[Smt-talk] Pieces contrary to the minor/major = sad/non-sad stereotype

MICHAEL MORSE mwmorse at bell.net
Fri Oct 2 11:35:40 PDT 2009

Christopher Buchenholz

> I find it curious that as educators, we shy away from the major=happy,  
> minor=sad stereotype, yet when challenged, we are hard-pressed to find  
> musical examples that dispel this notion, and the ones we do find are  
> questionable, or unremarkable.  It becomes especially difficult when  
> we dispense with lyrics;  does music written in major/minor evoke  
> happiness or sadness without a textual context?
> When discussing major/minor with my students, I try and bring together  
> other musical elements that reinforce the happy/sad convention.  For  
> example, pieces in major keys tend to be loud, fast, tutti, upbeat,  
> rhythmic, etc.  Pieces in minor tend to be slow, soft, fewer  
> instruments, etc.  It is relatively simple to find pieces in both  
> major and minor that do away with some or all of these statements.

  Sorry to quote this in full, but it is warranted here.

  The problem with major=happy/minor=sad is not that it is difficult to refute empirically (or through examples), but that it is impossible to establish. The notion that affectivity in music is in any sense reducible to such a simplistic binary pair of concepts is grotesque and, if you please, hydrophobically anti-intellectual. Even if we agree that music is often affectively causal--and that is a fairly substantial "if"--there is no guarantee whatsoever that any combination of words, much less adjectives, can encapsulate or formulate the affective results of the listening experience.

  In that sense, the idea that M=H/m=S is exactly not a convention, but a convention of a convention. The inherent logical slipperiness of such indirection is, alas, precisely what allowed a charlatan like Don Campbell to perpetrate the fraud of the Mozart Effect®. (I'm not kidding by adding the registered trademark symbol; that's what it is now, a brand of--egregiously specious--musical causality.) Put in another, slightly more affirmative fashion: what causes people to say that a given piece is "happy" or "sad" is only indirectly musical. As even cursory examination of cultures in which affective musical coding was a living language--18thc. Europe, contemporary Iran--shows, mere reduction of the profound nuances involved to simplistic adjectives is the opposite of the cultural experience at hand--the occasional oafishness of affect theorists like Mattheson to the contrary.

  Proof of a kind comes from the fact that adherents of the doctrine in question are obliged to verify their view through reference to the lyrics--which are resoundingly non-modal--or to point to the ironies or (putative) "contradictions" between musical mode and lyric meaning. If the core idea were correct, such disparities would be logically impossible or, more likely, self-resolving. And the notion that instrumental music presents a tougher case comes close to proving the absurdity of the idea in the first place. If mode made so manifest a difference, its affectivities should be clearer in instrumental music, not more obscure. In sum: we don't live this way, none of us, no matter how fervently we think otherwise.

MW Morse
Pbgh, ON
Trent University
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