Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Tyro’s Guide to Major and Minor Tonality

If you find yourself listening to a piece of classical music such as Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in G Major or Mozart’s G Minor Symphony, do you need to pay attention to the "major" and "minor" labels? Should it matter to a listener whether a piece of music is composed in a major or minor key?

These questions were asked recently in a community ed class that I was teaching titled "Understanding Great Symphonies." The questions were elementary, but important. Considering the sincerity of the questions, I knew my answer needed to obey Albert Einstein's maxim: "If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself." I hoped a six year old could understand what I was about to say.

The  answer to the question was really quite simple. Yes, it does matter. It matters in the same way as deciding before going to the theater whether you want to see a comedy or tragedy. In most cases, the entire mood or tone of a piece of music is determined by whether it is composed in a major or minor key.

Here’s what the average listener with no musical experience — Einstein’s figurative six year old, as well as the senior citizen who asked the questions — needs to know: If a piece of music is composed in a major key it will generally sound bright, happy, sunny, cheerful, or joyful. A piece in a minor key will generally sound dark, sad, grave, sinister, or dramatic. A piece in a major key can sound delicate or light. A piece in a minor key can sound powerful or weighty.

Listen to the following pieces and note the differences.

Major Key
Beethoven, Sonata No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28, "Pastoral," Fourth Movement
(Performed by Charles Tsai, 2006 Senior Recital, Taiwanese American Community Center, San Diego, CA)

Minor Key
Beethoven, Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, “Pathetique,” First Movement
(Performed by Freddy Kempf)

Movie Music in a Major Key
Vangelis, "Theme from Chariots of Fire"

Movie Music in a Minor Key
John Barry, “James Bond 007 Theme Music”

Now, back to the pieces my student asked about in the first question.

Here's Haydn's Symphony No. 88 in G Major, First Movement
Iván Fischer conducting the Berliner Philharmonike

And here's Mozart's G Minor Symphony, First Movement 

For an interesting explanation of why a minor key sounds "sad," here's a link to an article from Scientific American: "Music and Speech Share a Code for Communicating Sadness in the Minor Third."


1 comment:

  1. Why do Minor Keys sound sad?
    If you want to answer the question, why minor chords sound sad, there is the problem, that some minor chords don't sound sad. The solution is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. 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. Similar, when you watch a dramatic movie in television, the movie 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 any more...". If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will "I don't want any more..." 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 Theory of Musical Equilibration discovered them. And therefore many previous researches in psychology 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 "Music and Emotions - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration" for free. You can get it on the link:
    Enjoy reading
    Bernd Willimek