What Third Is This?
November 28, 2011 1:42 PM   Subscribe

Has there been any controversy over whether 'What Child Is This/Greensleeves' is to be played in a major or minor key?

Whenever I hear a major third employed for the note that corresponds with the second syllable of "thi-is" in the first line, "What child is this," it feels like I'm getting sprayed with musical mace. It seriously hurts me physically.

I'm curious whether this is a simple matter of (stubborn, opinonated) taste, and what I might be missing historically, as well as academically, when it comes to evaluating this. Of course, I'd love to hear that rivalling factions have battled it out for centuries, but... you tell me.)

The issue was confused slightly further when I recently heard a version that played the minor the first time around, then the major the second time.

This is an example of the version that, in my never-so-humble opinion, should be considered standard.

Is one preferred over the other in any remotely official sense? If so, are there any (remotely official) reasons?
posted by herbplarfegan to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
It's modal. There are not "major" or "minor" versions of the song. It's either in the Dorian mode (which you are hearing as "major") or the aeolian mode (which you are calling "minor"). There is no major third; you are hearing a raised 6th in the Dorian mode (when compared to the aeolian mode). In fact, both modes are considered minor modes.

I prefer my "Greensleeves" played only in Dorian mode and my "What Child is This?" to be played only in the aeolian mode, but to each their own.

I had researched the crap out of your question about a year ago, and my results were inconclusive, regardless of how strongly certain sources were one way or the other. I am curious what people will respond with here and what sources they use to get there.
posted by TinWhistle at 1:57 PM on November 28, 2011 [15 favorites]

I have played many versions of Greensleeves growing up as a musician, ranging from the something like the piano you linked to, to arrangements of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Greensleeves. I have predominantly found the Dorian mode, and possibly as a consequence, prefer that style. Until today I'd never heard of What Child Is This. Are the two facts linked? I don't know. I do know that you won't get a better explanation than TinWhistle's.

Play it how you like, and know that whichever way you choose is the right way, in this case!
posted by fearnothing at 2:03 PM on November 28, 2011

Response by poster: TinWhistle, is it merely a coincidence that the notes in question are major and minor thirds of the root note, respectively? I can see in the video that I linked that the note is three semi-tones higher than the root, and I know that it's one more higher, to four, in the Dorian mode. Can you tell me anything more about a raised sixth, and what do you really mean by "modal" ?

(if I'm misreading the actual root note on that video, my apologies-- 10 seconds with a guitar in hand would have prevented my slip-up if so)
posted by herbplarfegan at 2:10 PM on November 28, 2011

Response by poster: I did wiki Musical mode with "huh?" results, so I guess I'm in the 'explain-like-I'm-a-four-year-old' zone on this one.

It's no biggie if you don't have time to explain that many specific questions. Thanks for your help.
posted by herbplarfegan at 2:13 PM on November 28, 2011

Best answer: If you have a piano handy, an easy way to experience the modes would be to transpose: using only white keys, play the tune starting on a D: voila, you're in dorian mode. This is the tune in D dorian, and you will object to the whole step between A and B, the 5th and 6th notes of the scale ("thi-is").

Now start the tune on an A, again using only white keys. This is A aeolian, and you will find a much more "normal" (to our modern ears) half step between the 5th and 6th notes, in this case E and F.

Basically, the modes are the ancestors of "major" and "minor." Ionian, a white-note scale starting on C, evolved into the modern "major" and aeolian, the white-note scale starting on A, evolved into "minor." Hope that helps!
posted by violinflu at 2:47 PM on November 28, 2011 [6 favorites]

I would love to hear recordings of both modes. This is cool. I know very little of theory.
posted by zomg at 2:54 PM on November 28, 2011

Modes are just additional scales to the Major and Minor most western music is in.

So, if you take the C major scale, C,D,E,F,G,A,B and start on D instead of C you have D Dorian. E is Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian (which is natural minor, there are three different minor scales), and B Locrian.

This section of the Wiki has recordings for the instrument-less
posted by Gygesringtone at 3:07 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Talk about starting a scale on a given note always used to confuse me, because playing a scale from root to octave is pretty much a fingering exercise. It's not something you would normally do in a song. Here's another way to look at it.

Introductory music texts tell a fib when they identify a key in terms of the key signature (the sharps or flats) of a piece of music. The essential meaning of a key has to do with the song's tonal center - the note that the listener hears the melody as ultimately wanting to resolve to. If the song is in C then the resolving note will be a C, if the song is in A then the resolving note will be an A.

Now, typically songs are not constructed using every possible note of the chromatic scale. The songwriter will use a subset of those notes, generally based on a certain pattern of intervals from the tonic (resolving) note.

If you play a song on the piano using only the white keys and the song is structured in such a way that you hear it resolving on a C, then the song is in C major (or Ionian mode in medieval terms). If you play a song using those same white keys but the structure is such that you hear it resolving on an A, then the song is in A minor (or Aeolian mode in medieval terms). A lot of modern Western music is built on these two structures, major and minor, but they aren't the only options. If you use only the white keys, but you hear the song resolving on a D, then you are in Dorian mode, and so on. Often songs which use one of these structures (besides major or minor) are referred to as "modal".

The above may seem obvious to folks knowledgeable in music theory, but when I was beginning to study music, it confused me to have keys explained in terms of key signatures and modes explained in terms of playing a continuous scale from a given starting point. I'd ask "why are there two different keys for each key signature? Why does this piece have 2 sharps in the key signature, but every C# in the actual piece is cancelled out with an accidental natural? How often do you actually play a continuous scale from root to octave in a real piece of music?" None of the folks I asked had answers and it was a few years before I stumbled across an explanation of the tonal center and how it related to a key.
posted by tdismukes at 7:14 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

is it merely a coincidence that the notes in question are major and minor thirds of the root note, respectively?

Short answer it's a coincidence. But I'm not why you're calling that a "root note". The root of the dorian mode is the first note of "what child is this": "What". The second syllable of "thi-is" is the sixth note of the dorian mode. Yes, in the dorian mode the raised sixth sounds a little off, like there's a little bit of a caffeine buzz in that one part of an otherwise minor-y scale. The tension there, or equivocation, or whatever you call it, is great spice for some melodies. It's the same in another dorian tune: "a" and "of" in "yo ho ho and a bottle of rum".
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 8:08 PM on November 28, 2011

I learned of "Greensleeves" and "What Child Is This" about the same time, and was familiar with both "major" and "minor" treatments of the tune. But we always sang "What Child is This" in the "minor" key in church as a hymn, to my delight. (I rolled my eyes early and often at the inevitable complainer whining about it being creepy-sounding oh please.)

I'll leave the discussion of theory to those who know what they're talking about, forgive my inaccurate terminology.
posted by desuetude at 9:13 PM on November 28, 2011

I learned about modes messing around with a dulcimer. They are inexpensive and a great way to experiment with different tunings and modes.

And, yes, "Greensleeves" is one of the modal songs I learned. I usually played it in dorian.
posted by QIbHom at 7:52 AM on November 29, 2011

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