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Isn't it odd that "I dreamed a dream" (a very sad song from "Les Misérables") is written in a major key? Isn't it a mismatch between the lyrics and the music?

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Related: english.stackexchange.com/q/53591 –  msh210 Feb 23 at 5:55
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Just about every music teacher will tell you that major keys will sound happy and minor will sound sad. This is only partially true. I have written sad songs in major keys and vice versa. It just depends on how you put the chords together, the tempo, and most importantly what you're feeling right in that moment. –  Caleb Feb 23 at 7:10
    
You should listen to Finnish music. Even the most upbeat songs are about death, darkness and insanity. –  Lee White Jul 11 at 20:36

4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Nope! It's not necessarily a mismatch. The major or minor quality of the key a song is in is only one of many, many qualities that determine its emotion. It gets to the point that a major song can be very sad, and a minor song can be very happy, depending on the context.

For concrete examples, "Last Train Home" by the Pat Metheny group (listen on Spotify) is in a major key, but it's bittersweet and if it had lyrics, it's easy to imagine that they'd be sad. In contrast, "Stray Cat Strut" by the Stray Cats (Spotify) is in a minor key, but it's a deliberately silly and fun song.

In the specific case of "I Dreamed a Dream," my interpretation is that it has shades of positive emotions (and therefore written in a major key) because it's about how the singer remembers happy periods of her life. The reason it's such a sad song is because her life now is full of bitter pain, and she's losing hope that life will ever return to what she remembers. Writing the song in a minor key would have emphasized the pain the singer felt presently instead of the peace she wishes she could keep.

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I haven't actually read or seen Les Misérables, so hopefully I got the right message from the song... :-P –  Kevin Feb 23 at 0:33

This is a trademark of Randy Newman, purposely mismatching a happy tune to sad/nasty lyrics. This isn't necessarily done with major/minor keys. For example, "In Germany before the war" has a beautiful tune and seems really sensitive, but the lyrics are about a child murderer.

Technically, matching musical content to lyrics is called 'prosody'; normally, getting prosody wrong (eg if the lyrics were 'sing high, sing low' and 'low' were sung on a higher note than 'high') makes one feel that the song wasn't written properly. But when this is done in the hands of a master....

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As in 'Every Time We Say Goodbye' : the line 'major to minor' is accompanied by IV major then bVII dominant 9th. Subtle, and it works well. –  Tim Feb 23 at 9:01

As noted by other answers, major keys don't necessarily equate to happiness, nor minor keys to sadness, but with regard to "I dreamed a dream", consider the text.

Fantine starts singing in D major about how she used to be happy--almost reminiscing. That continues through the second verse--still in D major chord. But then something changes. There's a sudden jump to a B7 chord and when the tigers come at "night", E minor. Then another B7 but this one resolves to E major. Then A7, which would the dominant of the original D major, but as Fantine's hopes are torn "apart" that A7 resolves to D minor. Then another A7, but this time Fantine, with great effort, summons up enough energy to--with great effort--pull herself together for another verse that starts with more happy reminiscence.

The third verse briefly heads toward depressing thoughts about "when autumn came", but Fantine pulls herself together (and into the higher key of E major) where--despite the futility--she forces herself to keep alive her dream of a better life.

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Unlike website coding and other technical disciplines, music is artistic and relies on the interpretation of the consumer. Asserting that a major key must be used for emoting happiness and vice versa is more than likely a bit of academia created by music scholars who may lack the complete artistic gift. The movie Amadeus brings this home. The protagonist (I've long forgotten his name), a theoretical virtuoso, spent his life in Mozart's shadow and died wishing that he had Mozart's gift. Artists play. The others teach. It follows that in the case of music, we shouldn't necessarily listen to what other mortals say unless they can honestly defend their "rules".

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I don't think any "academia" will make such assertions. While Amadeus is a highly enjoyable movie, I think it is a mistake to assume it has any more than superficial bearing to reality. I don't think there is much proof to support the idea that during life, Salieri was in Mozart's shadow. And like any musician of consequence at the time, Mozart had pupils, and taught music to cover part of his income. –  Roland Bouman Feb 24 at 19:03
    
Apparently the modern examples above are unimportant. In which case you're entitled to believe that happy tunes are only written in major keys. –  user604488 Mar 4 at 17:53
    
I beg to differ on website coding not being artistic. There are technical elements to it but designers of websites care very very much about aesthetics. I could conversely argue that there are lots of technical elements in musical composition. –  mdwhatcott Jul 13 at 2:53

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