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DominicX's avatar

Why does major sound happy and minor sound sad/scary (in general)?

Asked by DominicX (28762points) October 18th, 2009

Obviously, there exceptions, but I have always wondered why we associate music in a minor key with sadness and music in a major key we associate more with happiness. This is seen in almost every genre of music.

Is it just because western music has traditionally attached sadness and heaviness with minor and we’re used to it? But then why was it attached to that in the first place? And why does it continue? I cannot listen to a song in a major key like this and think “sadness”. Just doesn’t work.

For me, the most sentimental sounding songs are the ones that constantly switch between minor and major, such as “Le Jardin Feerique” by Maurice Ravel.

Just something I was thinking about.

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20 Answers

aeschylus's avatar

This is a great question. I can’t wait to hear what people have to say.

aeschylus's avatar

I have to agree about the sentimentality of pieces that switch from major to minor. Bach’s first prelude come to mind.

loser's avatar

Music evokes feelings. The intervals between notes is what causes this. If you’ve ever slammed your hand down on a keyboard, you’ll probably get an unpleasant feeling. The major scale Is just brighter. Minor, the notes are somewhat closer together, like the hand on the keyboard, and then even get to break the rules a little bit to add to that. It’s all the combining of sounds to create different sound waves.

aeschylus's avatar

Music is definitely defined by motion. One note sounding doesn’t make much of a difference, but motion from one to the next, from one chord to another, and contrapuntal motion make a huge difference. Perhaps the motion of minor keys is significantly different somehow. But how?

Why should different intervals of sound coming from some device (piano, speakers, whatever) create an emotional response at all. What about more minute movements is more somber?

filmfann's avatar

When a song is in a minor key, we can hear that there are missing notes. We notice the emptyness. It can be easily used for sadness, but it doesn’t have to be.
Most Steeley Dan songs are in minor keys.

aeschylus's avatar

What do you mean by missing notes? By that measure, anything but a chromatic scale would sound sad, including a major scale. I like your emptiness theory, but say more.

ish1212's avatar

It has a lot to do with the overtone series, which is a scientific phenomenon relating to that which we label “music.”

In short, whenever any pitch is sounded a number of pitches sound above that one pitch. A major chord actually consists of the first five of these pitches (if you know anything about music theory, the root would be the first sounding pitch followed by an octave above that, then a fifth above that, then a fourth above that (the root pitch again) then a major third above that.) This relationship defines all of western tonality.

So it’s not that major is happy and minor is sad, it is that major is just “right” by all scientific definition while minor is just “less right.”

ish1212's avatar

SO, to answer the question, yes it is largely psychological, but it is also based heavily in acoustic science.

andrew's avatar

@ish1212 And, as ethnomusicologists would also point out, western culture’s relationship to that acoustic science.

judochop's avatar

I would guess that it’s slightly because of sound in moving pictures.

jfos's avatar

I don’t think it has anything to do with Western music or keys’ association to moods in movies, shows, etc.

When listening to a major scale, even if the melody is played slowly (which is typical of sad music), the intervals between the notes create a happy “feeling”. It’s just natural of happiness to have a brighter outlook.

When listening to a minor scale, even if the notes are played rapidly (which is typical of happy music), the intervals between the notes create a sad “feeling”. The harmonies made by notes of a minor scale seem to rattle the insides in a heavy, somber fashion.

OpryLeigh's avatar

In my singing lessons, whenever it is time to learn a new song for a concert, festival or exam I always ask m singing teacher for something in a minor key. I just prefer the sound. It’s become a standing joke between me and my teacher and she often says things like “you’ll like this because it sounds tragic!!!”.

dpworkin's avatar

They don’t. That’s just your ethnocentric gloss on the experience.

DominicX's avatar


Um…well, they do, to me. And they do to many people. I’m not implying that minor keys have an absolute unquestionable sound of sadness that even alien lifeforms would agree with, but they do sound sad to me and many other people.

And I’m not so sure that it’s “just ethnocentrism” as evidenced by some of the above replies.

I found your comment to be pretty rude, actually; ethnocentrism implies a feeling of superiority. If you can explain to me how I indicated I felt superior, then I’ll change my mind.

I was simply asking why it sounds this way to me and to so many other people. Hence why in the beginning I said “there are exceptions”. I actually read and saw that in Japan, certain wedding songs are in minor and are used for celebration even though to us they may sound tragic. The ending of Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Sleeping Beauty” is in G minor, but it is a celebration of the marriage. Part of the reason why I find that piece so fascinating.

dpworkin's avatar

I meant ethonocentric in the broadest sense: that in our culture we are raised to perceive those peculiar tonal combinations in a particular way. My remark was not meant to indicate that you are somehow ethnocentric, but that we as listeners to Western music are raised to associate mournfulness with the minor keys, which includes the idea that these sounds are not somehow objectively mournful. I include myself, because I hear them as you do. I certainly didn’t mean to be rude, and I apologize.

DominicX's avatar


No, it’s fine, it’s just that “ethnocentric” is usually used more negatively. But that makes sense. It was my original thought that minor sounds sad and major sounds happy simply because we are used to hearing it in Western music and it has been done that way for so long that it continues to be done. Though I do find the scientific aspect and attempt to explain objective “less right sounds” (such as what @ish1212 posted) to be interesting.

Strauss's avatar

Although most music in Western culture does follow the norm of major=happy and minor=sad, it is by no means a cut-and-dried rule. A notable exception is I’m So Lonely I Could Cry By Hank Williams (Sr). It is written in a major key, but it is one of the saddest popular songs I have ever heard. An example of the opposite, a happy somg primarily in a minor key is Happy Together by The Turtles.

DominicX's avatar


Interesting examples. I know that it’s not cut and dried for sure. In classical, you have Sleeping Beauty Finale (a completely happy ending and one of my most favorite endings) and of course Lucia di Lamermoor which ends in D major and ends with the main guy stabbing himself and falling down the stage dead. It’s an interesting feeling to see the “clash”.

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Willimek's avatar

if you want to know, wether minor is sad or major is happy, you must distinguish between different major and different minor chords. A major chord can be very painful, when the major chord is a secundary dominant. Minor can sound not at all sad, but bravely and courageously, when it is an aeolian minor chord, that you often find in pop music. If you want to know more, you can read the essay “Vibrating Molecules and the Secret of their feelings” by the link
Bernd Willimek

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