Saturday, December 2

Readers reply: why do major and minor chords in music affect us the way they do? | Music

Why does music played in major chords and keys tend to be more uplifting, whereas minor chords are more poignant and sad? Is this an innate reaction? Or is it a learned, cultural reaction and therefore not universal to all human societies? Stella O’Shea

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readers reply

I’m pretty sure that it isn’t learned behaviour. That would get obvious, wouldn’t it? We would be neutral about minor or major keys until at age 10 in music class the teacher tells us we should hear these chords as bright and sunny, and these other chords as sad and melancholy (if also a bit sweet in their sorrow). In that case the uneducated in music wouldn’t hear any difference. franzpepper

My younger son (now four) could certainly identify different moods to music such as happy, sad, angry by the time he was three. Granted he has only heard western music, but he has a clear preference for calm and uplifting music. He has a great ear for rhythm and a lovely tuneful singing voice; it’s really interesting how he can instinctively hear differences musically when my other older son can’t. gemsab

It’s cultural, and you don’t have to travel to see that. In medieval times in Europe, when music was composed in numerous modes rather than just simple major or minor keys, what we now call minor was not associated with sadness. The equivalent of a minor key was lively and uplifting. merchycwm

This is likely quite the ultimate notes and queries question, featuring as it does a query about notes. What could be more delightfully harmonious, symmetrical and uplifting? But I have a minor quibble, because the assumption behind the question can easily be overstated. For example, the relentlessly cheerful Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is in a minor key. Furthermore, speaking from personal experience, I recall that in my youth my own memorably stately and emotionally fraught interpretation of an ostensibly simple C-sharp major scale (hands together, three octaves in thirds) once reduced a sensitive listener to uncontrollable sobbing. And she was my piano teacher. ThereisnoOwl

While God Rest Ye Merry is certainly a lot closer to minor than major, the flattened seventh makes its modal rather than tonal. Minor tonality is a modified mode, but that tune is in a purer, unmodified form of it, characteristic of the earlier, pre-1600 system, with more than just the two modes. That unmodified minor is sometimes called Aeolian mode.

I think it is fairer to say that major chordal centers and tunes tend to present more straightforward emotional worlds, which can be happy or sad, or other things, including bold and stirring or quiet and gentle, but always quite simple and direct. Minor ones I would think of as more complex, indirect and serious, rather than sad.

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You could perhaps hear God Rest Ye Merry as quite serious about its merrymaking, and Silent Night more of a simple and direct lullaby. PaniscusTroglodytes

Intervals (two different notes played simultaneously) create vibrations that affect a neurological response in the listener. The most pleasing interval is the fifth (eg A to E, a fifth above), followed by a fourth (A to D), then a major third (A to C#), followed by a minor third (A to C). As the span of the intervals become smaller, the vibrations become move complex, the brain interprets the complexity as almost a dangerous event. The minor second (A to Bb) is the workhorse of film composers when they wish to underscore danger, threat, fear, etc. Prof David McHugh

Lennie Bernstein (i was about eight, so forgive me) said we can hear the clash of harmonics caused by the flattened third in the minor chord, and that makes us uncomfortable. OneAnotherName

What Bernstein was describing is the harmonic overtone series, which is a natural phenomenon. Resonating notes are made up of more sounds than just the main note you hear. The main note you hear is called the fundamental, and it sets off the series, which starts with the same note one octave up. The next interval is a major fifth, and the one after that is a major third. Those other vibrations happening above the main note give the sound character and richness.

So when a fundamental is played, and then a minor third is harmonized separately on top of it, the ear is still sensing the major third caused by the overtone series – because that overtone is still vibrating. But they are also hearing that minor third, which is a semitone below it, and that is a somewhat disturbing sound. Not quite as comfortable as the “happier” sounding match between a major third harmony and its natural overtone …

If you have a piano or keyboard handy, and you play any semitone interval – such as a B and a C together – you can hear that dissonance, a kind of “rubbing” sound. yonah

An extract from Bernstein’s lecture series

That makes sense as far as intervals are concerned, but what if you add a fifth too? If you play a major triad, there’s a minor third interval within it. And similarly a major third within a minor triad. So they both contain the harmonic dissonance you refer to, albeit with a different relation to the fundamental. Perhaps it’s just confirmation bias, but I’m typing this comment at my piano and it does seem that a naked minor third sounds more starkly unsettling than the major third, whereas the difference between the major and minor triads is more subtle. Snowshovel

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It depends where you put the fifth. If the fifth is added above the major or minor third (ie the root position of a triad), that note’s overtone series won’t interfere with the notes or intervals below it … since the overtone series is only triggered upwards from the note itself. So, for example, if you’re playing a C major triad in root position, with the fifth on top, the C (which is the lowest fundamental) will not be generating an audible Eb overtone to interfere with the E natural. This is the reason why choices of inversions and chord voicings are so emotional. yonah

There may be a contrast between the flattened third of a minor chord and some higher harmonics, but minor chords sound sad even when played with pure sine waves and not a harmonic in sight. ubergeekian

What about cultures such Indonesia where the gamelan uses a seven-tone scale? These days I guess everyone has been indoctrinated with the western 12-tone scale markymarkoldface

I found a 2010 Guardian article (left) reporting on a study in the US that found that when actors were asked to convey sadness, their speech melodies naturally expressed a minor third – but which came first, the minor third in speech or music. The piece concluded that it was learned behaviour. It referenced a book by Ross Duffin, How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony …, which quotes the 18th-century mathematician Robert Smith, who tended to agree that it was a result of the 12-tone scale. However, blues music also has a melancholic feel, and that’s believed to be based on “just intonation”, unlike European 12-tone equal temperament tuning. Other examples of just intonation include the 17-tone Arabic scale and the 22-tone Indian classical scale. African cultures, where blues is derived from, also use just intonation as a norm in music. MrsLessing

There is lots of music which is not based on the western chromatic scale. The same harmonic overtone series exists – because it’s a physical phenomenon – but people who use other scales can comfortably hear more of the overtones, so intervals that might sound sadder, or even dissonant, to someone who listens only to 12-tone scale-based music doesn’t sound that way to them. Cajun and Zydeco music have a tonal system in which the leading melody, whether sung or played on a pitchable instrument – ​​such as a fiddle – will be tended sharp. Not a full quarter-tone sharp, but somewhat sharp. And everybody does it the same way. Entire horn sections will sound this way. People who aren’t from that Louisiana culture will sometimes perceive it as “out of tune”, but it isn’t. There are more notes in the scale. A friend of mine who is a Cajun musician from Louisiana, when he tries to describe these notes to people unfamiliar with them, refers to them as “pitchillations”, and if they want to learn to play Cajun music, he tells them they’re going to have to get themselves a “pitichillator” in order to play it. yonah

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The major third and fifth feature strongly in the harmonic sequence and would have been the first harmonizing notes used by our musical ancestors after octaves because they occur naturally as overtones and harmonics on string and wind instruments.
Minor tonality became associated with more intense emotions during the late classical and romantic period. Prior to that, minor tonality was often used to indicate both happy and sad moods. Think madrigals such as Pastime With Good Company, a very jolly subject treated with strong minor tonality. Cod23

This may go some way to help. LentilKnitter

Unlike the other very educated and helpful commenters, I’m musically illiterate but even so I have a theory: could it be an evolutionary thing? Maybe scary dangerous things tend to sound minor or at least discordant, and safe, useful things are more usually in major keys? Say: thunderstorms, howling wolves, screaming winds, as opposed to birdsong, gently lapping waves, mooing cows and baa-ing sheep? Actually, I’m not even sure if cows don’t moo in a minor key. whenever night

I love music in the minor key. I don’t find it sad at all. Maybe it’s because I’m a melancholic Scot, or the influence of our traditional folk music, who knows, but anyway, minor keys are far more colourful! Kirstmacmur

It’s cultural. Back in the 15th and 16th centuries, trumpets were used at funerals and so the Ionian mode (“major chord” sound) – trumpets could only play harmonics back then – was not associated with happiness. There are texts describe the Dorian mode, close to our minor scale, as the most suitable for joyful occasions and dances. dcammh

“As so often in Schubert’s music, in the piano and chamber music without words as much as in the songs, the major key is even more heart-breaking than the minor”. Ian Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey (2014) PeterMFKaan

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