Turning on the radio in the middle of Haydn’s Drumroll Symphony first movement and hearing it in neighbouring E major rather than its E flat major key set me thinking about why I hear the two keys differently. Why did Haydn’s major key Allegro sound different? A series of adjectives may explain it. E flat – smooth, round, tubular. E – bright, sharp, bouncy. The same fast music, different ‘feel’s. But for me the two keys converge in ‘feel’ in slow music – rich, thick, solid. Mysterious! – to use another adjective.

Searching for a link to the Drumroll Symphony for this post, I lighted on the recording by Minkowski (above). Listening to it, I found it to be in a very definite E flat major. All the character and the feeling I know for the key were there. Why?, I wondered. Going to our piano, I found that the key note was pitched on the quarter tone between D and E flat; in other words ‘flat’ to current concert pitch (our piano is ‘in tune’, unlike the one I grew up with which had been ‘put out’ by travelling from the UK to Southern Rhodesia in the late 1950s). Going back to the video, I saw that it is a ‘period instrument’ performance, presumably with the orchestra tuned to the lower concert pitch employed by musicians in Haydn’s time until early in the 20th century. Clearly my ears have reverted to an earlier musical era!

Trying another recording of the Drumroll first movement on the internet, it was definitely ‘sharper’ than Minkowski’s – it sounded in E flat, but only just. The muddiness I experienced in listening to the Drumroll’s second movement appeared here, too.

How many Hertz would  it take to ‘switch’ me into hearing this music in E major? I’ll have to experiment further.