Musical Keys and Goethe’s Color Wheel

Goethe published Theory of Colors in 1810 where he explored the physical natures of colors and how people perceived them. He gave special attention to the “psychology” of colors, the unique and special character each color supposedly has. The keys of the 12-tone musical scale were often associated with colors and likewise with a certain character. Beethoven disagreed sharply with a contemporary about the issue, holding that each key had a unique character of its own and to carelessly change the key would completely change nature of the music. His contemporary disagreed.

Goethe classified all colors into six main colors, almost all of which match a musical key. Among the six main colors he gave a general character. Purple and red were beautiful, orange was noble, yellow was good, green was useful, blue was common, and violet (purple again) was unnecessary.


Goethe also assigned the temperaments and mental functions to the colors. Reason or the choleric temperament is given to red (beautiful) and orange (noble). Intellect or the phlegmatic temperament is given yellow (good) and green (useful). Sensuousness or the sanguine temperament is given to green (useful) and blue (common). Imagination or the melancholic temperament is given to purple (unnecessary) and red (beautiful).


Goethe heightens reason as the highest function and above the passions and imagination, a tradition of western philosophy since antiquity. But those priorities were challenged by many intellectual movements of the 19th century, such as Romanticism. Beethoven straddled the 18th and 19th centuries and gave voices to keys (and colors) that were not used so much before and considered inferior. Romantic composers after him like Berlioz, Chopin, and Wagner took his mantle in exploring new musical lands.

And now the keys. I often use Beethoven’s sonatas as an example because I’m very familiar with them and they are a very diverse literature where almost every key and almost every part of the piano’s potential is explored.

C Major has a definite, noble gold color. Like the sun it has an austere and grand quality, but at the same time can also be bright and hopeful. Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony evokes the stately, glowing, grand quality of C Major. Beethoven’s Leonore Overtures and other C Major works evoke a slightly different quality. This C Major is brilliant and breezy, and easily evokes the soaring skies and rising hopes. It has an airy quality has a slightly more blue hint in its color, and is very triumphant.

G Major is green, emerald in quality. It is not as bright as E Major, and so it cannot evoke nature as well. G Major isn’t a very strong key, but it makes up for it in subtlety and grace. Beethoven’s Sonata No. 10 is a good example, where green G Major is coy and comedic. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 shows a deeper form of G Major, which isn’t as bold and heroic as C Major or Eb Major, but is both sweeping and gracious. It has a fresh quality that evokes newly sprouting green shoots.

D Major is a strong and dynamic key that can reflect many different moods. The color of D Major is red, sometimes it is a deeper shade and is even bronze. No matter what form flexible D Major comes in, it always has substance. D Major can have a stark and commanding presence, like in Mozart’s Don Giovanni Overture, and can be brilliant like in his Serenade No. 9. And in Beethoven’s Pastoral Sonata and Violin Concerto it has a deep, dreamy, natural quality.

A Major has a yellow tinge such as C Major. However, its color is lighter and more plastic. A Major is a bright yellow, sharp and cheery, similar to lemonade in color. When an instrument sings in A Major, its voice is especially crisp, even when an instrument as voluptuous as a clarinet plays it. Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet and Clarinet Concerto take A Major to its highest level, where it is especially poignant and lyrical, aided by its natural sharp quality.

E Major has a bright green color, and unlike G Major has an easier time painting the scene of a sunlit forest. It is especially lyrical and pleasing to the ear, but doesn’t have as much weight as G Major. However, that can be to E Major’s advantage, since its brighter shade of green allows it soar and waft dreamily in space. It is an otherworldly key, reflecting the legendary state of nature. Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 and Sonata No. 30 reflect both qualities of E Major, both the bright and lyrical and the otherworldly.

B Major has an orange color, and with the adding of accidentals becomes especially fizzy and tangy, like a pop orange drink. Sadly composers haven’t explored B Major so much, instead opting for Bb Major. The only example I can think of is Brahms’s Piano Trio, and Brahms seems to go against the key’s natural inclination, if you could call it that. Going with what I have, B Major has a noble and solid quality; similar to the attributes Goethe gave to the color orange.

F# Major is a darker shade of orange. It doesn’t have the spark, zaniness, and excitement of B Major. Rather it is a more solemn character, but not dreary. Once more, I don’t have many examples to go by. I only have Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 14 to go by. By his example though, I can deduce that F# Major has a decent singing quality, but a bit uptight and limited in its expression.

C# Major has an even darker shade of orange, so much that it is better to call it brown. People recognize this key more as Db Major, if you discount the fact that before keys were well tempered C# and Db were two different keys. They still are in modern times, not on the piano but on string instruments like the violin. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C# Major shows the lyrical potential of the key. If you immediately transition from C Major to C# Major it definitely sounds like a fizzier C major, not grand but wonky.

F Major has been compared to piousness and associated with the church and Pastoral for a long time in western music. It has the color of a pale blue, sometimes even with some beige, it reflect it’s innocent quality. However, it can also be nostalgic and sad like in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 1, but also very tender and sweet like in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 6. In Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, F Major is in its most natural environment, gentle and carefree. In the last movement, it evokes hope and soaring emotions of freedom and release. This is especially true in Beethoven’s Fidelio, in the aria for Florestan. But unlike in C Major, F Major is more passive, full of gratitude and piety, not force and conquest. In all cases, F Major is a naïve key, completely free of artifice.

Bb Major has the key of blue, baby blue, or turquoise. It’s color expresses area in that location. It is neither as sweet and endearing as F Major, nor as bold and profound as Eb Major. It is a sad fact that two more definite keys overshadow Bb Major, but Bb Major can make the best of both worlds and be especially poignant. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 is an especially good example. Bb Major is tranquil and poignant, and can also be elegant and subtle.

Eb Major is the heroic key, a dark blue, royal blue, or navy. Together, Eb Major, C Major, and D Major are probably the strongest keys on the entire scale. The key has a similar stately quality as C Major, except heavier. It is harder and mightier than C Major, as well as darker. Eb Major is heavily associated with heroism, especially in a mythic sense. It is not as versatile as D Major, but it can express a variety of different shades. It can be very uncompromising and thundering enough to make the earth shake as in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. When it is softer and chooses to be more lyrical it becomes contemplative and profound like in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 6, the second movement. The greatest strength, the most heroic feature of Eb Major is its power to resurrect music from death and give a sense of homecoming. Every key can do this, especially C Major and Eb Major. Eb Major is not necessarily the strongest reviver, neither can it necessarily do the job with the most finality as C Major can do, but it does the job most naturally. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 achieves the heroic, homecoming effect without any effort or need for a setup.

Ab Major is a weighty, ponderous key colored a deep shade of bronze. Even in Beethoven’s day the key was said to have a particular gravity to it, a shadowy, melancholic character. Unlike Eb Major, Ab Major is ill-suited for grand narratives. It is not a very energetic key. It is much more useful for contemplation. The best example is Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, the second movement. Ab Major was Chopin’s favorite key, probably because of the contemplative and lyrical qualities. It is especially suiting for bass tones because of its richness.

Db Major has a brown color. It is similarly weighty as Ab Major, but to a much greater degree. It is even lower in tone, and even richer. However, it becomes even less diverse and more specialized than Ab Major. Because it is so low and rich it loses a lot of expressive capacity. It can only fulfill so many roles. As I move from Ab Major to Db Major it is similar to moving from F# Major to C# Major. The key grows darker and browner.

Gb Major turns into brownish orange. Here we reach a watershed where we overlap the sharp keys. It has a lighter quality than Db Major but doesn’t return to the austerity and weight of Ab Major. As Schubert’s Impromptu shows Gb Major is capable of agitation, and is capable of some limited expression like F# Major is.

Minor Keys don’t have such distinguished qualities. In the 18th century they were seen as “unstable” and so composers spent little time on those keys. The composers of the time are right in some respect because unlike major keys minor keys have a less discernable character. They sound much more the same and blend easier together. However, this could just be my own failing.

With all minor keys there is a dark and murky feel, as if you were trying to look through a basin of black and oily water. The color you see at the bottom is sometimes the same color as the relative major or the mutation. Through the black mist A Minor looks yellow, which reflects C Major or A Major. When you peer down at B Minor, it usually looks red or orange, either D Major or B Major. These are cases when the relative major and mutation have a similar color, but sometimes this is not always the case. Is the color of C Minor that of C Major or Eb Major? What of F Minor, F Major or Ab Major? In these cases the color you see at the bottom of the barrel is usually the mutation. This at least seems to make sense, since the major mutation is only a half step away.

If you have any input please write back? What colors do you associate musical keys with? Do you agree or disagree with my assessments and why?


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