The Characteristics and Emotions of Musical Keys

Essential Music Theory: The Characteristics and Emotions of Musical Keys

Professional songwriters do not just choose a random key and slap some random chord changes in there and magically end up with the perfect feeling that matches the lyrics.

They utilise the musical characteristics of different keys.

Unfortunately these are something that are never talked about for some odd reason.

It's not some hidden secret.

I can almost guarantee you most songwriters or beat makers think "Is this a positive emotion or a negative one?" when making a beat

Musical theory then allows the songwriter to know that, if it's positive then they're going to use a major key and if it's negative they'll use a minor key.

After that, most producers or musicians, unless experienced and knowledgable in the below list, are going to just copy what is on another track, without using a reason for choosing the key.  

But with the below list, I'm gonna to help you match the tone and psychological effect that you want your song to have to a specific key so it's not a wasted effort.

Unless you're going for some crazy juxtaposition effect, just find the feeling you want out of the list below and get to work!

Understanding Emotions

Everyone knows about the base emotions, and most people use certain other words as if they're synonyms for the base emotions.

But their not. They are subtle explanations of how specific base emotions combine to create more complex feelings.

Being able to internalize all of these words and understand the deep richness they can conjure up can help expand the reach of the power of your music.

But you don't want to just add these words to your artists lyrics.

That won't do anything. You have to create an atmosphere that conjures up their own experiences and memories.

And you do this by choosing the proper musical key that expresses the characteristics of those emotions.

The link between keys and emotions is a very complex relationship, which involves a mixture of historically popular songs, the basic instrumentation used (i.e. how easy it is to play in certain keys), and the resonance effect of different pitches. However when all these are combined, they broadly add up to the below characteristics.

Musical Key Characteristics

You will find below a list every commonly used key, major and minor, along with a succinct version of their emotive expression and also include a more in depth explanation so you can really dig deep for what you're looking to get across to your listeners.

A quick note: b is used to denote flat while # is used to denote sharp.

There may be some contradictory emotions, showing that the key can be used to describe a range of polar topics.

Quick Note:

These feelings stem from a German music theorist and composer John Mattheson. He laid it out in his writings way back in 1713, among many other related topics

Lets do this!


Innocently Happy

Completely pure. Simplicity and naivety. The key of children. Free of burden, full of imagination. Powerful resolve. Earnestness. Can feel religious.


Innocently Sad, Love-Sick

Declarations of love and lamenting lost love or unhappy relationships. It is languishing and full of longing, a soul in search of something different.


Despair, Wailing, Weeping

A passionate expression of sorrow and deep grief. Full of penance and self-punishment. An intimate conversation with God about recognition of wrongdoing and atonement.


Grief, Depressive

Rapture in sadness. A grimacing key of choking back tears. It is capable of a laugh or smile to pacify those around, but the truth is in despair. Fullness of tone, sonority, and euphony.


Triumphant, Victorious War-Cries

Screaming hallelujah's, rejoicing in conquering obstacles. War marches, holiday songs, invitations to join the winning team.


Serious, Pious, Ruminating

Melancholy, feminine, brooding worries, contemplation of negativity.


Deep Distress, Existential Angst

Dealing with anxiety and existential terror, deep distress, dark depression. The dark night of the soul. Fear, hesitation, shuddering, goose bumps. The language of ghosts.


Cruel, Hard, Yet Full of Devotion

Love, Devotion, Intimacy, Openness, Honest Communion. Conversations with God.


Quarrelsome, Boisterous, Incomplete Pleasure

Shouts of Joy, Complete Delight, yet Bickering, Short-fused, Ready to Fight.


Effeminate, Amorous, Restless

This key can carry grief, mournfulness, restlessness. Like a princess locked in a tower longing for her rescuer and future lover.


Furious, Quick-Tempered, Passing Regret

Complaisance, Controlled calmness over the readiness to explode. Deeply angry but composed and sociable still. Religious sentiment.


Obscure, Plaintive, Funereal

Deepest depression, lament over death and loss, groans of misery, ready to expire. Harrowing. Melancholic.


Conquering Difficulties, Sighs of Relief

Triumph over evil, obstacles, hurdles. Surmounting foes and finally finding rest in victory. Brilliant clarity of thought and feeling.


Gloomy, Passionate Resentment

Tearing at your hair and shirt, discontentment, long periods of lamentation and crying. Still capable of fighting this feeling.


Serious, Magnificent, Fantasy

Rustic, Idyllic, Poetic, Lyrical. Calm and satisfied. Tenderness and Gratitude. Friendship and Faith. It is a gentle key full of peace.


Discontent, Uneasiness

Worry of the future, of a failed plan, gnashing of teeth. Concern over a failed plan. Struggling with dislike and malcontent.


Death, Eternity, Judgement

Putrefaction, Expansive viewpoints of a dark cosmos and existence. Ghosts, Ghouls, Goblins, Graveyards. Haunting and Lingering.


Grumbling, Moaning, Wailing

Suffocation of the Heart, Lamentations, Life-Long Struggles. A negative look at the experiences of life, competition, growth.


Joyful, Pastoral, Declaration of Love

Innocent Love, Satisfaction with the current state of affairs. Optimistic. Belief in Heaven and reuniting with lost loved ones. Youthful and cheerful. Trusting in the spirit of the divine.


Tender, Plaintive, Pious

Womanly, Graceful in character. Capable of soothing.


Joyful, Quaint, Cheerful

Love, Clear Conscience, Hopeful Aspirations for the future and a better world. Optimistic and able to take control in order to ensure peace.


Terrible, the Night, Mocking

The Garment of Night, Surly, Blasphemous, Turning away the world and the divine. Preparations for the end. Pessimism and giving up. Belief in darkness.


Harsh, Strong, Wild, Rage

Uncontrolled passions. Angry, Jealous, Fury, Despair, Burdened with negative energy. Prepared to fight.


Solitary, Melancholic, Patience

The key of patience, calmly waiting for fate, destiny, and the submission to providence and karma.