Sunday, November 14, 2010

Does a minor key give everyone the blues?

Source: - Philip Ball - Published January 8 2010.
Retrieved from:

Summary: The author begins by asking: Why does Handel's Water Music and The Beatles' 'Here Comes The Sun' sound happy, while Albinoni's Adagio and 'Eleanor Rigby' sound sad?
Is it because the first two are in major keys while the last two are in minor keys?
Are the emotional associations of major and minor intrinsic to the notes themselves? Or are they culturally imposed?

Neuroscientist Daniel Bowling and his colleagues at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, compared the sound spectra (the profiles of different acoustic frequencies) of speech with those in Western classical music and Finnish folk songs. They found that the spectra in major-key music are close to those in excited speech, while the spectra of minor-key music are more similar to subdued speech. Across cultures, the definition of happy or sad speech is quite common; the former being relatively fast and loud, the latter is slower and quieter. The author mentions that while it is a simplistic approach in comparing happy vs. sad music, it does seem to work across cultural boundaries.

In 1959, musicologist Deryck Cooke states in his book, The Language of Music, that the idea that the minor key is intrinsically anguished while the major is joyful is so deeply ingrained in Western listeners that many have deemed this to be a natural principle of music. He also pointed out that musicians throughout the ages throughout the ages have used minor keys for vocal music with an explicitly sad content, and major keys for happy lyrics. But he failed to acknowledge that this might simply be a matter of cultural convention rather than an innate property of the music.

In Bowling and colleagues' study, although it is assumed that the ratios of frequencies sounded simultaneously in speech can be compared with the ratios of frequencies sounded sequentially in music, there are other pitfalls in the study that cannot be avoided (mentioned below) and thus their conclusions are left open to question.
1. Major-type frequency ratios dominate the spectra of both excited and subdued speech, but merely less so in the latter case
2. Some cultures (including Europe before the Renaissance and the Ancient Greeks) don't link minor keys to sadness.

Reflections: After our fascinating discussion in class several weeks ago regarding music and emotions in music, I began my quest to find out more on this subject. Although I started off with great appreciation for this article, by the time I had finished it my conclusions were the same as I had drawn at the end of our class: the majority of the kinds of emotions we draw from music are based on our own cultural conventions. One would be hard-pressed to find a method of determining what kind of music evokes specific emotions because the emotions that are experienced are specific to each individual. This may be an obvious point to make, but as a performer it is enlightening to be reminded that the emotions we evoke with our music are not necessarily ‘universal’; despite the characteristics that are shared across cultural boundaries, every performance should be and will be experienced in a different way depending on the individual’s own cultural associations, their musical background and any other factors that would change their emotional outlook on music.


Lucas Marchand said...

Thanks for the post Lisa. I certainly agree that it would be difficult to call major or minor keys universally sad or universally happy. There are too many examples of cultures that don't follow those rules. The study you wrote about drew an interesting link between music containing short notes and a quick tempo, and exited and happy speech patterns. It also talked about slow moving sustained music mirroring sad and depressed speech. It seems to me that although there are probably cultures where this is not true, the tempo of speech patterns may be more generalizable across many cultures.

Grace Ha said...

I completely agree that minor key does not necessarily mean 'sadness'. Personally, songs in minor key has much higher arousal effect than major keys. Probably I got exposed to many boring easy major key pieces while minor key pieces often had interesting sequence and chord progressions.
Anyway, your post reminded me about the Western bias in 'educating the feelings'. Quiet a lot of happy Korean traditional folk songs are in minor keys, and sad songs in major keys. For example, the lyrics of the famous Korean folksong 'Arirang' which is in major key, is a very sad story about watching the lover leaving. As music educators, we should keep reminding ourselves that our music perception is not unviersal.

Anonymous said...

I found myself giggling as I was reading the blog and the others’ responses, remembering one of my piano students. Although to me minor key music generally sounds sad, and major key music generally sounds happy (not always, but most often the music adheres to the norm), to this student all major chords sound sad and all minor chords sound happy! I don`t believe she is amusical, because she can certainly play well and enjoy the music she is making, but for some reason, she perceives music colour in a different way. This is a case where culture does not impose on her grasp of musical colour. It is also to be noted that her siblings have no trouble identifying cords by the colour/emotion they evoke - and our cultural labelling of happy = major and sad = minor – therefore eliminating the possibility of exposure to a different kind of music at home. Since she has already had a few years of exposure to Western classical music, and she still cannot perceive music the same way we do, could it be that her brain is wired differently from ours? This is an exception to the rule; speaking more broadly and specific to the blog post, I tend to believe music itself evokes specific emotion; the performer may alter it due to either inability to understand its raw form - as written on the page – or due to their desire to over-express it. To categorize music as “sad” or “happy” is a gross undermining of human emotion. A minor mode piece may be able to evoke the whole spectrum of emotion, from striking desolation and hopelessness, to a ray of hope. And just as a reminder: sad music has also been written in major keys...

willimek said...

Major and Minor - the Strebetendenz-Theory

If you want to answer the question, why major sounds happy and minor sounds sad, there is the problem, that some minor chords don't sound sad. The solution of this problem is the Strebetendenz-Theory. It says, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can just convey processes of will, but the music listener fills this processes of will with emotions. Similary, when you watch a dramatic film in television, the film cannot transmit emotions directly, but processes of will. The spectator perceives the processes of will dyed with emotions - identifying with the protagonist. When you listen music you identify too, but with an anonymous will now.

If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will "I don't want anymore...". If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will "I don't want anymore..." with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words "I don't want anymore..." the first time softly and the second time loudly.

This operations of will in the music were unknown until the Strebetendenz-Theory discovered them. And therefore many previous researches in psycholgy of music failed. If you want more information about music and emotions and get the answer, why music touches us emotionally, you can download the essay "Vibrating Molecules and the Secret of their Feelings" for free. You can get it on the link:

Enjoy reading

Bernd Willimek