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Key signatures in classical works
#1
My knowledge of classical music is that of a regular listener to a local classical music radio station. I have two related questions that have not had authoritative answers so far. Maybe somebody here can help.

Many classical works are referred to by a title that includes a key signature. Examples are Bach's Mass in B and Magnificat in E-flat major. My questions: 1) Why are these works referred to in this way (with the key signature)? 2) Why did the composers choose these particular keys in which to write?

Answers so far have involved differentiating this work from others by the same composer, and possibly because some orchestral instruments are limited in the notes they can play, so wouldn't "work" in other keys. Nobody has been very sure of their answers.

Who can enlighten me?
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#2
I probably can't help with this but I once read a book about classical music which said that certain keys suggested certain moods. I don't know if this is right or wrong. From what I read it seemed like composers were expected to write in a certain key if they wanted to convey a certain mood. ??!!?? Who knows......
'The purpose of life is a life of purpose' - Athena Orchard.
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#3
Both reasons are correct. It has to do with the range of the instrument and the "color" of the key. Whether a key has a distinct color or mood is debatable though.
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#4
It also has to do with ease of playing. For example playing a piece in C major is much easier than C sharp major because of all the sharps.
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#5
Thanks for the enlightenment! Where might there be somebody who really knows a lot about this stuff? I think it's an interesting subject, and might be something to cover in a classical music broadcast somewhere. I also wonder what makes a composer choose the key in which his piece will be written? Maybe it's something serious, or maybe it's just how he is feeling that day.
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#6
I wouldn't think too hard about music guys...
just listen and enjoy the results...

I mean,
what conveys a happy mood to one person might not for another...its all subjective, how the listen hears it.
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#7
It was probably the case that certain keys sounded noticeably different from other keys before the introduction of "equal temperament", and this is probably the reason you hear statements like F minor being the saddest key. With equal temperament, though, when one key is transposed into another the frequency ratios of the notes stay precisely the same, hence I am very sceptical of claims that. for example, a piece played in C major acquires a slightly different mood when transposed into C# major. Any difference in sound would be due to the properties of the particular instrument, i.e. the response, frequency harmonics etc might be slightly different for certain notes than others, rather than inherent properties of the notes themselves.
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#8
Very interesting. I'm aware that there is such a thing as equal temperament, and that things were different before its advent, but that's about all I know about it.

Answers I've had so far to "Why are classical pieces often referred to by their key signature?", and its corollary "Why did a composer choose a certain key for a certain work?":

  1. To differentiate them from other pieces by the same composer
  2. To accommodate the notes that can be played by the instruments that are intended to play the piece (as I understand it, not every instrument can play every note)
  3. That the key can make the piece easier or more difficult to play
  4. That certain keys are arguably thought to create certain moods
  5. That the "mood effect" may have been different and more real before the advent of equal temperament
I'm still not certain that we've gotten to the bottom of it, though.
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#9
These guys didn't usually put fancy names to their compositions... it was a lot different back then... So, Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas, and all of them are entitled sonata... So we use the name of the key, plus an op. number (opus=work in latin) ... So, when we say Sonata no. 32 op. 111 we all know it is his last sonata and the 111th work he composed in his lifetime (not exactly but more or less)

The choise of key is a rather different matter... Complicated... Practical reasons (like you write a song for a female voice but then a male wants to sing it... so you change the tone/key so that he can sing it but it's still the same piece)... Reasons of taste... mystical/philosofical reasons, striving to be original reasons, writing collections that have a piece in every key (like Bach's 24 Preludes and Fugues that each one is on a different key so that all 12major and 12 minor keys are included once)...
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#10
Dimitris: Very nice! Your answer is VERY informative, and certainly sounds authoritative. I would like to know more about the "mystical and philosophical reasons". I am told that different keys were/are thought to evoke different feelings and moods. I would like to know more about that.

Since first posting this question, I bought two music theory books at a neighborhood garage sale. I only understand about 1%-2% of the material covered there, but some of it is guiding me toward my answers.
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