While completing his doctorate degree in voice performance at the University of Michigan, Brian Tanner frequently stopped by Peter's study carrel in the music library to distract him from his serious musicological studies. Like Peter, Brian is fascinated by the intersection of scholarly research and pop culture. Also like Peter, Brian apparently cannot get enough of college, so he is currently in the MBA program at Brigham Young University. Tweet him at @briandtanner.
A few weeks ago this video appeared in my Facebook feed:
I thought this was brilliantly funny concept—take a downer song in a minor key and change it to the major (here's the original). Despite the switch, the end product doesn't really feel all that much "happier"—it's still about a crisis of faith and a severed relationship (at least I think, but it can be hard to parse Michael Stipe's oblique lyrics). The way this video plays with major and minor invites the listener to question the emotional preconceptions we have about each.
Major and minor are but two of the modes that exist in tonal music. Simply put, a mode is a way of organizing pitches into a scale. There are seven total modes, each built with a different pattern of intervals between the notes of the scale: Ionian (also know as major), Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian (also known as minor), and Locrian.* Although there are seven musical modes, the major and minor modes are by far the most common.
There are no inherent reasons why the particular arrangement of pitches known as the major mode or minor mode should be perceived as happy or sad, respectively. Yet for centuries listeners and theorists have ascribed different moods to each of the modes. I get a kick out the the descriptions of the modes (and their astrological associations) by Renaissance-era** music theorist Hermann Finck—here is a sampling (from the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians):
"Dorian…has the liveliest melody of all, arouses the somnolent, refreshes the sad and disturbed…[it is] like the Sun, who is deemed first among the planets… the foremost musicians today use this tone the most."Given the centuries' worth of emotional responses associated with each mode, savvy composers can make surprising mode choices to upend our emotional expectations. Consider a few pieces by Franz Schubert from his great song cycles. A song cycle is a collection of songs that have thematic or narrative links and are intended to be performed together. The song cycle Winterreise (Winter's Journey) is a desperately sad affair, recounting the increasingly depressed and irrational mental state of a lovelorn loner across 24 songs. From that description alone, you could correctly guess that most of the songs in the cycle are written in the minor mode. The opening song of the cycle, "Gute Nacht" ("Good Night"), begins predictably in the minor mode as the protagonist abandons a long-term, committed relationship in the middle of the night because his lover has found someone new. It is a strophic song, meaning that it has repeated verses with new text over the same music we've heard before, but at the beginning of the fourth verse (around the 4:00 minute mark) Schubert throws us a curve ball:
"Phrygian…not wrongly attributed to Mars…moves to choler and biliousness… loud words, hideous battles, and bold deeds suit this [tone]."
"Mixolydian…has more in common with Saturn…shows itself with stentorean voice and great shouts, so as to be a terror to all."
Just when Schubert gets to the saddest lyrics of the song he unexpectedly switches over to the major mode. By switching to the supposedly happier mode at a moment when the sentiment is the saddest, Schubert somehow makes the moment even sadder than it had been when it was in the minor mode because it now feels delusional and hollow.
Another great song cycle by Schubert, Die Schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Mill-Girl), has two songs back to back in which the protagonist sings about how his fickle lover (fickle lovers are staples of Romantic-era songs) is fond of the color green. The first is called "Die liebe Farbe" ("The Beloved Color") and the second "Die böse Farbe" ("The Hated Color"). Judging by the titles alone, one would reason that the first would be in the major mode and the second in the minor mode, but Schubert does just the opposite, and as a result the first song sounds more pathetic and the second more unhinged than they would if they were written in the expected modes.
A great modern piece of music that plays with modes in an unexpected way is the Radiohead song "Dollars and Cents":
This only has two chords, B major and B minor, and it undulates between them so freely that the line between major and minor becomes blurry. Radiohead has a reputation as a cerebral band that writes music that takes multiple listens to sink in, and their refusal to resort to the emotional shorthand that the traditional use of major and minor modes affords may be a key reason why.
Can you think of other pieces of music that challenge our emotional preconceptions about the major and minor modes? Feel free to leave a comment below, or to tweet at me (@briandtanner). And thank you, Peter, for having me on as a guest.
[Peter: My pleasure.]
Vocab: mode, song cycle, strophic
*This Wikipedia article actually does a pretty good job of describing how the modes are formed and how they differ from another.
**The modes of the Renaissance are not quite the same the same as our modern modes, but confusingly they share many of the same names.