Hello everyone,

Last week I posted an article called: Music, a catalyst for emotions. Did you read it? I hope that you liked it.

Well, this is the first article of the series that I announced. Today, we will talk about choosing the right key to project the emotions we want.

Note: I think of music as a living organism. Composers are a medium for music to come alive. Composing is not necessarily a rational act. With these articles, I am not suggesting for us to rationalize the composition process or the emotions we want to project. What I want is to encourage an awareness exercise that can enhance our capacity to communicate and connect through music.

Many factors influence the decision about the key, for example, instrumentation. Each instrument has a particular sound and ''soul''. Therefore, the key needs to be in the right register. I am not going to delve into this for us to focus on projecting emotions. Let me know if you would like a dedicated article regarding instrumentation. I will be more than happy to do it.

In a piece of music, the key  is the center of gravity to which the melody and harmony tend. To begin with, I suggest taking a little time to understand what is the desired effect you want. Having clear intentions makes the decision process easier when composing. Some questions that might help you are:

What is the emotion that is triggering my composition?
What is the story I want to tell?  If there is any.
What would I like to elicit in those who listen?

Now, let's get into the matter. To talk about keys and emotions is to talk about modes. Modes give the emotional color to a particular scale by starting in different degrees of the major scale formula. I will explain this using C major as an example, but remember this works with any other scale.

I recommend to try this out in a keyboard or any instrument you have access to. Practicing is the best way to process theory.

When you play all the white notes in a keyboard from C to C, you get a major scale.

When you play the white notes from A to A, you get a natural minor scale.

C major and A minor as relatives scales as they are, they have the same notes. But they induce different emotions. This is caused simply by the starting note. The main thing to get here is that all modes are equal relatives, and we should treat them accordingly. Major and minor are the most common modes.

What if you choose as the starting point one of the remaining notes of the scale (D/E/F/G or B)? Well, you will get five other modes with their respective emotional effect. So, you can deduce that there are seven modes. Below you will find a list of them.

The different modes: name, degree of the scale, notes (using C major as an example) and the related emotions

As I mentioned before, the Ionian and Aeolian are the most common modes. Composing using the ''forgotten'' modes, will stand out your music. Do not forget to secure the root note. This way, you will be more accurate with the emotions you want to project. You can do this starting the composition with the mode's root note or root triad.

For example, imagine that you want to compose a sad but hopeful song in C major. I will suggest using the Dorian mode. For this, you might start your composition with D (the root note of the mode) or the chord Dm (the root triad of the mode). What if you want to write a song in C major with an evil feeling on it? The suitable mode is Locrian and you might start the score with B or the chord B diminished.

This might be a lot to process. But, with a little practice, you will be all set. Try to apply the theory we have learned today to the other scales.

Now that we have discussed modes, I would like to return to


Even though we can emphasize an emotion with modes, each key has its personality. Let's consider two well-known pieces of music: Hey Jude by The Beatles, and the Piano Sonata N.14 by Beethoven. Both songs generate an instant connection with the listeners. They have transcended cultures and eras.

On the one hand, Hey Jude evokes optimism and hope. It gets really obvious when you listen to the lyrics. Paul wrote this song to cheer up John's kid, after his parent's divorce. The song is in F major. On the other hand, Sonata N.14 has no lyrics. Therefore, the composer's intention might not be clear. But considering the story behind, we can get a clue. The song was triggered by an unrequited love story. I would say that Beethoven was inspired by a sad and melancholic feeling, wouldn't you? This piece of music is in C# minor key (or the Aeolian mode of the E major scale).

The easier way to identify the key of a song is by checking the key signature. But wait! Relative scales have the same key signature.
Check the first and last measure. A song usually starts and ends with the root note/chord of the key.
What if you do not have access to the score?
You need to listen carefully to the song. Try to identify the note to which the song tends. Let's say the note is C. Well, play the C major chord and C minor chord along with the song. Feel which of the two fits best. After that, you might know if the song is in the major or minor key.

So, in Hey Jude and Sonata N. 14, there is coherence between the intention of the composers and the projected emotion on the audience. This is due to the many choices the composers made, as choosing a suitable key. So, how can we do the right choice?

Discover below a short description about the emotional personality of the different keys. This can help you out making your choice.

C:  innocence, happiness with a spiritual feeling.
Cm: innocence, sadness, heartbroken and evokes yearning.
C#m: passionate and deep. It evokes sorrow, grief, despair, wailing, and self-punishment.
Db: depressive masked by an air of happiness. Evokes grief and despair.
D: triumphant and victorious. It feels like War marches or holiday songs.
Dm: serious and melancholic. It evokes concern and contemplation.
D#m: deep and anxious. It evokes distress, terror, darkness, and hesitation.
Eb: it evokes cruelty, but also devoted love, openness, and intimacy.
E: it evokes  dissatisfaction, a ready-to-fight feeling, but also joy and delight.
Em: it feels like restless love, grief, and mournfulness.
F: it can evoke optimism and the will to explode.
Fm: dark and funereal. It evokes deepest depression, death, loss, and misery.
F#: it is perfect to portrait a conquest story. It evokes relief, triumph, victory, and clarity.
F#m: this key is full of resentment, discontentment, and lamentation, but with a little hope.
G: happy but serious, idyllic, and poetic. It evokes calm, satisfaction, tenderness, gratitude and peace.
Gm: it feels like discontent, uneasiness, failure, concern, and struggling.
Ab: it evokes death, eternity, judgment, darkness.
Abm: related to wailing, suffocation, lamentation, struggle, and negativity.
A: induces joy, reciprocated love, satisfaction, optimistic, trust, and spirituality.
Am: sad but tender.
Bb: joyful and cheerful. It evokes love, consciousness, hope, optimism, and peace.
Bbm: evokes the night, darkness, blasphemy, death, and destiny.
B: evokes strength, wildness, passion, jealousy, fury, negativity, and the will to fight.
Bm: it evokes solitude, melancholy, patience, calm, submission, and acceptance.

This list is not exhaustive and I urge you to listen to the different keys and make your own list. By doing it, I think you will nurture your creative process.

Choosing the right key is vital to project the emotion we want in a song. But it is not the only aspect to consider. In the upcoming article, we will talk about the Tempo.

See you then!



If you liked this article, check out the other articles in this series:

  1. Music: A catalyst for emotions
  2. Choosing the key
  3. Setting the tempo
  4. Melody
  5. Harmony
  6. Chord progression
  7. Modulation