Key Color: The Art of Piano Tuning (2014)

A Romantic Key Cycle

Dr. Willis Glen "Chip" Miller, III, pianist

What exactly is a key cycle?
A key cycle is a collection of emotionally charged music enhanced by microtuning: the mood changes that accompany changes of key, like going from Ab Major to Eb Major, are physiologically and psychologically impressed upon the listener because of the tuning system. The term is a parallel to "song cycle" - a collection of music to be sung, usually by one person, telling a longer story comprised of shorter ones.
How are psychological enhancements like this possible?
It's really quite simple. There is a huge range of acceptable sizes of musical intervals. Major thirds, for instance, can be heard completely pure or up to a 16% increase in size without feeling "out of tune." The graph above (source here) shows major thirds that begin at the top of the circle of fifths in relative purity, and increase as sharps are added.

Feelings of purity and calmness psychologically occur when intervals are more in tune, and feelings of joy or enlightenment occur when intervals are slightly bright. Darker emotions give way when intervals are smaller.
Does it sound that much different from other tuning systems?
The average listener will not jump up and say, "this sounds different", like listening to music from another culture may - traditional Arabic and Indian music for example. This tuning system is perhaps the most "German" of all systems - it is the system on which Beethoven, Schumann, and countless of other musicians were trained.
How is this album constructed?
Like Sgt. Pepper, this album is meant to be listened as a whole. Bach's pieces are traditionally played with a Prelude followed by a Fugue. This allows the musical personality, and the actual tuning, to be checked during the prelude; the fugue that follows would have been the "meat" of the presentation. In this presentation, the personality is shown by Bach, with either his prelude or his fugue, and the follow-up is a work by a romantic composer - written much later, in the same key. The similarities in personalities between these compositions - written generations apart - is astounding, and reveals just how important Bach's work was to the composers who studied him.
Is this a new idea? How did you get it?
To my knowledge, yes, this is an original idea. The idea came to me after I had completed a multi-year effort of learning one of the Well-Tempered Clavier books. At that time, I had under my fingers a handful of smaller romantic character pieces, and then bunch of smaller Bach works. It was easy to see that the personality of Bach's tuning system was carried through literally 200 years of history to Rachmaninov. Just as Bach's tuning system allowed him to portray cold and darkness through G# minor, Rachmaninov chose G# minor for his chilliest works... and so on... Ab is warm, F is calm...

Red. Bright red, with huge, gold letters stamped on its three-inch spine. The surrounding sea of other publications blended quietly to a drab, blue-gray wash on the library shelves, like an enormous picture frame engulfing a small masterwork. I really had no choice but to rise from my desk, walk across the room - carpeted with brown and tan mosaics and lined with light oak cubicles - turn my head ninety degrees to read the fine print and wonder what on earth was so important about this subject that it warranted such magnificence in color and volume. I had come to the university library to explore, and this book became my first stop. That was twenty years ago.

TUNING. The gold letters were set in a timeless, dignified serif font. I shoved the surrounding books aside and hoisted it down from its perch. Flipping past the few blank pages and copyright notices, I came to the full title page, and though the words that greeted me were written in English, I struggled to understand their meanings. Tuning: Containing the Perfection of Eighteenth-Century Temperament, the Lost Art of Nineteenth-Century Temperament and the Science of Equal Temperament. I was an obsessive piano student, and was taking an independent study in piano literature. My only assignment was to explore, and so my explorations began. Music is a difficult enough subject to write about, as it is defined by vibrations and time, not literary phrases; so reading about various tuning techniques from two hundred years ago requires a bit of imagination to hear in your mind's ear. The first few chapters of the book confronted with strange names, terms, and mathematical charts; the moment of clarity came when I read this (and I summarize): Equal Temperament, the tuning system that all modern musicians use, requires a sophisticated mathematical understanding that was not published until after 1900. That means that all of our beloved Romantic composers — Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and even Brahms, composed and played music based on tuning systems that are different than what we use today. For me as a pianist, this news was as shocking and upsetting as discovering by flipping through the evening news that my parents were not my own. What sounds had I not been hearing? Were all of our musical concerts really just a hollow shell, devoid of their original beauty? What is this lost art?

I finished my independent study with an undergraduate-level paper on the very broad topic of unequal temperament. A class in “performance practice” during my master's studies gave me an opportunity to return to the subject; and when the time came for me to choose a dissertation topic, I decided to apply my energies to the subject in full. The result was an electronic paper including 432 musical examples in 12 different tuning systems, and a performance with two pianos on stage: one with modern tuning, and another with an altered baroque tuning. The music was a collection of Chopin's Mazurkas — short, colorful dances, written in eleven different keys and expressing a range of emotions. After only a short explanation and demonstration, the audience embraced the baroque tuning, and complained when I returned to the bland, modern tuning. Twenty years since my discovery of this lost art form, I remain entranced by its beauty.

What you will hear on this recording is a nine-foot Steinway grand, tuned to a system published in 2001 by Bradley Lehman. This tuning system is a fascinating study on its own, and I applaud Dr. Lehman's insight and marvelous work. It is based on the proposal that Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier contains tuning instructions on the title page of the work, embedded in what looks like a decorative border. It is a wonderfully versatile system, and works beautifully with all music through the Romantic era.

This recording pair pieces from the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier with romantic works in the same key. It is fascinating to hear the emotional congruity between pieces whose only tie is the key in which they are written. You, the listener, will be able to discern some of this through your headphones or speakers, but there is nothing like sitting in front of a giant wooden and steel instrument - 20 tons of tension on the strings - and feeling the purity of perfect thirds, or the stress of diminished sevenths, course through your chest cavity, skull, and large muscles. When you're ready to experience that, give me a call. Live music is always better.

Chip Miller
July 15, 2014

In this guide, the quotations describing the characters of each key come from a German Poet, Christian Schubart, in his Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806). These were translated by Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. UMI Research Press (1983).
Part 1: Bach and Mendelssohn
Ab Major
Key of the grave. Death, grave, putrefaction, judgment, eternity lie in its radius.
Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, No. 17 in A-Flat Major, BWV 886: Fugue
Mendelssohn: Songs Without Words, Op. 53 No. 1 "By the Seashore"
It is only fitting that this cycle begins with Ab Major. The most elusive of all keys from a tuner's perspective, it is often where the wolf fifth was thrown, from Pythagoras to Frescobadi. One of Bach's favorite practical jokes was to sit down at a freshly tuned instrument (not his own tuning, of course), and begin playing in Ab with a big smile on his face. The tuner would likely be seen cowering in a corner.

This cycle begins with a single voice, and one of the most melodic fugue subjects ever. By the time its four voices have developed, the listener will already be accustomed to its gentle, warm color in preparation for the undulating beats of "By the Seashore."
Eb Major
The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.
Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, No. 7 in E-Flat Major, BWV 876: Fugue
Mendelssohn: Songs Without Words, Op. 53 No. 2 "The Fleecy Clouds"
Moving from Ab to Eb is an easy transition - it's just one step away on the circle towards purity. These pieces have a similar warmth to Ab Major, but are slightly lighter. In this tuning, Bb Major has a fifth that is slightly wide. Its juxtaposition to Eb allows for some comedic elements.
G Minor
Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike.
Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, No. 16 in G Minor, BWV 885: Fugue
Mendelssohn: Songs Without Words, Op. 53 No. 3 "Agitation"
Mendelssohn's mark, "Agitation", could not fit Schubart's description better. Nor could Mr. Bach have found a fugue subject more distinctive to this quality: the hammering repeated notes following gasps for breath, and the nearly perpetual-motion interrupted by emphatic silences.
F Major
Complaisance and Calm.
Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, No. 11 in F Major, BWV 880: Prelude
Mendelssohn: Songs Without Words, Op. 53 No. 4 "Sadness of Soul"
F Major is often tuned to be the purest of keys. Calm, pastoral settings are portrayed from this key (Beethoven 6, Brahms' second cello). Here, we get a winding and weaving prelude, water-like, that leads to "Sadness" sung in a Major key!
A Minor
Pious womanliness and tenderness of character.
Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, No. 20 in A Minor, BWV 889: Fugue
Mendelssohn: Songs Without Words, Op. 53 No. 5 "Folk Song"
While Schubart's description may recall the purity of A minor's relative major (C), Bach takes full advantage of the strength of contrast between it and its dominant (E Major). The "Folk Song" comes off tremendously strong with these nearly pure intervals.
G# minor
Grumbler, heart squeezed until it suffocates; wailing lament, difficult struggle; in a word, the color of this key is everything struggling with difficulty.
Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, No. 18 in G-Sharp Minor, BWV 887: Prelude
Rachmaninov: Prelude in G-Sharp Minor, Op. 32 No. 12 (Allegro)
Two different musical compositions written two centuries apart could not be held together better. Whirling, devilish waves and cold, long-winded wails.
D Major
The key of triumph, of Hallejuahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key.
Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, No. 5 in D Major, BWV 874: Prelude
Rachmaninov: Prelude in D Major, Op. 23 No. 4 (Andante Cantabile)
A much-needed breather to establish confidence and strength to close the second section of this journey! Bach's prelude features horn-calls and tumultuous runs. D Major, with a respectably bright major third, provides the perfect ambiance for one of Rachmaninov's most uplifting melodies.
E Major
Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major.
Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, No. 9 in E Major, BWV 878: Prelude
Chopin: Etude in E Major, Op. 10 No. 3
I often think that Bach didn't have time to play twice most of what he wrote. This Prelude is written to sound improvised, and is full of humor. It pairs nicely with one of Chopin's most beloved works, referred to as "Tristesse" ("Sadness"). This piece brings us sounds coming from the extreme end of this tuning system - very bright major thirds, and a middle section containing stacked minor thirds that literally shake you to your bone.
C# minor
Penitential lamentation, intimate conversation with God, the friend and help-meet of life; sighs of disappointed friendship and love lie in its radius.
Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, No. 4 in C-Sharp Minor, BWV 873: Fugue
Chopin: Etude in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 10 No. 4
The "intimate conversation with God" bit is translated here to "take a deep breath because this rollercoaster may be your death." Welcome to the most hair-raising pieces on the program... this is really the encore - sometimes it's best to script it in.
E Major
Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major.
Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, No. 9 in E Major, BWV 878: Fugue
It is a abrupt but clinching finish to move back to E Major from is relative minor. This celestial fugue recalls the style of the Renaissance vocal masters, whose music Bach laboriously copied as a child - hundreds of hours invested into the research that would become his language. In this last piece, the listener gets but a moment to catch his breath after the preceeded ride - but, as the master shows, breath is taken away again, not from exhaustion, but by slowly becoming aware that you have been in the presence of something great.
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Music, Art, and Data

When people ask me how many years I've been studying music, I usually respond, "all of them."


Technically, my music lessons started when I was four.  At age eleven, I took a two-month class in computer programming while attending Interlochen, the world's most renowed summer arts festival. Ten years later, the worlds of computer science and music combined into what would develop into my doctoral dissertation - a study on the emotional and psychological impacts of tuning systems in classical music:

Screenshots of interactive demonstrations of tuning systems from the 18th and 19th centuries.
The work contains 432 musical examples, in eleven different tuning systems.

For these studies, I surrounded myself with sounds from tuning systems of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and coded messages from Johann Sebastian Bach discovered in 1980, whose work became the foundation for Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, and countless musicians throughout history.  

The graph above is a Young's tuning system, laid out in the circle of fifths - the green represents major thirds.  You can see the shape of the major thirds increasing and decreasing through the circle of fifths - some thirds are brighter, some are darker. Each key has a distinct personality, and a unique psychological effect on the listener. Through the years, as my musical sensitivity increased, I began to associate colors with different keys.  These colors are reflected in the artwork on this site.


Data artist and classical pianist Dr. Willis Glen "Chip" Miller, III  grew up in Richmond, VA. He is a student of Ruth Tomfohrde, Nelita True, Landon Bilyeu, Wesley Ball, Jessica Masse, his mother, and a myriad of other musicians, data engineers, artists, and other human beings. His mother (and first teacher) was an oboist, singer, and pianist; his father was a clarinetist - the two met in music school at East Carolina.

Dr. Miller began piano studies at the age of 4, and had his professional debut at age 11. He has received international recognition at the Young Keyboard Artists Association International Piano Competition, Music Teacher's National Association Competition, and the Stravinsky International Piano Competition. Since 2003, he has specialized in the music of J. S. Bach.

In the 2010-2011 season, Dr. Miller presented twenty-five recitals in Austin, TX, and Boulder, CO, as an overview of piano literature, including works of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, Busoni, Ginastera, and Bolcom. These presentations included interpretative biographies and anecdotes of the composers, as well as backgrounds of the compositions themselves, giving audiences new and living insight into these masterpieces of art and geniouses of the craft.

Since 2011, Dr. Miller has focused on reviving 18th and 19th Century tuning techniques, through data representations of tuning systems, a recording of romantic music paired with Bach's tuning, and the Goldberg Variations 32 Pianos project.

After studying for six summers at the Interlochen Music Festival, Dr. Miller received his Bachelor's degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, his Master's from Eastman, and Doctorate from the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston. He has held a private studio for ten years, and has been a guest artist and faculty member at the Austin Waldorf School, the University of Houston, Virginia Commonwealth University, the Interlochen Pathfinder School, and the Interlochen Arts Academy.

His recordings are available online herehereherehere, and here. He is the designer and author of, a site devoted to the preserving the art, science, and history of piano tuning, and Colormusik, the world's first full color music publisher.