Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The sad minor mode?

~From Roots of the Classicalby Peter Van der Merwe, page 127:

The truth is not that early composers were unaware of the mournfulness of the minor mode, but rather, as in the case of the more extreme discords and dissonances, that they had yet to exploit it. In fact, from the strictly scientific point of view, minor intervals were a form of discord and dissonance. The emotions expressed, depending on the context, might be gloom, melancholy, tension, resolution in adversity, wistfulness, and a host of others. But they were all in a some sense negative, and nothing could entirely erase the negativity. A jig in the minor mode may well express merriment, but never quite the same unclouded merriment as the same jig in the major.

This seems to be a large point of discussion in the music world... is how we hear the minor mode conditioned? Could the major and minor mode be reversed in regards to the feelings commonly associated with them? I think only to a certain degree. I think all human brains will naturally here the minor third and major third intervals as fundamentally different, but to say that one is 'happy' and one is 'sad' depends far too much on the context of the actually music than the interval itself. So, in a sense, it is conditioned by what music one has heard previously, but it is more strongly conditioned by the context of the piece.

I've heard people say that Javert's suicide song does not sound sad because he is singing in the major mode, and that the ending of "O Fortuna" is too happy because it ends in the major mode instead of the minor. But whether or not a piece is in the major or minor mode has more to do with what degree it's perceived at. No piece (that sounds good, at least) will be composed entirely in the minor mode; there will always be some major mixed in, and vice versa. What makes a piece be in a minor key is the degree to which those minor intervals are percieved.

So, in the end, I think to just associate major and minor to happy and sad in general is to, well, over generalize. It's never really been that way.



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