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March 2015
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What’s in a Key?

Paolo Pietropaolo, host of Signature Series.

Paolo Pietropaolo, host of Signature Series.

The Signature Series comes to WFMT 

“The key signatures of music are kind of like the signs of the zodiac,” explains Paolo Pietropaolo. “If you take all the music in a given key, you’ll discover certain characteristics,” just as people born under certain signs of the zodiac are thought to share similar personality traits.

From CBC-Radio Canada comes Signature Series, a short-form series of engaging four-minute segments that WFMT will air each weeknight from March 3 through April 3. Each nightly segment focuses on a different key signature, and immediately after, WFMT host Suzanne Nance will follow up with an hour of music written in that key.

Does music in different keys really sound that different? Certain instruments, no doubt, sound better in certain keys. The violin sounds terrific in G major since its lowest two strings – tuned to G and D – form the back bone of harmonies in that key. A brass instrument like the B♭ trumpet resonates naturally in the key of B♭ unless valves are engaged. So, it’s not surprising that composers pick particular keys to express particular affections.

Even though some instruments, like the piano, can play easily in almost any key – certain moods have long been associated with certain keys. Pythagoras, who was just as influential to the history of music as he was to math, connected every note with unique numbers and even planets in the solar system. For centuries, as the theories of Pythagoras continued to dominate musical thought, individual notes, modes, and scales were thought to have their own intrinsic properties that imbued music with distinctive qualities. Theorists even linked different pitches with different colors!

If you’re the “perfect companion,” who is “generous, decisive, and unpretentious,” then music in F major may suit you best. If lazing around on the beach sounds more appealing than a board meeting, you might be more B major than D major. Or, maybe your mood modulates week-to-week and day-to-day.

What key are you? Tune in to the award winning Signature Series on WFMT to discover what makes each key special. Then, tell us which key best suits your personality in the comments below.

  • Thomas Lee

    Fine little essay, but please correct the error (fourth paragraph, fourth line): dominant should be dominate.

  • Jack Cain

    This is absolutely fabulous. Problem is I’m not a musician and still don’t know what a key is. I have a book on my shelf by Karl Haas on music but doesn’t seem to address the subject.

  • Ann

    I do not know how to read music either (I admit with shame) but I am still enjoying this show. I do recognize the musical examples here and so, I’m learning something new. Thanks, Paolo!

  • John with the glasses

    Have enjoyed this program since it started. It has caused me to dust off the piano keys and enjoy
    my very limited playing ability and try to improve after too many years away from the instrument.

  • Ruth A. Dekker

    Signature Series

  • William B. Kelley

    This is the hokiest program content I can remember on WFMT. Little different from the daily newspaper horoscope in concept. Fortunately, it seems to be ending today.