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#492657 - 10/24/08 08:16 AM Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
pianoloverus Offline
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Loc: New York City
In general, works in minor keys sound "sad/angry/dramatic" and those in major keys sound "happy/triumphant" or at least not sad.

Why do you think this is the case?

Can you think of some works in major keys that sound sad or works in minor keys that sound happy? I think there are some, but I can't think of any off the top of my head. I am talking about pieces tha stay in(or at least are predominantly in) minor or major keys, not ones that start in major and switch to minor.

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#492658 - 10/24/08 08:26 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
DameMyra Offline
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Minor key pieces that sound happy? 3rd movement of the Beethoven 3rd piano concerto. Liszt Tarantelle from Napoli e Venezia.

Not that it sounds sad but there is a yearning quality to Elgar's Nimrod Variation that, to me at least, belies it's major key.
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#492659 - 10/24/08 08:40 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
Danny Niklas Offline
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Loc: Switzerland
The minor key has the third and sixth degree of the scale flattened. The minor third and sixth have a more complex vibration ratio. For example the octave of a root has twice the number of vibrations. This means a ratio of 2:1 which is not complex, hence harmonious and indeed the octave sounds harmonious to our ears.

The fifth also is a non-complex ratio of 3:2 and is indeed very harmonious and found in every musical system on the world including tribal ones.

Now consider the augmented fourth with its incredibly complex ratio of 45:32. How does it sound to you? Stable, clear, happy or misterious, suspended, weird?

The minor key is simply the combination of more complex ratios and therefore less harmonious and immediate to our ears. If you consider what is harmonious in nature and how it tends to express safety, joy and happiness and what is non-harmonious and how it tends to express doubt, vertigo, melancholy even horror you can understand how a more complex sequence of vibration can convey more complex and ambigous feelings than a more simple and harmonious one.

The more complex the ratio the more dissonant and strange the sound. That's why for example the tritone was considered the "sound of demon" and is employed in a lot of horror music. As ratio complexity increases you have noises. Noises indeed are non harmonious sounds and we responds generally with panic and fear to them. Rightly so, that's how we learn that rumbling of rocks, explosions of vulcanos, falling of trees are all signals of dangers and why the harmonic voice of a mother, worlwide, is a signal of safeness and protection. On the other hand the chirping of birds is an harmonious sound.

Even babies without any cultural conditioning responds to the sadness of minor keys, happiness of major keys, pleasure of consonances, disturbingness of dissonances and relief of dissonance resolving into consonances. Actually even plants respond to it!

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#492660 - 10/24/08 08:54 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
Janus K. Sachs Offline
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I certainly don't automatically think of minor keys as always sad and major keys as always happy. This whole thing came up earlier this year .

I'll give Elgar's Second Pomp and Circumstance March in A minor as a prime example of a happy piece in a minor key, and Mozart's Porgi amor (from Figaro, where the character contemplates lost love and suicide!) as a prime example of a sad piece in a major key.
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#492661 - 10/24/08 08:57 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
pianoloverus Offline
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 Quote:
Originally posted by DameMyra:
Minor key pieces that sound happy? 3rd movement of the Beethoven 3rd piano concerto. Liszt Tarantelle from Napoli e Venezia.

Not that it sounds sad but there is a yearning quality to Elgar's Nimrod Variation that, to me at least, belies it's major key. [/b]
Doesn't the last movement of the Beethoven switch back and forth between major and minor keys a lot(I haven't played it for over 45 years)? Yet I would agreee that the opening them sounds "jaunty" and not sad.

Ninrod is an interesting example. I played Grainger's transcription and would agree with your thoughts about this piece.

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#492662 - 10/24/08 08:58 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
davaofthekeys Offline
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Registered: 01/06/08
Posts: 243
 Quote:
Originally posted by pianoloverus:
In general, works in minor keys sound "sad" and those in major keys sound "happy/triumphant".
[/b]
I don´t agree with this statement. There are simply to many exceptions for me to accept this as general rule.

I could list many composers works over the ages that contradicts this idea, but I think the best example still may be Prokofiev, who wrote many pieces in minor that do not sound sad at all, but rather triumphant, goofy, ironic or otherwise. And not all of his pieces in major sound happy either.

I think it´s reducing some of the great masters intentions to think that they were so bound by major/minor tonality that they were unable to write other than "sad" music in minor.
Also consider how the character of a piece is affected by the choice of tempo, perfomance, arrangement, context, ect.

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#492663 - 10/24/08 09:05 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
pianoloverus Offline
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Registered: 05/29/01
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Loc: New York City
 Quote:
Originally posted by Janus Hyde:
I certainly don't automatically think of minor keys as always sad and major keys as always happy. [/b]
In my OP I said "in general" not "automsticslly".

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#492664 - 10/24/08 09:11 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
Janus K. Sachs Offline
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Registered: 10/31/07
Posts: 1712
Loc: Betelgeuse, baby!
Not even in general, then.

It's a generalization I simply do not agree with.
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Die Stockfisch bleiben dicke,
Die Karpfen viel fressen,
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Sie bleiben wie alle.

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#492665 - 10/24/08 09:20 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
Morodiene Offline
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Danny makes some very good points. Music is hardwired into us. There is not a culture that exists without some form of music. Take an aborigines person who has never heard music outside his culture and play him all selections in all styles of European and American cultures, and they will pick the same great ones we have collectively decided are great. The use of 3rds and 6ths in music are very emotional intervals, whereas the 4ths and 5ths are noble in quality but not emotional. Those frequencies created between the two notes in 3rds and 6ths trigger emotions in our brain, and so you find that in general minor intervals correspond with negative emotions (anger, sadness, fear) - think of the taunting "nyah-nyah" that children do: sol-mi, which is the minor third. And the major intervals reflect the more positive emotions - happiness, excitement, contentment, peace, etc. Why is this? the only way I can answer that is that we are made that way. \:\)
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#492666 - 10/24/08 09:21 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
Danny Niklas Offline
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Loc: Switzerland
The general sadder sound of a minor is an acoustic physical fact not just a generalization. But it's true that the minor keys (even when modified by tempo, rhythm and embellishments) are always more ambiguous than major keys. So an happy piece in minor (think of Rondo Alla Turca) will always be a more ambiguous, unstable, misterious happiness than what you might convey in a major key.

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#492667 - 10/24/08 12:44 PM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
ocd Offline
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Registered: 05/10/06
Posts: 201
Loc: North East
 Quote:
Originally posted by Danny Niklas:
The general sadder sound of a minor is an acoustic physical fact not just a generalization. [/b]
Psychophysical?? I have been operating under the assumption that physics does not deal with emotions.

ocd
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#492668 - 10/24/08 01:33 PM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
keystring Offline
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Registered: 12/11/07
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Loc: Canada
Sound is vibration, and certain vibrations set up emotional responses. Composers have been using it for aeons, and the music of some cultures is based on the phenomenon. Some musicians of instruments with adjustable pitch will use "tone colour" by making a pitch slightly higher or lower to enhance a mood. The mood through pitches and pitch combinations can happen melodically in the movement from note to note, or harmonically in a combination of notes, and there is movement in that too.

I understand that the Indian Raga has an elaborate system built on that.

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#492669 - 10/24/08 02:09 PM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
pianoloverus Offline
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Registered: 05/29/01
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 Quote:
Originally posted by davaofthekeys:
 Quote:
Originally posted by pianoloverus:
In general, works in minor keys sound "sad" and those in major keys sound "happy/triumphant".
[/b]
I don´t agree with this statement. There are simply to many exceptions for me to accept this as general rule.

I could list many composers works over the ages that contradicts this idea, but I think the best example still may be Prokofiev, who wrote many pieces in minor that do not sound sad at all, but rather triumphant, goofy, ironic or otherwise. And not all of his pieces in major sound happy either.
[/b]
I would agree that much of Profoviev's music doesn't fit the minor key = sad idea. My use of "generally" does not imply a certain % so that makes my statement vague.

I do think that at least 80% of the music in a minor key at least through the Romantic period does follow the minor = sad idea. For Beethoven I would say minor keys often imply a tragic or angry or dramatic feeling so I will alter my original post in that way.

A few exceptions I thought of to my original post:
Mendelssohn's Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream and Rondo Capriccioso are in minor keys and Ravel's Pavanne is in G major.

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#492670 - 10/24/08 02:21 PM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
tomasino Offline
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Registered: 03/24/05
Posts: 2039
Loc: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Dissonance and consonance can be explained through natural science using the simple and complex ratios, and the resultant clashing of vibrations, cited by Danny Niklas above.

What is not so simple to explain is why we react to dissonance/consonance in a predictable way.

I would think that there must have been some research done with infants which might indicate if our reaction is hard-wired, or acculturated. If anyone knows of such research, I'd be very interested.

Tomasino
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#492671 - 10/24/08 02:41 PM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
argerichfan Offline
8000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/15/06
Posts: 8936
Loc: Pacific Northwest, US.
 Quote:
Originally posted by Janus Hyde:
I'll give Elgar's Second Pomp and Circumstance March in A minor as a prime example of a happy piece in a minor key...
Whereas as the 3rd P&C (in C minor) is anything but happy. Not sad either, but pregnant with foreboding... it is a very chilling piece of music.

Apropos the 2nd P&C, have you noticed the similarity of the Trio with the march in Bizet's Jeux d'enfants?
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#492672 - 10/24/08 02:59 PM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
Danny Niklas Offline
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Registered: 01/15/08
Posts: 905
Loc: Switzerland
 Quote:
Originally posted by ocd:
 Quote:
Originally posted by Danny Niklas:
The general sadder sound of a minor is an acoustic physical fact not just a generalization. [/b]
Psychophysical?? I have been operating under the assumption that physics does not deal with emotions.[/b]
I think you can consider the relation between vibrations ratio and the structure of the ear and its connection to the emotional activity centers a physical concept.

 Quote:
What is not so simple to explain is why we react to dissonance/consonance in a predictable way.
[/b]

Well nature is harmonious. You can find the perfection of the golden section even on pine trees and shells. Most natural sounds are harmonious even in their frequencies. Whatever is assonant and harmonios is centered stable adn equilibrate.

Therefore whatever is dissonant is unstable, misterious, complex and in other words potentially dangerous. Noise is made by complex dissonances and noise indeed signals a potential danger. Compare the sound of a streamlet flowing and that of a flood.

I think you can easily find the connection between equilibrium, safety, calm, order and harmonious assonance of simple vibration ratios and between caos, danger, broken equilibrium, disasters, confusion and harsh dissonances of complex vibration ratios.

Imagine the difference between a tidy room and a room where everything is broken, out of place, scattered around. What thrills your danger instinct more?

It's all connected and it also makes sense that we react promptly to noises because indeed most dangers are noisy and it's no wonder that even on movies the lack of noises increases the risk of falling victim of whatever danger is present. Try to cross the street with your ears plugged so you can't hear the noise of the cars and you'll see how more dangerous the whole situation becomes.

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#492673 - 10/24/08 03:58 PM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
Zwischenzug Offline
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Registered: 01/28/08
Posts: 77
How about Mozart's famous String Quartet No 19 in C maj? Of course I suppose you could say the dissonant opening modulates away from the pure C maj scale.

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#492674 - 10/24/08 06:33 PM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
currawong Offline
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Registered: 05/15/07
Posts: 5976
Loc: Down Under
 Quote:
Originally posted by Morodiene:
Take an aborigines person who has never heard music outside his culture and play him all selections in all styles of European and American cultures, and they will pick the same great ones we have collectively decided are great. [/b]
Will they? Has this been done? I'd be very interested to read any research.
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#492675 - 10/24/08 06:51 PM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
keystring Offline
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Registered: 12/11/07
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Loc: Canada
Aboriginal music:
Aboriginal - instrumental
How do these tones resonate with people:
Aboriginal "Relaxation" (modernized?)
and
Digeridoo

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#492676 - 10/25/08 12:16 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
Rick Offline
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Registered: 08/01/01
Posts: 559
Loc: Chicago
How about the Scriabin etude in D-sharp minor (op8, no12)? That piece is nothing if not triumphant, although I'm not sure if it stays in minor all the way through. I don't think anyone could call it sad? or could they?

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#492677 - 10/25/08 12:51 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
argerichfan Offline
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Registered: 11/15/06
Posts: 8936
Loc: Pacific Northwest, US.
 Quote:
Originally posted by pianoloverus:
Ninrod is an interesting example. I played Grainger's transcription and would agree with your thoughts about this piece.
Reportedly, the only Elgar that Grainger liked. So he was one up on Sir Thomas Beecham presumably.
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#492678 - 10/25/08 03:48 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
Daffodil Offline
Full Member

Registered: 05/09/07
Posts: 168
Loc: In a big country
 Quote:
Originally posted by Danny Niklas:
The minor key has the third and sixth degree of the scale flattened. The minor third and sixth have a more complex vibration ratio. For example the octave of a root has twice the number of vibrations. This means a ratio of 2:1 which is not complex, hence harmonious and indeed the octave sounds harmonious to our ears.

The fifth also is a non-complex ratio of 3:2 and is indeed very harmonious and found in every musical system on the world including tribal ones.

Now consider the augmented fourth with its incredibly complex ratio of 45:32. How does it sound to you? Stable, clear, happy or misterious, suspended, weird?

The minor key is simply the combination of more complex ratios and therefore less harmonious and immediate to our ears. If you consider what is harmonious in nature and how it tends to express safety, joy and happiness and what is non-harmonious and how it tends to express doubt, vertigo, melancholy even horror you can understand how a more complex sequence of vibration can convey more complex and ambigous feelings than a more simple and harmonious one.

The more complex the ratio the more dissonant and strange the sound. That's why for example the tritone was considered the "sound of demon" and is employed in a lot of horror music. As ratio complexity increases you have noises. Noises indeed are non harmonious sounds and we responds generally with panic and fear to them. Rightly so, that's how we learn that rumbling of rocks, explosions of vulcanos, falling of trees are all signals of dangers and why the harmonic voice of a mother, worlwide, is a signal of safeness and protection. On the other hand the chirping of birds is an harmonious sound.

Even babies without any cultural conditioning responds to the sadness of minor keys, happiness of major keys, pleasure of consonances, disturbingness of dissonances and relief of dissonance resolving into consonances. Actually even plants respond to it! [/b]
Nice explanation. Thanks!
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#492679 - 10/25/08 04:00 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
wr Offline
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Registered: 11/23/07
Posts: 8027
 Quote:
Originally posted by pianoloverus:


Can you think of some works in major keys that sound sad or works in minor keys that sound happy? I think there are some, but I can't think of any off the top of my head. I am talking about pieces tha stay in(or at least are predominantly in) minor or major keys, not ones that start in major and switch to minor. [/b]
Most of the variations in the multitude of variation sets on that famous theme by Paganini seem at least fairly high-spirited to me, if that counts as "happy". Oddly, when Rachmaninoff shifts to the major for his touching slow variation, the result is, if not exactly sad, at least wistful.

Speaking of a minor, some of Bach's writing in that key seems pretty perky to me, even comic (e.g., the a minor fugue in WTC II).

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#492680 - 10/25/08 05:53 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad?
pianoloverus Offline
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Registered: 05/29/01
Posts: 19644
Loc: New York City
 Quote:
Originally posted by Rick:
How about the Scriabin etude in D-sharp minor (op8, no12)? That piece is nothing if not triumphant, although I'm not sure if it stays in minor all the way through. I don't think anyone could call it sad? or could they? [/b]
I would call it dramatic which I've added to my list in my OP of minor key characteristics. It does switch to major in the middle.

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#2062903 - 04/11/13 12:55 PM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad? [Re: pianoloverus]
willimek Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 04/11/13
Posts: 3
Major and Minor - the Strebetendenz-Theory

If you want to answer the question, why major sounds happy and minor sounds sad, there is the problem, that some minor chords don't sound sad. The solution of this problem is the Strebetendenz-Theory. It says, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can just convey processes of will, but the music listener fills this processes of will with emotions. Similary, when you watch a dramatic film in television, the film cannot transmit emotions directly, but processes of will. The spectator perceives the processes of will dyed with emotions - identifying with the protagonist. When you listen music you identify too, but with an anonymous will now.

If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will "I don't want anymore...". If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will "I don't want anymore..." with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words "I don't want anymore..." the first time softly and the second time loudly.

This operations of will in the music were unknown until the Strebetendenz-Theory discovered them. And therefore many previous researches in psycholgy of music failed. If you want more information about music and emotions and get the answer, why music touches us emotionally, you can download the essay "Vibrating Molecules and the Secret of their Feelings" for free. You can get it on the link:
http://www.willimekmusic.homepage.t-online.de/homepage/Striving/Striving.doc

Enjoy reading

Bernd Willimek

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#2062917 - 04/11/13 01:28 PM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad? [Re: pianoloverus]
jeffreyjones Offline
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Registered: 01/31/10
Posts: 2393
Loc: San Jose, CA
One minor-key piece I've never been able to quite figure out is the Mozart C minor Concerto, specifically the third movement theme and variations. What kind of a mood is he going for here? The theme sounds almost dopey, lurching and heaving around. It's really catchy, but I'm not sure I actually understand it.

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#2063899 - 04/13/13 08:18 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad? [Re: pianoloverus]
wouter79 Offline
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Registered: 02/14/10
Posts: 3635
I think the association with emotions is all learned. And that this might be related to the way of composing and playing minor : slower, more introspective, more varied, more dramatic. And that in turn is probably because minor offers more possibilities, with its melodic, harmonic and natural minor variants.

However many folk dance tunes are in minor or something sounding like minor yet they are very happy.

just a few quick examples I found on youtube, probably there are much better picks.







Edited by wouter79 (04/13/13 08:20 AM)
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#2063969 - 04/13/13 11:09 AM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad? [Re: pianoloverus]
Mwm Offline
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Registered: 02/20/13
Posts: 752
It all depends on which temperament was used.

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#2064244 - 04/13/13 10:07 PM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad? [Re: pianoloverus]
mermilylumpkin Offline
Full Member

Registered: 02/08/13
Posts: 121
This is pure speculation, but I'm wondering if major thirds and major sixths are easier to sing because of the frequencies so there's stronger subconscious associations with the human voice and celebration and comfort and the things we have traditionally used music for from an anthropological perspective. I thought of this because I am reading "The Study of Counterpoint" by Fux and in the last chapter that I read he talks about how an augmented fourth interval is outlawed in counterpoint because it is difficult to sing and sounds "unnatural."

I think there's definitely a strong emotional character to different modes. There's a reason the G major gigue from French Suite 5 by Bach sounds like pure joy. In Art of Piano, Neuhaus even went so far as to say that he feels like each of the keys have a distinctive character and that for him A flat major is uniquely joyful. I hadn't heard of the idea before outside of it being parodied in the movie "This Is Spinal Tap" when Nigel Tufnel is talking about the Mozart and Bach "Mach" piece he wrote in A minor, "the saddest of all keys."

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#2064525 - 04/14/13 02:25 PM Re: Why do minor keyed works sound sad? [Re: pianoloverus]
Mirior Offline
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Registered: 06/23/10
Posts: 68
I remember reading (can't recall where, unfortunately) about a study that tracked the pitch patterns in people's speaking voices, finding that happy and excited people tended to have major third and perfect fifth patterns in their voice, while gloomy and frightened people tended to have minor thirds and minor seconds. If that's true, it would be a sensible explanation why we associate keys that emphasize different intervals with different emotions.

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