I’m no psychologist nor music expert, but I’ve always been fascinated by the evolution of theoretical music and how today we have such variety in forms and architecture of harmonic acoustics. Moreover, I’ve developed a keen interest into the connotations we’ve assigned to different-sounding rhythm and melody. Are our preferences solely a result of our culture and what we grew up hearing? Or is there inherent reasoning behind why, in the western world, we associate “minor” music as being “sad” and “major” music as being “happy?”
As children in America, we are taught that when we hear doleful-sounding tunes the song will most definitely be in a minor key, and likewise, when we hear a major-scale song, we’re expected to experience uplifting and rousing emotion. Obviously, however, this is not the case everywhere in the world. Foreign music, particularly of the eastern and northern cultures, is hallmarked by its beautiful, and sometimes upbeat, minor-scale compositions.
Truth be told, many kinds of minor-scale music that musicologists have studies are indeed solemn, like the joik of the Sami people, the chants of the Native Americans, or the famous European chants of Gregorian and Benedictine eras for example. But why, so often, do we identify with this kind of music structure as being sad? Why were dirges and requiems written in minor keys and wedding songs began being written in major keys? This can’t merely be a consequence of selective cultural adaptation … surely there must be actual socio-psychological reasoning behind these western world developments.
Could it, perhaps, lie in the fact that minor scales “fall short” of our inclinations toward musical resolution? For my music nerd friends, it’s a common truism that the third scale degree of any minor key is a primary part-player in this hypothesis. I wish I had answers, but Tom Service of The Guardian only asks more questions:
"So which came first, the sad minor third in music or the sad minor third in speech? Have centuries of music in minor keys conditioned us to the sound of sadness, or has music through the ages drawn from the cadences of our speech and heightened its emotional power?"
I am not seeking to answer questions immediately, but this has always been an interest of mine. The family of contemporary minor scales are descendants of the most ancient breed of musical structure, and I personally find it to be the most beautiful … and by beautiful, I mean powerful. I grew up in Africa where, from a young age, I was surrounded with powerful music that I learned later was primarily built on minor pentatonic scales. To this day, I enjoy listening to Hebrew, Middle Eastern, and even Far Eastern music simply for their evocation and power.
Think of your favorite movie scores and symphonies … nearly all will feature, and many be based on, minor keys. Even songs that we’ve always associated as being proud and beautiful the way they are can, in fact, be just as powerful when translated to a minor key. In fact, this has become a hobby of mine … I play instruments (primarily piano and guitar) by ear, so I enjoy switching up the qualities of many of my favorite songs.
Consider this famous viral video going around on Youtube right now — produced by Chase Holfelder, it is a rendition of the American National Anthem (mostly) into a minor key. Some may find it disrespectful, but upon experience, it’s hard to argue the new qualities this famous song is given are no less powerful. Watch the video here.
Meanwhile, from another perspective, you might think that a minor-sounding key changed to a major key would, well, sound happy. Perhaps such a song would sound nicer after a while of listening to it, but with a song as familiar as - say - Fur Elise, it may actually sound incredibly strange and perhaps even eerie at first. Consider this little sample I created (here) of what Fur Elise might sound like in A major, as opposed to A minor. Is it really all that … happy? Or is emotional response to acoustic melody a falsified trigger?
I’m not really here to answer my own questions yet, but this subject is just something that has fascinated me for a long time and I guess I’m ranting on it hoping to get others curious as well … and here the opinion of those already curious about the whacky world of theoretical music.
Have a snazztastic day, bloggity buddies.