Science with Moxie

Science with Moxie

Musical notes on neuroscience

Major Key Blues


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.

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

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