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(with respect to tonality semantics study)

Galeyev B.M., Vanechkina I.L.

The artists and art researchers, especially in those times when the art itself did not distinguish so clearly its own specifics and its difference from that of science, would probably envy definite vocabulary of natural sciences. The latter always strove for monosemantic meaning of their categories, terms, notions, etc. Such tendency exists in art up to present day, being less pronounced though.

This tendency reveals itself in most considerable form in the theory of music, from the very origins of it. This can be explained, probably, by the fact that music paradoxially (more precisely, dialectically) combines in itself the emotional spontaneity with strong inclination to formalization. Let's refer in connection with that to Aristotle and other Ancient thinkers, who defined in most details the emotional/ethic features of the tonalities used in those times. (It's worth to note that the same and even more strict adherence to classification and regulation of musical methods and means existed in Ancient East aesthetics, irrespectively of European culture influence). This attitude was typical for Middle Ages aesthetics too, with some additions and corrections. "From ethos to affect" - this was the title of the book by the contemporary scientist V. Shestakov, who described the following dynamics of music intention in New Age. It's interesting that simultaneously Hungarian musicologist D.Zoltai has published the book under the similar title "Ethos and Affect". The researchers have subjected so-called "theory of affect", being very popular in XVII-XVIII centuries and originating from R.Dekart's well-known expression that "the purpose of music is to amuse us and to exite various affects".

The positive potential of this tendency is obvious - the "affect theory" favoured music in addressing the real Man, with all his passions, instead of being restricted with religious tasks. The classification of various affects had been developed. One more positive aspect of that theory is that it's adherents not simply pointed to a certain content of a music, but also tried to reveal the main principles of its language. But in the course of time the shortcomings of this theory became evident too. First of all, it's a mistake to consider music as a simple "emotion machine" - it includes deep ideas and thoughts, let in non-verbal form. It is not for nothing that such notion as "musical thinking" is widely used. And the most important thing, which can't help to contradict the music practice, is the striving of the most rigid adherents of the "affect theory" to canonize the discovered correspondences between affects and certain methods and means of music expression. More than that, they even offer them as sort of formulae how to do creative work - notwithstanding artistic, stylistic, historic, etc. context. This way the "affect theory" turned out as its own antipode - the pure rational approach.

It's worth to note specially, that "affect theory" did nor emerged spontaneously. Let's remind that it borrowed its methodologigal basis from such systems as sensualism and philosophical rationalism, both playing dominant role in that times. It blended quite well with the traditions of normative aesthetics, the true child of classicism, which, in its turn, reflected the "order" and "harmony" of absolutist state. But let's return to the music.

Since Renascence (more precisely, XVI century) major and minor tonalities began to dominate in music. They were characterized by the "affect theory" as two opposite emotional poles. It's worth to note that corresponding semantics of them remained up to present, even in the common language constructions: "major" or "minor" mood, etc. During the process of temperament, which had been completed at the end of XVII century, the variety of all possible tonalities were gradually put into circulation, until there was the whole army of them - 12 major and 12 minor tonalities, to express the range of human feelings. On the base of musical experience and some theoretical concepts, a number of tables of correspondences between tonalities and affects have been elaborated, sometimes with rather funny descriptions. Look, for example, at M.Charpentier's table for major tonalities:

C-dur - cheerful and warlike
D-dur - joyful and VERY warlike
E-dur - quarrelsome and irritable
Es-dur - cruel and stern
F-dur - violent and hasty
G-dur - tender and joyful
A-dur - joyful and pastoral
B-dur - majestic and joyful
H-dur - stern and sorrowful.

The problem of the exposure of the intention, the meaning of tonalities (or their semantics, in modern terms) has become, let me say it, the favorauble ground of theoretic discussions in the rational XVII century. Though even in that time a good number of scholars understood clearly that "affect" aspect of music is not determined by the tonalities only. They tried to establish connections between affects and certain timbres, tempos, melodies, stressing their dependence upon the context. But the task to find out semantics and meaning of the tonalities still attracted many by its evident simplicity, and "provoked" any researcher by the existence of structure in their variety and the finite number of them (12 x 2 = 24).

There are many explanations of the diversity of emotional appraisals of different tonalities, especially the polar emotional opposition between major and minor. Somebodies consider it as a mere tradition (casual to some extent), established at the beginning of major/minor system formation. Others accentuate theoretical and instrumental complications of handling different tonalities and put forward physiological explanations. They might assume some subconscious emotional reactions to the nuances of notations, such as the number of alternation signs in the tonality's name and the relative number of black of white keys in the corresponding scales. Or they might refer to the physiological features of the hearing organ, which make it predisposed to a certain tones, thus determing the diversity of emotional appraisals of the tonalities.

The famous composer R. Shumann imtroduced popular notion "the circle of fifths" in a special issue, titled just as "Characterization of Tonalities". He arranged in a circle the series of tonalities, separated by fifth interval. While moving along the circle, a certain regularity can be noticed in the transition from "simple" C-dur to more "complex" sharp keys, with Fis-dur at the top, and then backwards through the flat keys to C-dur again. He does not claim for any more, noticing only that "the difference between major and minor has to be stated from the very beginning. The first is creative, masculine principle, the second is passive and female one". As regards tonalities themselves, he dares only the following remark: "The simplest feelings need simple tonalities, more complex feelings seek for more rare ones, less common to the hearing sense". He does not advice to anybody to try more concrete approach, mocking naive "normative declarations" of one of enthusiastic contemporary, who, for instance, called E-minor "the girl in white with a bow on the bosom" and found in G-minor "unpleasant feeling" and - which touched him most - "the gloomy biting one's lips".

But immediately the question arises: is it possible that the representatives of "affect theory" had been altogether wrong, and the semantics of tonalities and the rules of handling them are absolutely arbitrary? Schumann tactfully hints that "the truth lies in the middle, as usual" and put forward an assumption "the process that enables the composer to choose this or that fundamental tonality to express his feelings, is as inexplicable as the creative process of the man of genius, who creates both the new idea and a form, which serves as a container for it". Schumann goes on: "One cannot say that any certain feeling, in order to be expressed adequately, needs to be translated into music by means of only one certain tonality". But he can't agree with those who believe that "everything can be expressed in any tonality". Actually, at present time (and lately), the majority of musicians share this point of view, as our opinion poll has shown, though they might often claim for their own stable preferences, formed in course of education and their own creative work, due to the influence of authorative teachers, certain music school, spirit of epoch, and a number of other sometimes quite unexpected determinants. The existence of such preferences, i.e. personal systems of tonality semantics is neither positive nor negative, being just a sign of ontological status of subjectivity, which is obligatory attribute of the art, created by the individual and for other individuals. As A.S.Pushkin said in one of his genial remarks: "the poet can be judged only according to the law he establishes for himself"...

After all the above reflections on the semantics of tonalities, let's remind that the language of musicology is synesthetic by the nature, and widely applies intersensory transfer in its terms. For instance, such notions as "low/high pitch", "pattern of a melody", "tone color", "harmony color", "chromatics", are constructed using vocabulary of visual sensations. More than that, to mark the qualitative distinction between musical sounds of various instruments, many languages designate it as "tone color" (English), "Klangfarbe" (German). No wonder then, that many musicians and poets assign certain colors (by their own choice) to the timbres: "The blue-dawn sound of the flute" (K. Balmont).

"Timbre display of the mode" - in such exact and capacious words the essence of the notion "tonality" has been characterized by B. Asaf'ev. No wonder that this functional closeness had led many musicians to "color" tonalities too. Of course they made it in associative, metaphoric, imaginative sense, contrary to the opinion of some researchers, who believe that such composers as Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, Asaf'ev set color to tonalities on the level of real "co-sensations". These composers left the evidences of their color-tonality correspondences not only "in words", but also in their compositions (see Table 1).

Tonality A. N. Scriabin N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov B. V. Asaf'ev
C major red white  
G major orange-pink brownish-gold, light the emerald color of lawns after the spring rain or the storm
D major yellow, bright daylight, yellowish, royal sun rays, the brilliance just as intensive radiation of light (as if one looks at Tiflis from David Mountain at the hot day
A major green clear, spring, pink; this is the color of eternal youth rather joyful, intoxicating mood than light perception; but as that, it is close to D major
E major whitish-blue blue, saphire, bright, dark azure, nightly nightly, very starry sky, very deep and perspective
B major similar to E major gloomy, dark blue with steel greyish-lead shine; the color of omnious storm-clouds  
F sharp major blue, bright greyish-green the ripe orange peel (C flat major)
D flat major violet darkish, warm red glow
A flat major purplish-violet greyish-violet of delicate dreamy character the color of cherry (cross section)
E flat major steel color with metallic sheen   dark, gloomy, grey-bluish (the tonality of "fortress and towns")    the feeling of sky-blue, azure  
B flat major similar to E flat major somewhat darkish and strong the feeling of ivory colo
F major red green, clear, pastoral; the color of spring birch-tree  

It is striking, how the history would repeat itself! The differences in color-tonality systems which can be seen from Table 1, gave some researchers an occasion to put forward a number of incredible explanations of their origin (though we understand now, that the very expression "color hearing" is itself a metaphor). Brain abnormality, the play of chances, esoteric feature of psychics, the rudiment of primitive syncretism - these are only part of assumptions regarding color hearing of composers, that could be met in musicological studies of passed years. Though it is clear, that "color-hearing" abilities of these composers are not at all unique case! Being asked, everybody would agree that the word "Sunday" is of bright, red color, while "Monday" is grey and gloomy. That is just common synesthesia, not clinical one. But educated mind has very stable predujce - to seek for "objective" laws for anything, including color-tonality correspondences, and to assume them single meaning. Just as it was in XVII century in "affect theory" regarding semantics of tonalities. The musicians themselves had contributed a lot to support this predujce. Scriabin, for instance, having some attitude to solipsism and messianism, considered his color-tonality system as universal, the only possible one, and claimed it being obligatory for everyone! More than that, on this reason he put forward the idea of "lighting symphony", and realized it in "Prometheus" in the form of coloring of harmonies and tonalities according to his universal scheme. He was so confident in absolute common meaning of his own "color hearing" that he did not leave any instructions regarding colors in the "Luce" part of "Prometheus" score!...

Does it mean that the sphere of color-tonality correspondences is a kingdom of absolute chaos and subjectivizm? No, it's not so - see once more the above Schubert's arguments on the semantics of tonalities... Is it true, that the composer, being attracted by the idea of "lighting symphony", has no way to visualize his tonalities into colors, by the reason that "color hearing", as it appears, is not the same for all people? No, it's not so, and such statement of a question is not justified. The true answer we have already learned from Pushkin's remark - the poet (the musician, light-musician) could be judged only according to the laws he has set for himself!...

It is quite another matter, that such purpose - to visualize in colors the tonal system of "Prometheus" - does not exhaust at all the whole potentials of music synthesis. By the way, this was clear to Scriabin himself. Already in the course of his first rather timid experiment with "Prometheus", he abandoned a principle of color-tonality "parallelizm" in favour of great potentialities of sight-hearing counterpoint, sight-hearing polyphony. But this is a subject for another story...

Published in: "Languages of Science - Languages of Art" (collected works). - Moscow: Progress-Traditziya, 2000, p.139-143.

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