If you listen to a sad song, it is probably in a minor key. A happy tune is often in a major key. But why? It is a very good question and like many simple questions, there isn’t a simple answer. But here goes…
Tell me why a minor third sounds sad!
(Question sent from Tim Adlam via Facebook)
A ‘minor third’ means two notes separated by three semitones (three notes on a keyboard – see picture). Playing two notes together or after one another make a minor third is generally accepted as being ‘sad’.
A ‘major third’ is two notes separated by four semitones. Play these together and it gives a ‘happy’ sound.
Chopin’s Funeral March played in minor key sounds very depressing!
To explain technical reasons WHY a minor third sounds sad, it is first easier to say what makes a major third sound happy. Minor thirds may sound sad simply because of their relationship to Major chords, which we are more familiar with. This is like how a Monday morning seems sad compared to Friday afternoon within the context of a week.
For example, if we swap Major for Minor, things start to sound strange. Listen to these two extracts from Chopin’s Funeral March and hear what I mean:
Chopin’s Funeral March played in a major key
Chopin’s Funeral March played in a minor key (sounds very depressing!)
Some pieces just wouldn’t work if they were in a major key, using major chords where there were supposed to be minor chords can create some odd results.
The science behind why a major key sounds happy
The term ‘major third’ describes the relationship between the ‘root note’ – the note on the played left on the keyboard (see pictures above). It is also the third note (E) of the major scale (in this example, the C major scale goes C – D – E – F – G…) . The way it sounds is described as “happy” by many and the main reason for this is because the ‘major third’ occurs loudly in the ‘harmonic series’ – the set of pitches or frequencies that make up a sound.
The harmonic series
Every instrument or voice has its own unique set of harmonics. Without harmonics, a note sounds very bland. Below is an electronically created low pitched C note. It is a pure tone (a sine wave) with no harmonics.
A singing voice is different has many different frequencies contained within it. The main note that I am singing (below) is a low C. The frequency spectrum shows it has harmonic frequencies above it. These harmonics are what give the note its character.
If you watch the following video, you can see and hear the difference between a pure C note and a sung C.
In the video I label the ‘fundamental note’ (the loudest C) and the other harmonics. (The fundamental note is also called the first harmonic)
In the video I also show you on the keyboard where all these harmonics appear. Look at where the keys are – anyone who knows their musical scales will spot that first five harmonics give a full major (a ‘happy’ sounding chord).
You see in the video (and the image below, shoeing the harmonics created by the note C) that the loudest harmonic is the ‘5th harmonic’, which is the note E – the ‘third major’! It is this harmonic frequency that gives the sound a positive impact for the listener.
This is probably why we respond so positively to the major third because it is all around us in nature. Very few instruments and indeed objects create pure sine wave tones with no harmonics – we are used to hearing the (major) frequencies of the harmonic series. Without harmonics, we are unable to distinguish one sound from another (and it is difficult to pinpoint the whereabouts of sounds.)
Therefore, minor keys may be heard as ‘sad’ because they don’t appear in nature in the same way.
Minor key: you don’t hear it much in nature
Interestingly, the minor third does occur in the harmonic series but it is the 19th harmonic. (indicated by the red ellipse) Bearing in mind that the further away the note is from the fundamental note, (or first harmonic on the left hand side), the weaker the relationship between the two notes. The harmonic series in natural sounds get quieter the further up you go. So the 19th harmonic is a long way from the first harmonic and as such, would not be heard as a natural sound in one voice. It can only be created or heard by two instruments or voices playing together. This could explain why the minor third is less positive to the ear.
Mumford and Sons like the major key
Interestingly, according to the Scientific American: “In the 1960s, 85 percent of the songs were written in a major key, compared with only about 40 percent of them now.”
As a reasonably infrequent songwriter myself, I find it difficult to write happy songs. I know amongst my students, many find it difficult to write uplifting songs although there is now some movement toward Mumford and Sons style of upbeat songs which feature major keys.
However, there is a great deal of music which is written in a major key that is sad; “She’s leaving home” by the Beatles is in a major key and yet it has a real pulling towards the melancholic. There are also uplifting songs that are in a minor key: “Eye of the Tiger”, by Frankie Sullivan and Jim Peterik is, for me, one of the most uplifting minor key songs ever written. It is far from sad which is not necessarily caused by the key but the tempo, rhythm, lyrics, vocal style and syncopation in the opening section. In this case, the minor key can be seen as ‘serious’ and sets the scene for a powerful message.
One of the most moving and sad pieces I know is Nimrod from the Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar. Even though is in a major key, the piece defies convention by the way it moves from chord to chord, suspending notes along the way, creating slow pulls of tension throughout.
Sadness is more than just a minor key, just as Christmas is not just a time for happiness. Emotions are complex, biased by context, experience, lyrics and the fact that music is not really a science. The harmonic series does favour the major chord which has an immediate impact on the listener but as soon as we order more than a few chords in a sequence, our emotions become more complex.
I like the ambiguity of music, the exceptions that defy the rules, the happy pieces in minor keys, the sad pieces in major keys and then there’s Justin Bieber.
(Mumford and Sons image source: Kmeron, on Flickr)
Did you know? Children’s teasing rhymes are sung in a minor key
Finally, I am reminded of what music education expert David Vinden told me a long time ago:
“The minor third is reckoned to be the first interval that children sing. Much of our language …”mummy” …’daddy’ … ‘yoo hoo’ etc use a descending minor third sound or intonation.”
“It is also often the kind of teasing chant for young children… For example the childhood teasing rhyme:
‘I’m the * king of the cast*le, you’re the * dirty rasc*al.’ ”
(The placement of the asterisks indicate the use of minor thirds, where they are used to increase the mocking effect.)
“…it is such a common ‘sneering’ chant of children in their play. The amazing thing is that it is not restricted to [one country but widely accepted] across the world… There are so many children’s songs that bear testament to this.”
So perhaps so many of us hear a minor third as sad because we are taught it from an early age?
Answer by Clive Stocker