning in different temperaments to really appreciate the difference. Trying to tune a harp ( my second instrument) in equal temperament, it becomes clear that it cannot be done in perfect fifths, and so the A flat and the G sharp have to become the same.
    Accompanying a string player on the piano, it become very clear that their minor third is slightly flatter than that of the piano and their major seventh slightly sharper.
    Different keys, F sharps versus G flat have different personalities and colours just as different colour blues have. Prussian blue is quite different from Ultramarine but they are both called blue. Only when you start using them do you really notice the difference.

  • Sarah. How interesting. I wonder if any Indian and Arabic or other non European players of fretless stringed instruments can tell us of their experiences as they frequently use quarter tones and in some cases quite different scales. Do slide trombone players feel the same?
    Per-Gunnar Alldahl’s book Choral Intonation advises us to pay particular attention to the second and fifth degree of the scales and to slightly sharpen these. He advises the choir conductor to make only sparing use of the piano as an accompanying instrument.

  • I am an artist and OCA drawing and painting tutor but was compelled to read this as i am studying jazz theory on the piano, having previously studied classical for a few years. This is just a hobby for me and, as an adult,I find learning new patterns quite tricky (compared to my 13 year old daughter who is also learning). The cycle of 5ths was a revelation and now i am trying to get to grips with modes.

  • Modes are a whole world. I spent a day in Exeter Cathedral with 96 other people learning to sing plainchant under the brilliant direction of John Rowlands-Pritchard. As your interest is in jazz I am sure you will be aware of Miles Davies’s explorations of modal playing. It suits his rather lugubrious personality.

  • Are we saying then Sarah, that a particular note is not a given frequency but an indication of a sound that is to be negotiated between the player, their instrument, the composer and any other musicians with whom they might be interacting at that time?. Given your experience with the Zenakis pieces, would that mean that a Guaneri, Stradivarius or other old instrument would change its sound if it were tuned to a different standard and might that mean that they didn’t sound as good/sounded better before we settled on A=440?

    • I think that the way instruments are built *do* affect their resonance on absolute frequency – so that if you do use A=415 (baroque) on a modern instrument, its “body” will not resonate in the way that it does when tuned to A=440.
      Aside from this, there is the issue of sympathetic vibration in some instruments – particularly violins and guitars. Since these have a small number of strings at a particular pitch, certain notes will sound richer due to the sympathetic resonance of the harmonics; so on a Guitar, a D note will cause the 1st harmonic of the 4th string and the 2nd harmonic of the 5th string to resonate, which a D-flat would not. The tuning arrangement of the guitar means that sharp keys have a richer resonance than flat keys. But this, of course, is not affected by the *absolute* pitch that the strings are tuned to.

    • Changing the pitch is one thing, changing the relation from one note to another is something else. Regarding pitch, I am not sure how much the instrument would be affected, the strings more so. There are special strings for the double bass which are designed to be tuned a tone higher for playing concertos. Dragonetti and Bottesini bothe wrote their concertos in a higher key in order to sound brighter. My experience of them is that the instrument does not suffer.

      • I am a little concerned that my questions could sound like the expression of a rather poo-pooing “it’s all smoke and mirrors” point of view whereas I am in fact genuinely seeking enlightenment! So with that caveat, here goes…
        You say, “Changing the pitch is one thing, changing the relation from one note to another is something else.” Does this mean that a tone is not a fixed interval in frequency terms but varies depending on where in the scale it comes?

  • Peter…These investigations into pitch and intervals are endlessly fascinating and I would recommend the book, Intervals, Scales and Temperaments by LI. S. Lloyd which can explain far better than I can. Yes, a tone can vary. The E flat in a C minor triad can be flatter than a D sharp which is the leading note in E major.
    The pitch is more like the starting point of the root of the harmony. Take A 440, a scale of A major starts at that pitch, from there, within the scale the notes adjust according to what tuning is decided on.
    The chapter ” the major third” in the above mentioned book, gives four different major thirds! The accurately tuned interval, that of the equal temperament, the Pythagorean interval produced by the sum of two major tones and the indeterminate interval we produce in counterpoint when the note is inessential.
    I personally find this all too academic and would rather just play the music and hope for the best!

  • Thank you Catherine. Quite right!
    I have just found a book called How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony ( and Why You Should Care) by Ross W. Duffin which looks very interesting and follows the original comments by Patric.
    However, I do not agree with him that tonality died with the post war composers. Out of the composers experimenting came a group of rebels like John Cage, leading to the minimalists who used harmony but in a totally different way.
    Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass to name a few, all changed the face of contempary music and used chance as well as harmony to invent new musical. In my opinion, the music of Phillip Glass makes the modulation of keys fascinating as it happens so slowly.

  • Thank you Catherine. Quite right!
    I have just found a book called How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony ( and Why You Should Care) by Ross W. Duffin which looks very interesting and follows the original comments by Patric.
    However, I do not agree with him that tonality died with the post war composers. Out of the composers experimenting came a group of rebels like John Cage, leading to the minimalists who used harmony but in a totally different way.
    Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass to name a few, all changed the face of contempary music and used chance as well as harmony to invent new music. In my opinion, the music of Phillip Glass makes the modulation of keys fascinating as it happens so slowly.

  • A couple of things…. not about the cycle of fifths, but in response to the responses!
    I believe that one of the reasons that a double bass or viola (in particular) sound brighter if tuned higher is that the body of the instrument is not the ideal large size for the low pitch range, especially the bottom end of it. (If a viola were too big it would be too heavy and long for the player, and a bass would likewise be unwieldy.) When the pitch is raised the match gets better!
    When playing with others, different pitch choices possible for each note don’t seem to present themselves as academic, but as musical. Solving discrepancies within a group helps resonance and overall consistency. Sometimes a focus on expression overrides awareness – hopefully in the audience as well as the performers!
    But it is possible to train one’s tuning preferences on an academic or any other basis. Groups that play together over a long period of time seem to have their own pitch ‘language’ that isn’t normally noticed, except by anyone who joins them occasionally and is attuned (!)to that sort of thing.

  • //I have always been puzzled by the assertion that A major was in some way, other than pitch, different in expressive possibilities from, say F# major.//
    Well, you’d be right – it’s just mysticism, obscurantism, unless you are using an instrument tuned non-equally (e.g. a Scarlatti or Werkmeister tuned harpsichord), or unless, maybe, there’s a residual awareness of a different “home key”, as in a development section. But “make-your-own-pitch” instruments like non-fretted strings, voices, do tend towards the just intervals of the perceived tonal centre, while valve-brass players use a mixture of pure harmonics and equal semitones, so you may get different textures in different keys (and even intonation problems in concert as Sarah mentions).
    //I wonder if any Indian and Arabic or other non European players of fretless stringed instruments can tell us of their experiences as they frequently use quarter tones and in some cases quite different scales.//
    “Quarter tones” is inaccurate: more like, they use a wider variety of intonations. For example, Indian music still makes a difference between (e.g.) Csharp and Dflat, and fretted strings have moveable frets to deal with this. But the intervals are derived from the harmonic series, not from split semitones, so “1/4 tone” is misleading. For example, a maj 7th derived from the tonic might differ from one derived from the harmonic maj 3rd of the perfect 5th of the tonic, or that which is the 2nd of the relative minor (though I haven’t done the sums!). If you find this hard to follow, read Helmholtz or get the potted version, Sir James Jeans’ “Science and Music”: if you want to see how it works out in different classical systems, try “Introduction to the Study of Musical Scales” by Alain Danielou. In fact I’d call these texts essential, particularly if you are interested in modal systems. I don’t know the Lloyd book – thanks for the advertisement.
    I’ve heard it said that Afro-Americans may have started string-bending “blue” notes because they could not access true min 3rds and dom 7ths on equally-tempered guitars.
    You might like to muse upon what this means for serial composition – in just intonation the chromatic scale still points to a definite tonic!
    Glad the Cycle of 5ths diagram is still of use – it was the original one on Wiki but has been supplanted by new, improved versions. I just arrived here by vanity googling. If you’d like to contact me, search reheylin on wikipedia or Red Heylin on Facebook. Best wishes to all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to blog listings