A few years ago, we shared a version of R.EM.’s 1991 alternative hit “Losing My Religion” as reworked from a minor to a major key through digital processing by Ukranian musician Oleg Berg and his daughter Diana. Many people thought the project a travesty and railed against its violation of R.E.M.’s emotional intent. But the stronger the reactions, the more they seemed to validate Berg’s tacit argument about the important differences between major and minor keys. We know that, in general, minor keys convey sadness, dread, or moody intensity, all familiar colors in the R.E.M. palate. Major keys, on the other hand—as in the band's inexplicably bouncy “Shiny Happy People”---tend to evoke… shininess and happiness.
Why is this? Goldsmiths University Music Psychology Professor Vicky Williamson has an ambivalent explanation at the NME blog. Her answer: the association seems to be cultural but also, perhaps, biological. “Scientists have shown that the sound spectra—the profile of sound ingredients—that make up happy speech are more similar to happy music than sad music and vice versa.”
This thesis may reduce down to a “water is wet” observation. A more interesting way of thinking of it comes from Aristotle, who “suspected that the emotional impact of music was at least partly down to the way it mimicked our own vocalizations when we squeal for joy or cry out in anger.”
Do these expressions always correspond to major or minor scales or intervals? No. Emotions, like colors, have subtleties of shading, contrast, and hue. Williamson names some notable exceptions, like The Smiths' “I Know It’s Over,” a song in a major key that is almost comically morbid and maudlin. These may serve to prove the rule, achieving their unsettling effect by playing with our expectations. In general, as you will learn from the video above from Minnesota Public Radio—in which a lumberjack explains the distinctions to an animated blue bird---major and minor keys, scales, intervals, and chords are “tools composers use to give their music a certain mood, atmosphere, and strength.”
If you were to ask for a song that contains these qualities in abundance, you might get in reply Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which, like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or most classical opera, relies on exaggerated quiet-to-loud dynamics for its dramatic effect. But it also uses a minor key as an essential vehicle for its anxiety and rage. So important to the song is this element, in fact, that when shifted into a major key, as Berg has done at the top of the post, it sounds nearly incoherent. The clarity with which “Smells Like Teen Spirit” communicates angst and confusion evaporates, especially in the song’s verses. The digital artifacts of Berg’s processing become more evident here, perhaps because the change in key is so destructive to the melody.
Can we closely correlate this loss of melodic integrity to the critical importance the minor scale plays in this song in particular? I would assume so, but let’s look at the example of a similar type of moody, quiet-loud alt-rock song from around the same time period, Radiohead’s “Creep.” Here’s one of those exceptions, originally written in a major key, which may account for the pleasant, dreamlike quality of its verses. That quality doesn't necessarily disappear when we hear the song rendered in a minor key. But the chorus, underneath the digital distortion, loses the sense of anguished triumph with which Thom Yorke imbued his defiant declaration of creepiness.
In the case of the original “Creep,” the G major key seems to push against our expectations, and gives a song about self-loathing an unsettling sweetness that is indeed kinda creepy. (And perhaps helped Prince to turn the song into a genuinely uplifting gospel hymn). What seems clear in the Nirvana and Radiohead examples is that the choice of key determines in large part not only our emotional responses to a song, but also our responses to deviations from the norm. But those norms are “mostly down to learned associations,” writes Williamson, “both ancient and modern.”
Perhaps she’s right. University of Toronto Music Psychologist Glenn Schellenberg has noticed that contemporary music has trended more toward minor keys in the past few decades, and that “people are responding positively to music that has these characteristics that are associated with negative emotions.” Does this mean we're getting sadder? Schellenberg instead believes it's because we associate minor scales with sophistication and major scales with “unambiguously happy-sounding music” like “The Wheels on the Bus” and other children’s songs. “The emotion of unambiguous happiness is less socially acceptable than it used to be,” notes NPR. “It’s too Brady Bunch, not enough Modern Family.”
Maybe we’ve grown cynical, but the trend allows brilliant rock composers like Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood to do all sorts of odd, unsettling things with major and minor modulation. And it made “Shiny Happy People” stick out like a shockingly joyful sore thumb upon its release in 1991, though at the time the mope of grunge and 90s alt-rock had not yet dominated the airwaves. Now we rarely hear such earnest, “unambiguously happy-sounding” music these days outside of Sesame Street. Find more of Berg’s major-to-minor and vice versa reworkings at his Youtube channel.