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Major Key Blues

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Lately I’ve been enchanted by a series of minor-keyed sad songs converted to major keys, and vice versa. Hearing familiar songs switched into a different minor or major key is quite strange, and is unsettling to my ears in a way that I can’t quite pin down.

My two favorites of the moment are REM’s Losing My Religion and the The Beatles’ Hey Jude, both below. Take a listen!

Losing My Religion, switched to a major (“happy”) key:

Hey Jude, now in a minor (“sad”) key:

Why are most sad-sounding songs in minor keys, and most happy-sounding songs in major keys? And why does it make me feel so strange to hear a happy, major-keyed song in a minor key?

There are a few things that researchers have pointed to that might make songs sound sad. One is the minor third, which is perhaps based on sad speech patterns, and another is the appoggiatura, as are used in Adele’s Some Like You. But since there are so many cultural and individual factors that come into play when someone perceives a song as “sad,” it is doubtful that the essence of a sad song is comprised of a strict formula on which all can agree.

I’ve been considering the role of scientific studies within cultural, sociological, and individual frameworks. How much of our perception of sad music is cultural, and how much approaches universal? As we push toward progress in these areas, I’ll be listening to these inverted songs and wondering about my own personal influences that make these songs sound strange.

Princess Ojiaku About the Author: Princess Ojiaku is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin - Madison in Neuroscience and Public Policy. She is also a student of life, exuberant nerd, and musician. She often tweets her daily links of interest and digital personal mutterings. Follow on Twitter @artfulaction.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. sjfone 12:04 am 07/29/2013

    Amy Winehouse.

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  2. 2. Rev.Corvette 12:56 am 07/29/2013

    Very interesting article and thanks to the author Princess Ojiaku! I’ve often wondered about the mood itonations of the major vs. minor keys, I have always instinctively known that music is literaly a universal language (as well as mathematics but that is a different tune altogether) …I fully agree that switching keys major to minor and vice versa on the two songs used as examples is unsetteling (and downright eerie to me). I hear a deffinate warning or foreboding tone on the end of every line of Hey Jude in minor key. What a difference, but not really suprising, as musicians have always used minor keys for sad, lonely and evil subject matter…. I think the scale used when playing a piece of music (like chromatic or diatonic scale for instance) also has a “mood coloring” effect. Thanks again and good luck in searching for the lost chord.

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  3. 3. Percival 1:05 am 07/29/2013

    Old news. Anyone else old enough to remember “The Odd Couple” episode where Felix and Oscar’s cheery tune “Happy and Peppy and Bursting with Love” gets a bluesy treatment from Jaye P. Morgan? It’s on YouTube too, but I won’t post a link.

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  4. 4. WRQ9 2:42 am 07/29/2013

    There is no automatic reassignment of a song from happy/sad major/minor. A song switched by that description can be reinterpreted in many ways. To simply change the selection of notes through scalar reassignment does not allow for this, and is not reinterpreted by the performer but by the research.
    It (Hey Jude) sounds as if the turntable is dying. I don’t hold with modifying performances publicly without involving the performers, but “science” should be fun for you, huh?
    Minor keys can already imply defiance, apathy, sadness, even disinterest, but an alteration shouldn’t be limited in it’s potential by previous use. There is a world of perspectives untapped that may contain lessons for all of us. I find I may use more minor intervals or less depending on who I’m playing for. it’s a question of what I feel could be most effective in translation. In the end, even sadness can reflect hope when it is expressed in a context which allows for it. Hope is a natural state of mind.
    Cruelty has often been expressed in a minor context also, there is little sad about cruelty, among the cruel! In fact, in many ways all the emotions supported in a major key can be naturally reflected in minor ones by an alternate psyche. Tom Leherer wrote much of his music in major keys. A bastion of optimism and positive thinking was he!

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  5. 5. David Kroll 7:20 am 07/30/2013

    Truly fascinating, Princess O. I’ll never forget an experience I had when first learning to play the guitar at age 14 or 15: After learning a few major chords — A, D, E, G — I was delighted to learn that some chords only required two fingers. E-minor, for example, was a breeze. But I was totally taken aback by how melancholic it sounded, how the removal of just one finger completely changed the complexion and landscape of the sound. I knew nothing about music theory (and still don’t know too much) but the feeling was so absolutely visceral. I look forward to Princess O talking more about the neuroscience behind this phenomenon.

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  6. 6. bongobimbo 4:35 pm 07/30/2013

    The Greeks were aware of the psychological dimension of minor music. When I was a Naval officer stationed in New York City I also studied musical composition part-time with the director of the 1st Unitarian Church of Brooklyn choir, where I sang–a former student of David Diamond’s and in 2013 a composer in his own right). We used physicist Herman Helmholtz’s ON THE SENSATION OF TONE and musician Leonard Bernstein’s THE JOY OF MUSIC as guides. To clarify the controversy over major-minor I did an analysis of the church modes, which you can hear by playing 7 scales using only the white keys on a well-tempered piano, ignoring the black keys. Going up from C, they are Ionian (C-C’), Dorian (D-D’), Phrygian (E-E’),Lydian (F-F’), Mixolydian (G-G’), Aeolian (A-A’) and Locrian (B-B’), a theoretical mode which doesn’t normally appear in music earlier than the 20th century since it lacks a perfect 5th. Now comes the fun part! Math buffs will enjoy doing what I did–creating 7 graphs plus a transparent layover on trace paper, to visually represent the “majorality” and “minorality” of all the modes by graphing each one’s steps and half-steps, starting with Lydian (with a 4th raised a half-step, the most major) down to the theoretical Locrian (with a diminished 5th, the most minor–although in real music Phrygian sounds the most minor). Then lay the trace paper on each graph & trace the outer boundary of each mode’s steps. Descending from major to minor the modes are: Lydian (ethereal), Ionian (our bright “key of C” major), Mixolydian (a little bittersweet), Dorian (very bittersweet), Aeolian (part of our A minor scale), Phrygian (Near-Eastern sounding) and the incomplete and somewhat ugly Locrian. Eureka! Many musicologists deny it, but I am convinced that the psychological impact of tonality on the brain really DOES have a basis in physical reality. No one knows how the classical Greeks figured that out, but they did, bless ‘em.

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  7. 7. Rev.Corvette 4:41 am 07/31/2013

    Thank you bongobimbo. I agree with you, as far as I understand. Your analysis of the 7 scales is very close to what I was referring to. That the classical Greeks identified the 7 scales and named them, while fully aware of the mood-music relationship so long ago, pairs well with their ability to produce something like the Antikythera mechanism. I, on the other hand only know enough about music to be dangerous. “Boogy chillin’”

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