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We asked NZ jazz & blues pianist, Wil Sargisson
to answer the following question...

Wil Sargisson

December 2009

The Question:
Is a minor key sad or are we taught that it is sad?

Response by Wil Sargisson share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

Major key, minor key. Almost any experienced musician can easily aurally distinguish the difference between these two, but what really is the difference? And is it true that a major key sounds “happy” while a minor key “sad”? It's something I've often wondered over the course of my life as a pianist. People at times have suggested that the notion of a minor key sounding sad has to do with the idea having been drummed into us by our Western culture, that we got accustomed to hearing slow, minor-key dirges in films where a sad scene is unfolding. That may be true and, so far as I know, nobody has done any significant research into whether people in Asian or African countries who are unfamiliar with Western music and film have the same “reactions” to major and minor key pieces. But I have a feeling the issue is deeper than just cultural brainwashing. I think it has to do with the “power” of the minor-third interval between the root note and the flattened third.
Most would agree that the minor-third interval is one of the most recognisable intervals of them all and can pack quite a dramatic punch when used well. I recommend the soundtrack to the excellent film “Requiem For A Dream” as a fine example of how the minor third interval can be used to convey all the drama one could ever want in the depiction of a heroin-addicted group of friends.

I think we would all agree that the root note in any key centre is the most easily identifiable note in the scale. It sounds like home. It is home. Even though the major triad contains a minor-third interval itself (between the 3rd and 5th), it just doesn't seem to have the pulling power of a root-note to flattened third interval. Why? I'm not sure.

Research has suggested that a musician's brain reacts immediately and quite differently when he or she is subjected to a piece of music, depending on whether that piece is in a minor or major key.

It has been noticed that there is a significant difference in brain activity in the temporal and parietal lobes, which would suggest that major vs. minor key centres really do affect our brains and cause involuntary feelings to emerge, however it's far from conclusive as this point in time. What is known is that there's much more activity in these areas of the brain when a minor piece is heard. The researchers suggested that the lack of activity in musician's brains during major pieces may be due to the fact that most popular Western music is played in a major key. Some estimates are at over 90 percent. So the increased brain activity occurs when a somewhat unexpected key is used.

It seems certain that there are intervals which arouse “tensions” in the listener, whether trained musically or not. In my opinion the minor-third, tri-tone and semi-tone intervals are among the most easily identified and “poignant”, if that is the right word. Some have suggested that in babies, a triad with a major third provokes a noticably less “tense” response than a triad containing a minor third. It would certainly seem that composers have known and utilised this idea for centuries. Surely it is no accident that funeral marches, dirges and requiems written for deceased friends in both classical and jazz idioms have almost always been minor pieces. I think there is no sadder piece of music in the jazz field than the tune “Goodbye”, recorded by everyone from Stan Getz to Toots Thielemans. It has the descending bass line, which some have said implies the sound of a sigh, and of course is in a minor key but interestingly the piece finishes in major. Still, the melancholy of the piece cannot be missed.

There is a theory that says tempo may be just as important as key centre in creating a mood, and perhaps this is a valid point. Up-tempo minor pieces such as eastern-European polkas definitely don't sound “sad” per se; on the contrary they are often very energetic pieces and make one want to get up and dance, but in my opinion there is a still an underlying melancholy.
Although this topic has been discussed for centuries (apparently even Pythagoras delved into the matter as early as 500BC) there is much hearsay and opinion on this topic and not much concrete evidence. I look forward to hearing what other musicians have to say on this matter.

Wil Sargisson

© 2009 Wil Sargisson

Have Your Say
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Well, "It Don't Mean A Thing" is in the key of Bb major, not G minor. It just happens to start on a G minor chord but each A section resolves to the Bb major, nullifying any melancholy stated by the opening minor chord. The same is pretty much applicable for "I Found A New Baby". "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" is most definitely minor, but is often played at a rather jaunty tempo which tends to shrug off the 'sad' element, at least in part. The lyrics to "Autumn Leaves" would suggest that melancholy was definitely what the composer was aiming for.

Posted by Wil Sargisson on 8 February 2010

I can't entirely agree with this concept, as not ALL minor key tunes sound sad. Consider tunes like: It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing; Russian Lullaby; Bei Mir Bist Du Schon; I Found A New Baby; even Autumn Leaves etc etc - all of which have quite a bright sound, despite their being in a minor key. Much Jewish music is written in minor keys, and Hava Nagila surely can't be called 'sad' either. But I've just finished listening to the audio book of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas - which centres around the Auschwitz death camp. The occasional background music to this story definitely creates a sad atmosphere, and is probably a good example of what your original article was aiming at. I guess when all's said and done though, it's probably 'horses for courses' when considering major vs minor keys.

Posted by Eric Holroyd on 30 December 2009

This is the great joy of music. One piece, one chord, one interval, one scale, one rhythm, might evoke as many reactions as there are listeners. The intervals in themselves are, as far as I'm concerned, neither happy nor sad. What is evoked by their use is referred to as the affective aspect of music; that is the most interesting part of music. Why does the music move us? How does the music move us? Are we all moved exactly the same way? VIVA LA MUSICA

Posted by Richard Gill on 5 December 2009

In answer to Leon's question below: Search "Goodbye" as played by Oscar Peterson, he did it with Toots on the album "Northsea Jazz Festival 1980". It could be argued that harmonica is far from the most effective instrument to use on a tune like this. Also Bill Evans played it on the "Empathy" album. A truly sad tune but with a twist of hope in the form of a modulation to the major at the end of the form.   

Posted by Wil Sargisson on 1 December 2009

Great article- been thinking, when Coltrane played "Impressions" ,it's all minor but its not sad.Its intense, its exciting,it draws you in, it can actually inspire..But when he plays 'Soul Eyes" its mournful yet beautiful.Tempo may be the factor.If you play 'How Insensitive' too fast - you can loose the 'sadness'.If you know the lyric (and I hardly ever subscribe to this notion) and play it ,it becomes sadder.But then we are projecting on to the music..Breaking up with an exlover might actually be a time to rejoice!..(don't get me reminiscing) So maybe minor keys are not inherently sad, but we broadly interpret them in that way. Certainly a subject with enough material for a thesis. best Blaine

Posted by Blaine Whittaker on 1 December 2009

Thanks for your interesting and thought provoking article. I've never considered the idea that the sadness I feel from the minor key was learnt from our cultural heritage. It just naturally conveys the feeling of melancholy. For example, Jobim's "No More Blues" is a piece in two sections. The "A" section, in the minor key, invokes a sad feeling, while the "B" section, in the major key, gives the feeling of hope. This aural contrast is also evident in the English lyrics, which, I'm sure were written after the music was composed. A good article, thanks, Wil.

Posted by Ian Beddows on 1 December 2009

I enjoyed reading your article. I would like to hear the tune you mentioned "Goodbye." I am unable to find any recordings by Stan Getz or Toots Thielemans called Goodbye on iTunes. Does the tune go under any other names?

Posted by Leon Gaer on 1 December 2009

Interesting Wil. I would add scales and harmony from India and Spain (flamenco) which sometimes has major AND minor thirds, perhaps creating a feeling of confusion or extreme dissonance in your average westerner. The cocky smart arse in me would say that "of course minor doesn't mean sad, it's alL learnt behaviour", but I think honestly in the privacy of an internet forum that a minor key actually does invoke sad emotions. Whether that is learned or not. i don't care. That's just how it is with me (at this stage in my life). Thanks for your article. Bill

Posted by Bill Risby on 1 December 2009
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