Why do minor chords sound cold?
May 31, 2009 3:50 PM   Subscribe

Why do minor chords sound cold?

Why do minor chords sound 'cold', while major chords sound warm?
As a musician, this has been bugging me for some time- I know it's not just me because I've heard this from other people as well.
Is this purely a cultural association that one learns, or is there some sort of neural/mental connection between a minor chord and tension and nervousness?
posted by dunkadunc to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Wait, tension and nervousness == cold? It tends to have more pathos and colour than a major chord, I'd argue, but I'd hardly call that cold. would you call that nervous or cold? Does Russian music sound cold?
posted by Hildegarde at 3:59 PM on May 31, 2009

It's an association that you've learned. They don't sound cold to me.
posted by ignignokt at 4:05 PM on May 31, 2009

Minor chords sound warmer and richer to me than major chords, which are bright and clear. I am a middle-aged person of the female persuasion, both of which enter into how we process sound, of course.
posted by FelliniBlank at 4:17 PM on May 31, 2009

I've never assigned temperature to major/minor. Light/dark, on the other hand...
A lot of minor scale music/themes seem to linger for me, like my brain's trying to complete or continue it, whereas many major progressions seem complete all by their lonesome.
I tend to prefer minor (with plenty of exceptions, naturally)

but I'd say it's an acquired perception.

For their amusement, my bandmates used to ask me to sing a (major) vocal hook from another band.
Turns out I've got a built-in minor adapter, where I'll pervert the scale and end up minor, but they couldn't always tell how. (we didn't pull off a lot of covers...)

posted by Busithoth at 4:32 PM on May 31, 2009

I'm kind of curious as to why minor chords sound creepy and thought that that was what dunk was asking.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:35 PM on May 31, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, Pope Guilty- creepy probably would have been a better word to describe it.
I'm not talking about actual physical coldness so much as how minor chords sound unsettling, sad, unfriendly, or what have you.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:46 PM on May 31, 2009

Act two of the This American Life episode on Sensory Mapping has a good run down of the chords that were given very particular associations with emotions and interpretations by the Middle Age Catholic Church. While not a direct answer to your question, it's an interesting and entertaining listen.
posted by uri at 4:49 PM on May 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

My three cents:

1. It depends on the context. Like you, I've associated minor chords with the dark side, only to learn songs and be surprised that certain chords that never sounded sad were, in fact, minors. The Beatles did this well.

2. The other day I asked an unrelated music question and someone told me to read "This Is Your Brain On Music" by Daniel Levitin. Perhaps there are some answers there.

3. In defense of the "cold" assocation: during some stage banter Elvis Costello mentioned that the first song he ever wrote was just an E minor chord which he dubbed "Winter."
posted by Beardman at 5:11 PM on May 31, 2009

Seconding ignignokt, its meaning is a function of how you've learned music. As a proof of sorts, consider maqmat (and other) Middle Eastern music. Many many people have describe it (and the instruments) as sounding like cats howling. Suffice it to say that many many Eastern music aficionados would not characterize it that way. It's a question of perspective.
posted by rhizome at 5:27 PM on May 31, 2009

experience? association? maybe a touch of synaesthesia? Wiki link.

Movies? (You ever notice how many movies score the poignant, rainy scenes in a minor key?)

It's exciting to me how far away we are from understanding the human brain's inner logic, really.
posted by SaharaRose at 5:53 PM on May 31, 2009

It's just you.

Minor chords sound much more mellow and warm (brandy, cognac) to me, whereas I perceive major tonalities as crisp, sparkly, and cold (chilled champagne). FYI, I am a classically trained Eastern-european violinist in her 20s. I also played honky tonk fiddle in a Texas band for a while.
posted by halogen at 7:05 PM on May 31, 2009

Best answer: Yeah, I'd wager this is cultural conditioning, mixed with the fact that the minor chord is arguably slightly more dissonant than the major chord by virtue of the overtone series. The minor third is a more distant overtone than the major third when compared with the fundamental tone (if that's Greek to you, check out the beginning of the article) and so it tends to communicate more tension than the major third.

Also, rather than This Is Your Brain on Music, I'd recommend Ways of Listening by Eric Clarke. It's not as entertainingly written, but Clarke argues convincingly against the representational psychological model that Levitin and others employ. His approach assumes that the brain, instead of taking in sensations and then recreating an abstract model of them, merely distinguishes the information that's already present in the sensations themselves. The sort of learning we undergo to understand music is a process of getting better at distinguishing different parts of our incoming sensations rather than getting better at creating abstract models of them. I'm not a psychologist, but it seems compelling coming from a musical and computer science background. Maybe this is deeper than you want to get but it's really interesting stuff.
posted by invitapriore at 7:52 PM on May 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

I believe our responses to music are partially cultural, and partly a physiological response to the variations in the harmonic series. Taken from that wikipedia article:

David Cope (1997) suggests the concept of interval strength[5], in which an interval's strength, consonance, or stability (see consonance and dissonance) is determined by its approximation to a lower and stronger, or higher and weaker, position in the harmonic series.

It was a controversial topic in musicology when I was studying though, since for a long time this concept of music as something that is outside cultural influence, can be expressed through reductionist analysis and gets value from theoretical analysis has stopped many people from looking music and cultural meaning.
posted by Admira at 8:56 PM on May 31, 2009

I agree that minors and cold and majors are warm.

Just a data point, but Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" have a minor Winter and a major Summer, if I recall correctly. I can't remember the other two.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:10 PM on May 31, 2009

Psst. Ambrose Chapel. Spring and Autumn! *wink*

I was trying to get a student to listen to the differences between major and minor chords last week, and I started to describe the c minor arpeggio as "creepy" but then realized that...well, it just wasn't. There isn't anything - other than what I've been told to think about it - that makes me think that minor scales/chords are creepy sounding.

That said, they DO feel "tentative" and as though they are "seeking resolution." I've been playing a lot of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata over the last week, and it is decidedly creepy. But it doesn't stay there. It ultimately resolves nicely into warm bright chords.
posted by greekphilosophy at 10:16 AM on June 1, 2009

Minor chords don't sound cold. And invitapriore is right about dissonance. Also, consider that in tonal music (i.e. music with a key center, which I would guess encompasses everything you listen to) context is everything. It doesn't make a lot of sense to talk about the way a minor chord feels in a general sense because the ii chord in a major key functions completely differently from the i chord in a minor key, for example. So if I'm in the key of G major and I play Am D7 G, the Am is not going to feel the same as it will when I'm in the key of Am and I play Bm7b5 E7 Am. Bright, happy songs have minor chords in them, and sad, creepy songs have major chords in them. That's the nature of functional harmony -- chords sound the way they do because of what surronds them as much as because of any intrinsic properties of their own.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:34 AM on June 1, 2009

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