A commonplace in rock and pop songwriting: minor keys are sad (or dark or soft) and major keys are happy (upbeat, extroverted, etc.). Want to add some complexity? Set happy lyrics in a minor key or vice versa. You don’t need much theory to grasp the concept (applying it effectively is another matter). But even for classically trained composers, the why of it all is still a bit of a mystery. Guardian classical music blogger Tom Service suggests that since the 17th century, it’s become learned behavior, as is our tendency to fall into minor thirds when communicating sadness through speech. Whether a natural or cultural phenomenon, there’s no doubt that transposing tonality can give a song vastly different emotional resonance.
Which is exactly what happened with a recent viral digital experiment: a tweak of R.E.M.’s tortured “Losing My Religion” from minor to major so upset religious blogger Matthew Linder, he commented that the “change in tonality whitewashes the sorrowful song and brings in the Pollyannaism of REM’s much derided ‘Shiny Happy People.’” Now I happen to think “Shiny Happy People” is a completely stupid yet loveable song, but he does have a point. The tonality hack, originally performed by MajorScaledTV, has also been done several times by Ukrainian YouTube user MajorVsMinor, real name Oleg Berg and his daughter Diana. The Bergs take songs like the godawful “Final Countdown” by Europe and make them almost listenable, or ruin songs like “Hey Jude” (above).
And sometimes a fascinating thing happens. Remember that counterpoint between tonality and content I noted above? In some cases, the entire effect of a song depends upon that tension, as is the case with George Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. In the tweaked Ella Fitzgerald version above, the lyrics—“and the living is easy”—lose their sexiness, their melancholy undertones and strained irony, when the tune sounds as happy and straightforward as the words. This is not an improvement, of course, but an interesting example of how form and content push against each other in compositions more musically sophisticated and emotionally complex than “Final Countdown.” Once these tweaked versions of popular songs lose their appeal as viral curiosities (if they haven’t already), they’re sure to make excellent teaching tools for musicology professors.
MajorVsMinor have applied their treatment to over two dozen popular songs and film and video game themes. Want to know how they do it? Watch Oleg and Diana reveal their secrets in the video above. There’s quite a bit more to their process than Evolver.fm assumed about MajorScaledTV’s REM experiment.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness