Most of us have fallen in love with a piece of music in a minor key. No matter what the genre, most of us feel that the minor mode is particularly expressive and even a little pessimistic or emotional. Music theorists, musicians and music enthusiasts ask this question often but it has no definitive answer. I will not answer the question, but I can explain why we hear a minor key differently than a major key culturally and theoretically.
This is the simplest answer to why minor songs sound sad to us. It’s a cultural thing!
You may have come across platitudes that state that music is a universal language. This is far from the truth. Music is completely cultural. Different tonalities have separate connotations for the listener in various parts of the globe.
Western folk music employs the minor mode extensively. However, the content of the lyrics is not always that of misfortune or woe, but of pleasantries and happiness.
Composer Béla Barók went out to remote Hungarian and Romanian villages in the early half of the 20th century to record the folk music of its inhabitants. Many of their most joyful songs, such as wedding songs or lullabies, is set in a minor mode (dorian, phrygian or aeolian.) Take a listen to some of the dances he recorded and you’ll hear many of them are in minor, but retain the excitement and energy of dance.
The main reason we in the Western world react to a piece of music in minor in a particular way is because we are conditioned to hear it that way. We are told at some point in our development that the minor key is the sad key, so we’ll continue to hear it that way. That, plus hearing songs about heartbreak exclusively in minor, tend to further the notion in our culture that minor keys are sad.
If we think of minor keys in a music theory standpoint, we can shed some light on what makes minor so expressive.
Pieces in major or minor keys borrow chords from the various scale degrees. If we start with a simple C major scale and add a third and a fifth to the scale degrees (to form a root position triad of a chord) , we come up with different tonalities in from each note in the scale. The Tonic (home) fourth and fifth scale degrees in a major scale yield major triads, while the second, third and sixth scale degrees yield minor triads. The dominant (fifth scale degree - G in C Major) and the subdominant (fourth scale degree - F in C major) are both major and provide a stable framework for the ear, presumably making the major mode sound more sensible and fixed.
The minor scale is a bit more complicated than the major scale. Not unlike pieces in major, music in the minor mode also borrows chords from the minor scale. The minor scale is related a major scale. This means each major scale has a related or relative minor scale that uses the same number of accidentals (sharps or flats.) The relative minor is always the sixth scale degree. The scale degree A would be the relative minor to C major, as it is the sixth scale degree, forming an A minor scale.
If we take the a minor scale and add a third and a fifth to the scale degrees to make triads, we discover that the fifth scale degree yields a minor triad which weakens the tonic (a minor.) A major triad (An E major triad, adding a G-sharp) at the fifth is usually utilized to strengthen the tonic. To keep the minor mode stable, many composers need to use different minor scales in order to move the tonalities around but still keep the minor tonic stable. There are three types of minor scales employed, and composers will borrow chords from the different framework in each of them.
The natural minor has the same number of accidentals as its relative major scale - a natural minor using zero like C major.
The Harmonic minor uses G sharp, to add a leading tone (a half-step below the tonic) to strengthen it, the sharped leading tone also creates the major dominant chord.
The melodic minor also borrows a note from the parallel major of the minor scale, meaning that sometimes composers will borrow chords form the major form of the minor scale. The F-sharp is a scale degree seen in the melodic minor scale is a degree in an A major scale, but not an A minor one.
Since music in minor uses the different scales to fill its tonal framework, the result is that a minor key is less stable (particularly in the last tetra scale.) This means a minor piece employs more harmonies than a major piece. The natural instability of the minor mode and its employment of a larger variety of harmonies within its scale engages the ear in a more expressive and complex context. Since the nature of a minor scale has to deviate from itself, this may be what triggers the feeling of pathos when we hear music in a minor key.
These are my insights on what makes the minor key sound sad, what are yours? Do you have any theories as to why the minor key is more expressive than the major one?
What pieces in minor are your favorite? Comment below!