A Minor Annoyance

It’s finally gotten on my nerves just enough for me to say something about it. I’m getting tired of hearing variations on this statement:

“I don’t like anything in a minor key.”

News for you: That doesn’t mean what you think it means. You’re using “minor” as a general term to mean “bad sounding” or “sad” or “evil” or whatever, when the actual musical definition is quite another thing.

I suppose it’s easy to equate major/minor with every other familiar binarism in our cultural file: good/bad, light/dark, happy/sad, male/female, and on and on. And so, naturally, the musical layman falls into the same pattern when trying to describe music that’s sad, dour, serious, or just played poorly – “it sounds minor.” But it’s inaccurate. I had a friend say to me that a god-awful string quartet played everything “in minor,” when the reality is they played out of tune, which is REALLY bad if you’re trying to play Santa Claus is Coming to Town. And that song is as major as they come!

Using “minor” as a broad brush to describe anything less than Ode-to-Joy happy and perfect is a misuse of the term; worse, it does real disservice to an overwhelming body of music in minor keys, modes and alternative scales that really do lift us into joy and wonderment.

Take a for instance: It’s the holiday season right now, and the familiar carols are swimming around our aural fields like a bunch of excited birds. Lots of our favorite Christmas songs are actually in minor keys and are not downers: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, We Three Kings, and What Child is This are three common examples. Beyond that, there are millions of examples of uppity, happy, and positive minor-key songs across all areas of folk, rock, pop, and classical music. An easy example is Star of the County Down, a terrific Irish folk song about a guy feeling smitten by a sweet lassie with “nut-brown hair.”

Likewise, you will also find plenty of sad, serious, angry, and dour music in major keys across the board.  The biggest major-key weeper I’ve ever heard is Spiegel im Spiegel, a violin and piano piece by Arvo Pärt. Be warned – it might make you think of dying people if you’re not careful.

So what do “major” and “minor” really mean, musically? Ars-nova.com has a succinct definition:

Major and minor can be used to refer to the greater and lesser versions of certain intervals … and you most often hear them used to describe the difference between music in a major key (music whose scale contains a major third upward from its “tonic,” the starting note, so that the basic tonic chord is major) and music in a minor key (whose tonic chord is minor, since the scale on which it is based has a minor third from the starting note).

The difference is quantitative and measurable, when you get down to the actual notes. It’s not subjective. But ars-nova.com is also keen to note the emotional meanings we’ve grafted onto this concept:

There are other differences between the major and minor scales, of course, but the main thing is that tonic chord to which the music returns home so often. “Home” in the first case is a cheerful optimistic lighthearted major triad, and in the other case is a tragic ominous forlorn minor (who knows how those feelings got started, but maybe there’s something to them).

Actually, let me take a guess as to “how those feelings got started”: the idea of a major/minor dichotomy did not exist at all in Western music until the eighteenth century, when French composer Jean-Phillipe Rameau wrote his Treatise on Harmony to tell the world that there was a universal law governing all of Western music, and it could be explained mathematically, scientifically and philosophically under the heading of major/minor tonality. Before Rameau’s time, music was composed not in major or minor scales, but modes – Aeolian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Hypodorian, etc. – these were originally named after different civilizations in ancient Greece. Back then, it was believed that modes could affect people mentally and emotionally – some could cause relaxation and others, excitement.  So people like Aristotle and Plato could talk about how music could be used to stimulate people’s character and actions in a certain way.

This belief persisted from ancient Greece all the way up through Rameau’s time. Now, even though the music of the eighteenth century sounded nothing like the old modes (listen to Bach’s Brandenburg concertos next to Gregorian chant – night and day), the idea of harmonies tugging at people’s emotions never went away. And it just so happened that the major scale took on mostly “positive” associations and the minor scale was left with mostly “negative” ones. By the time we get to the nineteenth century, the obvious philosophical conclusion to make is that the triumph of positive stuff over negative stuff could be expressed in music that transforms from a minor key into a major one: Beethoven’s 5th – end of story.

So where does that leave us now? Well, we live in a world where fundamental binarisms (is that a word?) are being challenged right and left, particularly in the social world – gender being the big one of note. And music is also proving to be more complex and nuanced with each passing day (except in Top 40 radio, which I don’t get). Minor doesn’t have to sound sad, nor does major imply happiness. Sometimes major and minor flow into and out of each other like in a blues song, and sometimes the old modes come out to play again and transport us to an exotic world. Sometimes music delights in being ambiguous, or it throws tonality out the window altogether to expose us to a new soundscape we’ve never considered before.

We also live in a world where basic musical terms like major, minor, scale, chord, and tone are much less understood now than they were years ago. Today’s lay listener is musically illiterate. And because of this, it can be hard for musicians and listeners to speak the same language. I hope that throwing open a conversation about the too-casual use of “major” and “minor” will help in this regard.

So before you say you don’t like minor-key music, ask your musical friends to point you toward some real, life-affirming minor-key and modal songs and see if you feel the same way after listening to them. Also, feel free to post in the comments your favorite happy minor-key/modal/alternative scale stuff, as well as any major-key songs that are more complex emotionally than the key would imply.

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2 thoughts on “A Minor Annoyance

  1. Tim Doty says:

    Amy (et al.): Bravo! I recently heard a composer interviewed, who prefers composing in minor keys “because they have more emotional depth.” My quote might not be precisely right, & he wrote for film, but the point was pertinent. One of my first Big Loves in classical music was Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, which begins both heavy & minor. Another similar piece which combines “weight” but in both minor & major tonality is the 1812 Overture. I admit that I only recently learned it was written about Napoleon’s war of that year, having nothing (originally) to do w/ the Americas. Music would be so flat in tonality/feel with just one mode, just as life can be dull (or oppressive) with rigid rules. Examples which reinforce your points are plentiful. Thanks for the food for thought.

  2. And thank you for yours, Tim!

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