Why does a song in a minor key sound sad?

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’.

The minor third, played on a keyboard
The minor third, played on a keyboard




A ‘major third’ is two notes separated by four semitones. Play these together and it gives a ‘happy’ sound.

A major third, as played on a keyboard
A major third, as played on a keyboard


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.

The frequency spectrum of C shows only one frequency in a pure note
The frequency spectrum of C shows only one frequency in a pure note




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.

The frequency spectrum when a voice is singing with open mouth
The frequency spectrum when a voice is singing with open mouth




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.

In the harmonic series above, the main note or fundamental note is C, the harmonics will be C, G, a higher C and then E. Other higher harmonics appear and are usually quieter.
In the harmonic series above, the main note or fundamental note is C, the harmonics will be C, G, a higher C and then E. Other higher harmonics appear and are usually quieter.

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.

The 19th harmonic circled
The 19th harmonic circled

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.”

Mumford and Sons at Cirque Royal BruxellesAs 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

Article by Clive Stocker

February 10, 2014

Clive Stocker lectures on music performance in Bath, UK, and is the author of How to become a Confident Musical Performer. You can read his blog here.


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3 thoughts on “Why does a song in a minor key sound sad?”

  1. Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, “No more.” If someone were to say these words slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.

    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    [Comment edited as in breach of Commenting Guidelines – advertising]

    Bernd Willimek, music theorist

  2. Why do Minor Chords Sound Sad?

    The Theory of Musical Equilibration states that in contrast to previous hypotheses, music does not directly describe emotions: instead, it evokes processes of will which the listener identifies with.

    A major chord is something we generally identify with the message, “I want to!” The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, “No more.” If someone were to say the words “no more” slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.

    The Theory of Musical Equilibration applies this principle as it constructs a system which outlines and explains the emotional nature of musical harmonies. For more information you can google Theory of Musical Equilibration.

    Bernd Willimek

  3. Hi. Most people seem to think that the minor/major, sad/happy dichotomy is learned by long association and that it has something to do with the harmonic series. Both of those answers are a part of the complete answer. The big part, however, is that this relationship is learned before birth from your mother’s voice and while you are still in intimate connection with your mother’s emotions. You imprint the relationship during a genetically programmed critical period. The templates made at that time last for life!

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