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Major or minor key?
December 3, 2006 2:28 AM   Subscribe

I cannot, for the life of me, tell if a song is in a major or minor key.

I've read the generic "major is happy and bright" and "minor is sad and dark" answers. I've read this amazing explanation of key by chrismear in an earlier thread. But I just can't do it, it's like I'm playing checkers against an opponent using chess pieces.

So what are some songs, if there are any, that defy the generic "happy or sad" dichotomy. I'm hoping to be find a song that might meet the generic definition of major or minor, but is actually subtly the opposite. With enough examples like this maybe I'll be able to pick up on whatever it is that differentiates the two.

mp3 clips would be helpful, but song names and their key are all I'm really asking for.
posted by ztdavis to Media & Arts (30 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you want a counter-example, "Yesterday" by the Beatles is a quintessentially sad song, but is in a major key.

I don't have a happy song in a minor key just at the moment, but I'm sure one will be along in a moment.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:18 AM on December 3, 2006


The Leadbelly song In the Pines/My Girl/Black Girl uses no major chords, I believe, but produces a very sad effect.
posted by fleacircus at 4:13 AM on December 3, 2006


er, no minor chords.
posted by fleacircus at 4:16 AM on December 3, 2006


I'm hoping to be find a song that might meet the generic definition of major or minor, but is actually subtly the opposite.

I believe there's a small misconception in this sentence which just might be the thing that's throwing you off--although people tend to find major songs "happy" and minor songs "sad", happy and sad aren't actually part of the definition of major and minor. A song can meet the generic definition of "happy" and be minor, but it can't sound "major" and actually be minor--sounding "major" is what makes something major in the first place.

I think chrismear's explanation is great; I'll try to continue from where he left off, kind of. As he says, when a song is "in a key", that just means that some notes are more common than others. Also, there's one note that sounds more important than all the others, which he calls the "home note".

The difference between major and minor has to do with which other notes are common, besides the home note. If you have a piano or keyboard handy, go play an A and the C above it at the same time, and note that the C is three piano keys above the A (including the black key A#/Bb). Now play an A and a C#, and note that the C# is four piano keys above the A. (The actual name for this is "semitones". Each piano key is one semitone higher than the previous one, regardless of black/white color.)

This is the main difference between a minor and a major key. In a minor key, you can expect the note that's three semitones higher than the home note to be really common. In a major key, the note that's four semitones above the home note will be really common.

So a song is in A major, for example, if A is the home note, C# is really common, and C is uncommon. If A is the home note, C is common, and C# is uncommon, then you have A minor. (note to pedants: yes, yes, this is simplified)

In order to determine whether a song is major or minor, you'll have to recognize the difference between these two situations. You can train yourself by playing along with your music on a piano or keyboard (if there's none handy, try walking into a Radio Shack with your iPod and playing one of theirs). First, find the home note on the keyboard. Then count up three piano keys (remember to count black keys, too) and play that note. If it sounds like it fits in with the song, you've got a minor key. If not, try the next piano key up, which is four above the home note--if that fits, then you've got a major key.

I recommend "Lovefool", by the Cardigans, for this exercise, for two reasons:
1. The verses are in A minor, but the choruses are in A major, which hopefully should help make the difference stand out.
2. It's a good example of the subtlety you wanted: the music is pretty happy-sounding, but the lyrics are terribly depressing.

Some other good ones:
"Happy Together" (Turtles): F# minor in verse, F# major in chorus (well, not quite, but close enough)
"Eleanor" (Turtles): E minor in verse, E major in chorus, happy throughout
"Somebody to Love" (Queen): Ab major, but sad
"We Are the Champions" (Queen): sharp transition from C minor to Eb major halfway through verse, F major in chorus
"Free Bird" (Skynyrd): C major, sad
"The Love Cats" (Cure): A minor in verse, C major in chorus, happy throughout
posted by equalpants at 4:18 AM on December 3, 2006 [5 favorites]


It's even more technical than that. The formal "key" of a tune is a statement about the sheet music for the tune. What it says is that certain notes on the scale are presumed to be sharps, naturals, or flats by default.

C-Major and A-Minor are the default since they have no predefined sharps or flats. The difference between them is which chord is the tonic. In G-Major and E Minor, F is to be treated as sharped unless there's an explicit "natural" symbol next to the note. In F-Major or D-Minor, B is to be treated as flatted unless there's an explicit "natural". And so on.

This is the main difference between a minor and a major key. In a minor key, you can expect the note that's three semitones higher than the home note to be really common. In a major key, the note that's four semitones above the home note will be really common.

And therefore the guy who wrote the sheet music decided which one of those to make easier to write.

Historically speaking, classical composers have found that the minor is a more rich lode. It isn't the case that minor sounds "sad" as such; the conveyance of emotion via music is much more complicated than that. One thing that distinguishes Mozart as a composer was that he relied on major keys far, far more often than anyone else of the time in his compositions.

Now if you want to hear the pathological case of this kind of thing, two suggestions: The "Mercury" theme from "The Planets" and the second movement of Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra".

In the Mercury theme of The Planets, the audible experience is that for most of its length it switches from major to minor or vice versa every three notes -- and the notes are very rapid.

In the second movement of "Concerto for Orchestra", the melody is taken up by different voices in the orchestra, but in odd ways. For instance, when the oboe is the soloist, two oboes play the melody 3 semitones apart. When the trumpets play, two trumpets play always a single semitone apart. The result is an interesting experience: there's a feeling of intervals in the melody without any feeling that there's an underlying key for the intervals to be in. You hear, and understand, a melody -- but you can't whistle it because that would place it in a key, and it doesn't have any key.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:44 AM on December 3, 2006


R.E.M. is famous for writing everything in minor -- even a lot of their "happy"/up-tempo songs are in minor.
posted by futility closet at 5:00 AM on December 3, 2006


I think the old (Irving Berlin?) standard, "Blue Skies" - a fairly optimistic tune - has got to be predominantly in minor key. It's been covered too many times to mention, so you can see if you find one that suits your tastes.
posted by shelbaroo at 5:18 AM on December 3, 2006


"Christmastime is Here" from the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack is in minor.

But it does move around, because it's jazz... maybe jazz should be left out. Key is pretty fluid in jazz.

Anyway- that stark, bare-trees-gray-sky-snow-falling feeling that the first lines of "Christmastime is Here" inspire (at least in me) are how I think minor can make you feel. And sometimes I want that.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:37 AM on December 3, 2006


That Vince Guaraldi tune definitely isn't in a minor key. It's full of major sevenths.
posted by emelenjr at 7:16 AM on December 3, 2006


(Not that the presence of major sevenths guarantees that a song isn't in a minor key.)

"What Child Is This?" on that same soundtrack is an example of a song that is most commonly played in a minor key, but the way it's rearranged there places it in more of a major key.
posted by emelenjr at 7:20 AM on December 3, 2006


There are some little difficulties with trying to figure out key when you are listening. The Brecker Brothers often play in no key at all: they play a species - some would say a pathological kind - of music called dodecaphonic. This assigns equal weight to all the notes and there are some strange rules about how you sequence them. Coming back to earth a little, open fifths and the Steely Dan "mu" chord are neither major nor minor. Steely Dan are smarter than they sound and they play a lot of tricks that fly under the radar. Trying to assign key by listening sometimes cannot work and sometimes doesn't matter.
posted by jet_silver at 8:21 AM on December 3, 2006


"Plush" by Stone Temple Pilots is made up entirely of major chords, but it sounds dark and grungy.

To really distinguish between major and minor in songs where the emotional tone doesn't clue you in, or clues you in wrong, you really have to train your ear to the point that you can hear the note intervals.

One trick you can use is to pick out the 7th note of the scale. The major scale has the 7th one semitone away from the root (in C Major, the 7th note is B). The minor scale has a flat 7th, putting it a whole tone away (in C Minor, the 7th note is Bb). Once you figure out what to listen for, the sound of the 7th to root transition (B→C) is incredibly strong and distinctive, because of the short interval. The transition in a minor scale is weak—Bb→C provides no particular resolution.

To that end, many songs in a minor key will resolve back to the root note by temporarily un-flatting the 7th. A song in C minor will throw in a B instead of a Bb right before resolving to C minor. This is called "harmonic minor", and once I learned this signature characteristic of it, it became painfully obvious to me every time it was used.

More specifically, most songs resolve to the tonic from the fifth. In C major this gives a really strong resolution: the B in the G major chord slides up to the C in the C major chord, and if the G is a G7, then the F slides down to an E.

G → G
B → C
D
F → E


This doesn't work as well in minor:

G  → G
Bb → C
D
F  → Eb


Bb→C and F→Eb are weak. But if you change that Bb to a B natural, then bam, you've gotten back that strong transition from B to C. Rather than G minor to C minor, you do G major to C minor.

This "un-flatted seventh" is like a big, bright, flashing overhead light: MINOR, MINOR, MINOR. It's so common that I'd estimate probably 2/3 of songs in minor use it.
posted by Khalad at 8:44 AM on December 3, 2006


I love AskMe
posted by poweredbybeard at 10:13 AM on December 3, 2006


I think we're getting a bit off track here talking about major or minor sevenths.

If you're trying to distinguish between major and minor keys, you need to first isolate the home key of the song. In simple songs, this is done by playing a triad, the most basic possible chord, consisting of three notes (which musicians label the root, 3rd, and 5th).

Listen to the chords at the top of this page. Now try and isolate in your head the relationship between the middle note (the 3rd) and the bottom note (the root). This is key because the only difference between a major triad and a minor one is that one note, the 3rd. This can be difficult at first, so it may help to listen to actual melodies. (Keep in mind, a simple melody in a major key will simply use notes from the corresponding major scale, and a major triad is just a simplified expression of that.)

Here's a clip of Nat King Cole singing "Three Blind Mice" (the melody starts at 0:06). This is a nice illustration because the first two identical phrases simply connect the major 3rd down to the root; "three" is the 3rd, and "mice" is the root. (In the next part, "run" is the 3rd.) The major 3rd is also prominent in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" theme. Listen to the melody that the flute starts playing at 0:21 -- the first and most prominent note is the 3rd.

Now, for comparison, listen to the minor triads on the same page as above. If you can, pick out how the 3rd is now a step lower in pitch compared to the major triad. On "Losing My Religion" (verse begins at 0:16), listen to how the melody really revolves around three notes, the 3rd, 2nd, and root, but especially emphasizing the minor 3rd ("every"; "every waking"; "choosing my con-"; "trying"). Can you hear how this 3rd is just a bit lower (or, closer to the root) than the major 3rd? If so, you're on the right track.

In general, the key to understanding music is to listen actively rather than passively. So when hearing a song in a minor key (try this thread for starters), try and apply the same technique and pick out the 3rd and root. Then ask yourself: is it more like "Three Blind Mice" or "Losing My Religion"? (If you're struggling to find the root, listen to the bass player.) I know this is crude and possibly simplistic, but eventually you'll be able to internalize the distinction between triads, which will then allow you to think about other chords in the song, including more complex ones like with sevenths and ninths.
posted by padjet1 at 10:34 AM on December 3, 2006


What equalpants, SCDB, and Khalad said.

"Happy" and "sad" don't describe major and minor at all. I'd say it's closer to "light" and "dark," but that's still an awkward metaphor.

The basis of western harmony is a type of chord called a triad. Triads have three notes. There are four types of triads - major, minor, augmented, and diminished. In music theory, everything is discussed relative to the major scale. So to construct a given triad based on a particular note, you first begin with the major scale built from that note, then you apply the appropriate formula. The formula for major is 1 3 5, minor is 1 b3 5, augmented is 1 3 #5, and diminished is 1 b3 b5.

So, if we want to build triads on C, we start with the C major scale: C D E F G A B C. C major uses the first note, the third note, and the fifth note. C minor uses the first, the flatted third, and the fifth, etc. So C = C E G, Cm = C Eb G, Caug = C E G#, Cdim = C Eb Gb.

In a minor key, the tonic chord (the home chord of the key - quite often, but not always, the first and last chord that is played) is minor. If you're in the key of C minor, a C minor triad will seem to provide resolution and make a good resting place. So the first step would be learning to recognize the different kinds of triads. Go to musictheory.net and try the chord ear trainer. The scale and interval trainers probably wouldn't hurt either. As you start developing your ear, you'll begin to identify not just individual chords, but the relationships between them. Particularly in pop music, there are many simple chord relationships that are used very commonly.

The Beatles were great at blending major and minor together (a technique known as "mode mixture"). I wouldn't cite Yesterday as an example of a sad song in a major key, since it isn't completely in a major key - it's primarily in F major, but leans heavily on Dm, which is it's relative minor (note: relative keys share a key signature, parallel keys share a root note). A good technical analysis of Yesterday is here. Michelle, another song with a similar major/minor mixture, mixes the parallel keys of F major and F minor.

In While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the verses are all A minor and the choruses are all A major. In For No One, we find a predominantly B major verse with just a dash of B minor thrown in, and then a bridge that takes a detour to C#m. Here, There, and Everywhere and Two of Us both feature verses in G major and bridges that slide into G minor.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:00 AM on December 3, 2006


If you're trying to distinguish between major and minor keys, you need to first isolate the home key of the song.

I was about to say this at one point, but it's not necessarily true. It's usually easy to hear if the tonic chord is major or minor without having perfect pitch or an instrument handy. So one can identify that Eleanor Rigby is in a minor key, for example, without actually knowing which key it's in.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:05 AM on December 3, 2006


I was about to say this at one point, but it's not necessarily true. It's usually easy to hear if the tonic chord is major or minor without having perfect pitch or an instrument handy. So one can identify that Eleanor Rigby is in a minor key, for example, without actually knowing which key it's in.

Right, but you still have to hear the tonic chord in a song, even if unable to associate it with a specific key. That's easy for "Eleanor Rigby" (and the simple tunes I linked to above), but more difficult for something like "Penny Lane." All I meant by "isolate" is to figure out what the frame of reference is before identifying individual chords and harmonies.
posted by padjet1 at 11:33 AM on December 3, 2006


That's easy for "Eleanor Rigby" (and the simple tunes I linked to above), but more difficult for something like "Penny Lane."

Well sure, as Penny Lane is in two different keys. But I still think it's pretty trivial to recognize that they're both major keys even without having any further insight into the harmonic structure. But I think we're pretty much on the same page.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:54 AM on December 3, 2006


Just for your cut-and-paste needs: flat = 9837; natural = 9838; sharp = 9839;
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:14 PM on December 3, 2006


Hey; when did direct encoding of characters stop working? Rats...

Let's try it this way: flat = ♭ natural = ♮ sharp = ♯
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:16 PM on December 3, 2006 [1 favorite]


Here is an earlier metafilter thread that you might find useful. A lot of minor-key popular songs are named.
posted by wryly at 1:04 PM on December 3, 2006


One thing you could do is get a CD of something like Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" (here's one well-known recording). The reason is that this consists of a variety of pieces in the same format -- prelude + fugue, that are in a variety of keys (and in fact are identified by their key). I don't know that any of them necessarily fit into the happy/sad dichotomy (but then I'm not sure if happy/sad is the right dichotomy -- for instance, a minor piece can be angry, bright, and not sad at all).
posted by advil at 1:41 PM on December 3, 2006


Advil, the WTC is certainly good listening, but most of those pieces (and indeed most complex classical music) winds its way through many keys in the course of its duration, despite being named as though it's in one key, so it may not help to clarify the issue here.
posted by ludwig_van at 1:55 PM on December 3, 2006


most of those pieces (and indeed most complex classical music) winds its way through many keys in the course of its duration, despite being named as though it's in one key

Well, this is definitely true, but the keys involved are not at all accidental. They are all closely related (in some way, e.g. the circle of fifths) to the central key of the piece, and the "key" in bach seems (to me at least) much more apparent than in a lot of other music. Actually part of the reason I suggested WTC was that in the post the question links to, chrismear says: "Bach manages this because his style of music sticks quite rigidly to the 'rules' about what notes are allowed in a certain key, and what chords are allowed to follow other chords. (He doesn't use other accidentals unless he has specifically modulated into a different key for a section of the piece, in which case he uses accidentals to notate the new key that he's in. He practically always ends his pieces on the tonic. His chords are only assembled from notes in the key's scale.) Because of this, your brain can deduce very clearly what key and chords Bach is intending, even though the notes themselves are fleeting." I think this is a very apt description, and the regimented forms and thoroughness (in terms of keys covered) of the WTC seemed to me to make them ideal Bach pieces to try to understand this.

They do differ from many suggestions in this thread in that they're more tonally complex than a lot of popular music, but I don't think that is necessarily bad. I actually wonder if part of the difficulty ztdavis is having is because e.g. C-min doesn't just mean C, E-flat, G chords over and over again in practice -- there is at the least movement up and down the circle of fifths, and probably more complex modulation. A C-minor piece often modulates to G-major at some point. Listening to music that is this complex, but still as constrained as a bach fugue is, might help.
posted by advil at 2:47 PM on December 3, 2006


That's part of another issue and I had thought of, and decided not to, bring up. Music technology has developed slowly, and one of the big changes happened at about the end of the 17th century: the development of the "equal tempered scale".

In an equal-tempered scale, the frequency of each tone divided by the frequency of the next lower semitone is the twelfth root of 2. That wasn't the case before; instruments were often deliberately tuned for specific keys, with some notes being slightly higher and some slightly lower than those on the equal-tempered scale.

It turns out that if you play music written for a key on an instrument tuned for that key it sounds better (except for those of us with "perfect interval" whose ears have been trained with the equal-tempered scale) but if you play in any other key, then it sounds worse.

Bach was part of that discussion, and he favored the equal-tempered scale. "The Well Tempered Clavier" was part of his contribution to the discussion, because it uses so many different keys. He was trying to show the superiority of the equal-tempered scale by demonstrating its versatility, and he and the others who favored it won out in the end.

But that has nothing to do with major or minor keys as such.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:14 PM on December 3, 2006


>R.E.M. is famous for writing everything in minor -- even a lot of their "happy"/up-tempo songs are in minor.

That doesn't sound right to me at all, sorry.

I'm not a huge R.E.M. fan, but their "happy" songs -- what, "Shiny Happy People", "Stand"? I can't think of any more -- are in major keys.

And on the other hand, things like "Man In The Moon", "Nightswimming" and "Find The River" (I've got "Automatic For The People" here), which are pretty mournful, are all in major keys too.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:24 PM on December 3, 2006


Well, this is definitely true, but the keys involved are not at all accidental. They are all closely related (in some way, e.g. the circle of fifths) to the central key of the piece

Well of course they aren't accidental. But they aren't always so closely related. In a major key piece, there are likely to be modulations to a minor key, and vice versa, which is why I think it might cause some confusion here. e.g., Beethoven's 9th Symphony is in D minor, and yet the well-known Ode to Joy section is in D major.

Actually part of the reason I suggested WTC was that in the post the question links to, chrismear says: "Bach manages this because his style of music sticks quite rigidly to the 'rules' about what notes are allowed in a certain key, and what chords are allowed to follow other chords. (He doesn't use other accidentals unless he has specifically modulated into a different key for a section of the piece, in which case he uses accidentals to notate the new key that he's in. He practically always ends his pieces on the tonic. His chords are only assembled from notes in the key's scale.) Because of this, your brain can deduce very clearly what key and chords Bach is intending, even though the notes themselves are fleeting."

This is not true at all. Bach wrote some extremely complex and highly chromatic pieces. His chords are not "only assembled from notes in the key's scale." Some of his pieces modulate through many keys very rapidly in a way that is not easy for even a trained ear to process after a few listens.

Listening to music that is this complex, but still as constrained as a bach fugue is, might help.

Well, I respectfully disagree that listening to Bach fugues is going to be very helpful to someone who can't tell the difference between a major and minor key.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:59 PM on December 3, 2006 [1 favorite]


If you want easily parseable, straightforward progressions, I'd recommend Mozart (or anything Classical) before Bach.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:00 PM on December 3, 2006


Because so many of your gave awesome comments there's going to be a lot of best answers.

Thanks to you all. I love metafilter.
posted by ztdavis at 11:46 PM on December 3, 2006


Just because this has bubbled to the top of my brain: most cheerful song in a minor key I can think of: "Moondance" by Van Morrison.

Bruce Springsteen wrote some quite upbeat good-times songs in minor keys too, on the earlier albums. "Kitty's Back" and "Spirits In The Night" would be examples.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:53 PM on December 4, 2006


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