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It's probably time to say that major chords are not "cheerful" and that minor keys can work well even in very positive compositions. | Photo: Bailey Zindel (Unsplash)
It's probably time to say that major chords are not "cheerful" and that minor keys can work well even in very positive compositions. | Photo: Bailey Zindel (Unsplash)
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Music is Not Rocket Science #3: The Myth of Happy Major and Sad Minor

A typical scene in music education may look like this: a music teacher plays a C major arpeggio and says, "Can you hear how cheerful and upbeat it is? This is a major chord." He then changes his expression to a grim face as he plays the C minor arpeggio in a slow, serious motion, "Now, we are sad and melancholy. For we are playing a minor chord." I used to love to perform a similar sketch for my bass students (with a sense of great pedagogical benefit). Everyone knows that minor is sad and major is happy. Doesn't it?

A light smile on the face, in the heart deep woe.... and vice versa

Let's look at two examples of pieces that completely disprove the myth of happy major and sad minor. Eric Clapton's beautiful ballad aptly titled River of Tears will really touch your heart. Not only with its achingly melancholic lyrics but above all with its musical composition, arrangements and guitar solo that will make a stone cry. The key of the song? Er, our old familiar C major. Yes, this heartfelt composition begins with the "cheerful" chord of C major and successfully continues with another chord of F major before finally finding some representative of the minor spectrum, namely the chord Dm7, as the third in the series.

Pharrell Williams's Happy shattered all sorts of chart records in 2013 and is still one of the pieces that most of us recognise after the first notes. As its title rather blatantly suggests, it's clear to everyone that there will be no shortage of major chordal and melodic progressions here, right? The opposite is true, the piece is in the key of F minor and the main melodic line is built on funky phrases in the minor scale. How is that possible?

So what determines that music sounds happy or sad?

Our feelings when we listen to the chord progression, the melodic line and the overall arrangements and sounds of the piece in general are influenced by many factors. A composer, or more likely a producer these days, can play with us like a cat with a mouse and doesn't need the mythical concept of major versus minor to do so. Much more important factors are tempo, rhythmic phrasing, counterpoint, interval spacing in chord construction (brighter sounding chords have more interval spacing compared to darker sounding chords with less interval spacing), the sonic character of the instruments, the textual content, and, of course, playing with dissonance and consonance.

When we look at the fundamental distinguishing factors between happy and sad pieces, we can generally say that in the former case, we have elements of faster tempo, greater volume of instruments and a simple melody mostly in the upper register. In the sad pieces, the simplicity of the melodic line is also important, but there is a much slower tempo and a melody in the lower registers of the instruments or vocals. Anger is well associated with complex rhythms and frequent changes in tempo or volume. Anxiety, on the other hand, can be expressed through a slower-tempo song with a complex melodic line that makes ample use of chromatic progressions.

The vocal quality of the instruments playing the main melodic line is also a very important component in evoking emotion in the listener. The strings work well to evoke a range of emotions, from despair and heartbreak to falling in love or, in staccato style, a call to battle. Guitar wizards like Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour and Steve Vai use their playing to mimic an expressive conversation with the listener – their instruments literally speak to them. Incidentally, Vai is fond of using the Lydian major scale (with a raised fourth degree) for his extremely emotionally charged rock solos. Does he play "happy" melodies in this way? That category simply misses the point here.

Music as a soundtrack to life

Think of the aforementioned guides on how to work with emotions in songs as only a very limited attempt to describe the otherwise complex content of music. Nowadays, music is often taken as a kind of pharmacology, as a cure for a bad mood, or as a background for higher performance at the gym, inducing a shopping spree or calming the nerves. Hence the various popular compilations of Spotify playlists, which are sorted not just by genre but just by the intended purpose of the music.

Thus, some composers and producers specifically focus on creating music that is intended to serve a purpose – background music for YouTube videos, chill-out lounge music, or even quiet elevator music in hotel and restaurant chains. Music is needed everywhere, it becomes mere noise to support our daily activities. Personally, I detest this commodification/utilitarianization of music and would like to hear less of it, especially in public spaces where it is simply unavoidable these days.

There is no music without context

In this light, the question of the context of listening to music comes to mind. Can we even separate the experience of listening to music from its formal content? The same song can move you to tears or give you goosebumps at the right moment – and leave you completely cold at other times. Context is extremely important. I doubt that a chord sequence or a melody line will trigger any emotions without the proper context of the environment and your current state of mind.

Why are videos where people react to listening to music (especially music they are unfamiliar with and therefore have an authentic unpredictable reaction) so popular? You see distinctive personalities in them, who in a very expressive way pull their viewers into an empathetic experience of the moment. Honestly, it doesn't really matter what they're listening to, but more importantly how they react to it, so while they may get you excited to listen to the new Rush album, I don't really believe that you would then listen to it yourself and experience the same feelings of euphoria as the actors in the reaction video.

Under the weight of cultural conventions

We must also not forget the Western musical tradition that has shaped our perception of music for hundreds of years. During this time, many popular theories and practices have been replaced that we now take for granted or even as a kind of natural law. The fact that it is drilled into our heads from a young age that minor is sad and major is happy, then naturally influences us when we hear a given chord or when someone goes from a major third in a chord to a minor. We are taught to perceive and hear it that way.

In the same way, we can't help tearing up at certain pieces that we have a personal association with. This song was sung to me as a lullaby by my mother, I kissed my girlfriend for the first time to this song, and this piano recital was played at a friend's funeral. The stronger the association we have with the song, the stronger the emotion we will have linked with it. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the piece was written with the intention of being sad or happy (or to be played at funerals or weddings). So don't be fooled by these learned associations and the emotions that different musical elements evoke. We are very powerfully shaped by the environment in which we have gained our musical experiences.

However, it seems that certain basic characteristics that can be used to mark sad or happy pieces of music go across all musical cultures (and it has nothing to do with major or minor keys). In general, a higher melodic register and faster tempo work to evoke a happy mood, while a slower tempo will work for sadder pieces of music. So, when someone tries the pedagogical music cliché of demonstrating the sad nature of minor chords and the cheerfulness of major chords on you again, you know what to think.

Tagy music is not rocket science music theory major minor music myths cliche

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Marek Bero
Bass Gym 101 books, touring & session bass player, football tactics aficionado.