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The basis of music is sound; its aim is to please and to arouse various emotions in us

Rene Descartes

Doctrine of Affections

The Doctrine of Affections in Baroque music is the practice of having a single musical piece (or a movement of a multi-movement piece) portray a single affect or emotion. Later music would explore moving from one affect to another within the same piece or movement, but Baroque composition tended to keep the same character or mood throughout a single piece of music or movement.

In other words, you should be able to describe a single piece or movement of Baroque music with one emoji!

Example – Bach’s Flute Sonata in e minor

For example, we could think of Bach’s Flute Sonata in e minor, a four-movement work, as having 1 emoji per movement:

Adagio ma non tanto




Though there are different emojis within this multi-movement work, each movement has one emoji. A movement does not change affects within itself, but different movements in the same multi-movement work may have different affects.

Descartes Basic Affects

Rene Descartes held that the following 6 basic affects could be combined to form additional affects.

  • Admiration
  • Love
  • Hatred
  • Desire
  • Joy
  • Sorrow

Significance of Key

Baroque composers chose the key for their compositions to enforce the particular affect that they were trying to portray. Their choice of key exaggerated the difference in affect due to the impact of the tuning systems that were widely used.

Tuning Systems

In modern equal temperament tuning there is a specific pattern of steps that produce a major scale:

Whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half

This pattern in modern equal temperament tuning creates the same perceived distance between pitches in a major scale, regardless of which major scale you choose. All major scales are proportionally the same.

The key in the Baroque era had greater significance than it does now because the tuning systems that were used made each key unique in its tonal structure. For example, in Equal Temperament F# and Gb are enharmonic (the same pitch), but using Meantone or Just intonation F# is a different pitch than Gb.

This difference in enharmonic pitches means that not all whole steps are the same, and not all half steps are the same. As a result, there is not one pattern of pitches that produce a major scale, but each major scale has a slightly different pitch pattern. These subtle differences give each key its own unique character.

Affects of Keys

Though there was the idea that key had an impact on the affect produced by music, there was not necessarily agreement among philosophers or composers regarding what affect was represented by which key.

Here is a representative description of how affects might be attributed to each key.

C Major: rejoicing, impudent

C Minor: sweet, but sad

D Major: stubborn, noisy, warlike and rousing

D Minor: devout, serious, grand, calming

Eb Major: pathetic, plaintive

E Major: the fatal separation of body and soul

E Minor: pensive and grieving, but not without hope

F# Minor: distress, abandonment

G Major: persuasive and brilliant

G Minor: grace, kindness, loveliness

A Major: gripping and clear

A Minor: honorable and calm

Bb Major: magnificent, yet modest

B Minor: hard, unpleasant and desperate

Notice that some keys are missing from this list. Due to the nature of the instruments at the time, and to the fact that equal temperament tuning was not widely in use, not all keys were playable. For example, the F on the flute was tremendously sharp – F major and F minor would have been tremendously difficult since the tonic pitch was so difficult to play in tune.

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