Movie Music

A Beginner's Guide to Major and Minor Tonality

Should it matter to a listener whether a piece of music is composed in a major or minor key? If we find ourselves listening to Mozart's Symphony No. 41 in C major or Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, do we need to pay attention to the "major" and "minor" labels?

These questions were asked recently by a student in a lifelong learning class I was teaching titled "How to Listen to a Symphony." The questions were elementary, but consequential. Considering the sincerity of the questions, I wanted to follow 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 would be able to understand what I was about to say.

My answer was uncomplicated and direct: "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 little or no understanding of the language of music 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 heavy or weighty.

Listen to the following pieces and note the differences.

Classical Music in a Major Key
Beethoven, Sonata No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28, "Pastoral," Fourth Movement


Classical Music in a Minor Key
Beethoven, Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, “Pathetique,” First Movement


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.

Mozart, Symphony No. 41 in C major, First Movement


Mozart Symphony No. 40 G minor Symphony, First Movement


The German composer Paul Hindemith once said, "Tonality is a natural force, like gravity."
As I explain it to my students, the center of gravity in major tonality will likely pull you toward the "light" and in a minor tonality it will likely pull you toward the "dark."
May your days always end on a major tonality.



Defining "Classical" Music

The term “classical” is used in so many different ways when applied to music that defining it is difficult, maybe impossible. Such a wide variety of music has been labeled "classical" that I’m tempted to ignore the issue of trying to give it a definition and simply state, “You know it when you hear it.” However, having a working definition of the term is important, especially for people who are new to the genre.

The term "classical," in the strictest sense, refers to the cultural traditions of the ancient world. Therefore, when we call music "classical," we might be describing only the music from ancient Greece or Rome.

"Classical (adj.): Designating, of, or pertaining to the standard ancient Greek and Latin authors or their works, or the culture, art, architecture, etc., of Greek and Roman antiquity generally; specializing in or based on the study of the Greek and Latin classics, or Greek and Roman antiquity generally." – Oxford English Dictionary

With regard to music of the last sixteen centuries — anything created after the fall of Rome — the term "classical" is most accurately used to describe European-based music of the late eighteenth century. During this “Age of Enlightenment," European culture was characterized by a renewed interest in the ancient traditions of Greece and Rome that is often described as “neoclassical.”

In short, when describing musical eras on this blog, I will identify the Baroque era (1600-1750), the
Classical era (1730-1820), the Romantic era (1815-1910), The Modernist era (1900-1945), and the Postmodernist era (1945-present). The term "classical" would therefore describe only the music of the Classical era, primarily the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Now, let’s make it even more complicated.

In most cases, it seems, people use the term "classical" to describe European-based “art” music, both sacred and secular, of the last 800 years. Admittedly, that covers a lot of ground. Often, when people describe music as “European-based” they are including music from Russia and North America, and the term “art” is used in reference to almost any type of music that’s not “folk” music (whatever that is).

"All music is folk music, I ain't never heard no horse sing a song." – Louis Armstrong

Confusing, eh? We have few clear guidelines for labeling music as "classical" and must also cope with the problem that the term has been applied to all types of music from medieval plainchant to modern movie music.

We do, however, have a way out of this mess. In a book titled
Music in the United States, musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock offers guidelines for distinguishing classical music from other types of music. Dr. Hitchcock recommends dividing music into two simple categories: vernacular and cultivated.

According to Dr. Hitchcock,
vernacular music is the everyday music of ordinary people, music that develops “democratically” within a culture. Vernacular music can be used for entertainment. It can also be music that is created and performed for practical use: work, weddings, funerals, festivals, etc. Vernacular music is often labeled as “folk” music or “popular” music.

Cultivated music, on the other hand, requires a community' conscious effort for its creation and maintenance. Quite simply, if the music is not “cultivated,” it dies. It’s a type of music that would not exist without a foundation of knowledgeable teachers, well-trained musicians, educated audiences, and substantial financial support. Cultivated music is a type of music that is usually longer and contains more musical information than so-called “folk” music or “popular” music.

And there it is. Unless we want to restrict our use of the term "classical" to refer only to music of the ancient world or music of the Classical era, we can use the term as a generic description of any music that is “cultivated." The historical era makes no difference.

Classical or "cultivated" music is not necessarily “better” than vernacular music. It is simply different.

And I say, enjoy it all!

Vernacular Music: "Turkey in the Straw"


Cultivated Music: Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, Second Movement


This blog was written under the influence of Leonard Bernstein’s
Symphonic Suite from “On the Waterfront.”



Defining Music, Part Two

In a previous blog I described music in simplistic terms as “the moments defined by what I am listening to.” In this blog I want to provide four additional items to my description. I should also add that any attempt to define something as abstract as music is probably a futile task.
In any case, here's some food for thought.

1. Nothing should be ruled out when describing something as "music."
What someone calls "music" might be a Mozart piano concerto, the songs of a humpback whale, or the cacophony of a hammer hitting an anvil — it depends on who is listening and how they want to label it. We are not obligated to like what others call "music," but common courtesy requires us to refer to something as music when others think of it that way.

John Cage, Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 112 Radios
(performed by students of Hunter College of The City University of New York)


John Cage, 4’ 33” (composed in three movements, performed by David Tutor)


2. Music is the language of emotion.
In ancient Greece music was described as a language that spoke directly to human emotion. In what has become known as the
doctrine of ethos , the Greeks expressed an idea that the right kind of music had the power to heal the sick and shape personal character in positive ways. The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that when a piece of music was designed to imitate a certain emotion, a person listening to the music would have that emotion. Aristotle’s idea of music is still alive in the way we use music to exaggerate the drama, horror, or comedy in Hollywood films.

John Williams, Theme from "Jaws"
(performed by John Williams and the Boston Pops Orchestra)



3. Instrumental music is a prime example of abstract art.
Just as abstract visual images might refer to something that goes beyond reality, instrumental music might be used to portray aspects of human existence that cannot normally be described with sound. After all, what is the sound of "love," "fear," or "spiritual redemption?" Why does Rimsky-Korsakov's music sound so “Russian” and Aaron Copland's music sound so "American"? Only great music can answer that question, and the answer cannot always be expressed in words.

Rimsky-Korsakov, Russian Easter Overture
(performed by Valery Gergiev and the Marlinsky Orchestra)



Aaron Copland, Rodeo, Fourth Movement
(performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Warfield)



4. Some music requires repeated hearings before it can be fully understood or appreciated.
Musical masterworks tend to get better the more they are heard. The first time you listen to Beethoven's
String Quartet, Opus 127, it might have little effect on your emotions. After hearing it several times, however, you might begin to describe it as "spiritual" and marvel at its ability to express profound truth. Listen to the quartet embedded below, and think of it as providing a contrast between Beethoven's inner turmoil and his public persona. It may take several hearings, but you should eventually be able to hear the difference between the "private" and the “public" in the composer's life.

Beethoven String Quartet, Opus 127
(performed by the Jasper String Quartet)



And so it goes...
This blog was written under the influence of Mozart’s
Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major.

Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major
Yeol Eum Son, piano