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.
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)
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."