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.