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Oftentimes major keys are called "happy" and minor keys are "sad". Why is this? Is it universal across cultures that use these scales? Do similar connotations exist in other scale systems?

(If this isn't universal, then perhaps someone could explain which cultures it is sad in and why.)

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@idober: Not sure universality really makes sense as a tag here. –  Ben Alpert Apr 27 '11 at 22:27
I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned the temperament here, as it affects how a key actually sounds I think. –  Kos May 4 '11 at 11:04
I think major scales can sound sad. You can create a sentimental sweet melancholy with them. –  user1809 Jan 18 '12 at 5:35
An interesting question but this is probably a question for neuroscience rather than music. –  Chris S Feb 5 '12 at 23:24
The question title states that sad is universally accepted. This clasches with the question that questions the universality. In addition the are answers stating that sad isn't universal. Maybe you should edit the title to not make the universally accepted statement? –  Ulf Åkerstedt Jun 4 '12 at 23:44
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9 Answers

up vote 62 down vote accepted

The major key is present by nature in every note that is played. Therefore, it is interpreted as normal behavior, a happy day in our lives, 'cause that's what we expect to happen.

The minor key is opposed to the major key and it's perceived by us (without being aware) as if there was something wrong, hence sadness or restlessness.

Further explanation: When you hear a note, what you're really hearing are vibrations. For each note there is a whole set of vibrations that take in place, and that we don't even perceive.

When you play a low C, you're not hearing only C, but every other harmonic or overtone that belongs to C. That is, going from lower to higher in pitch, the low C being played, then C (octave), then G, then another C, then E, so on and so forth, each time being less the distance between the current overtone and the next one.

As you may have noticed, this first 5 notes (C, C, G, C, E) form the major triad. This means that by nature, the major triad is always present.

The note that results in the minor triad is E flat, which is the 18th overtone in the harmonic series. For this reason, and because the major triad is always there, it results in a contradiction that our human nature understands as sadness, unconformity, and restlessness.

If you want to go deeper into this, I strongly recommend Leonard Bernstein's lectures "The Unanswered Question", in which he engages in a deep and detailed explanation on this and other similar matters.

Here lies musical universality.

Edit: It can be considered universal, as physics have demonstrated its existence in nature and, as the same Bernstein says, the major triad (and even until the pentatonic scale, which would user overtones 5 and 6) can be found in every culture around the world.

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It is hard for me to see how this answers the question, frankly. –  Uticensis Apr 27 '11 at 10:09
Thanks, this is a great answer! –  Ben Alpert Apr 27 '11 at 22:17
+1: Great answer, sensible musically and scientifically. –  andyvn22 Apr 28 '11 at 0:54
Your explanation that "the major key is present by nature in every note that is played. Therefore, it is interpreted as normal behavior, a happy day in our lives..." could easily be rewritten as "the major key is present by nature in every note that is played. Therefore it is interpreted as redundant behavior, a monotonous day in our lives." While I agree with what you're saying regarding the science of sound, I think you are introducing your own cultural biases about consonance/dissonance. Sound is a natural phenomena, music, on the other hand, is man-made. –  seanreads Jul 13 '11 at 19:02
@seanreads True, but these overtones exist in nature, regardless of the origins of music. Therefore, we're in a way in-tune with it. The major key is pretty much understood globally to be one of happiness, it's not a culture thing. I also don't think minor should be categorized as sad, but rather as emotional. It plays with your emotions, sometimes making you feel sad, other times making you feel a sense of power. Most metal pieces are minor and quite often, they give that sense of power I'm referring to. –  MGZero Sep 21 '11 at 19:25
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They are not quite "universally" regarded as sad. For instance, in the Amazon jungle (particularly the part in Brazil) and some places in the Middle East, people use minor keys for happy songs of rejoicing. Basically, some experts argue it has to do with the qualities of natural speech. Here's an explanation:


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Yeah, I don't think they are sad by their very nature. They are just stereotyped. –  Edza Apr 26 '11 at 19:13
But then, why are they stereotyped that way? –  Ben Alpert Apr 26 '11 at 19:34
@Ben: Why is anything stereotyped? Someone somewhere claimed it was so, and everyone else believed him. I personally never understood it. It's just one of these self-perpetuating myths that few question. –  Lennart Regebro Apr 26 '11 at 20:51
@Lennart wait, someone somewhere claimed it was so and then various cultures that had no communication with each other all agreed with this opinion they could never have heard? –  Rein Henrichs Apr 28 '11 at 22:13
Happy and brooding probably aren't mutually exclusive. I might disagree that minor is necessarily sad, but I think it's universally more brooding. There's ongoing debate as to whether the Greeks' culture might have been different had they used major keys, and I'm inclined to believe that the answer is yes, either as a cause or as an effect. –  Rei Miyasaka May 10 '11 at 1:59
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I wouldn't say this is universal at all. For example, many songs in the Jewish musical tradition are written in minor modes yet convey joyful emotion. And what little I understand about Indian classical music is that it's scale-based, not key-center based.

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Yeah, a lot of cultures don't used fixed tonal centers (neither did the Western until a couple of hundred years ago). Major/minor distinctions don't really make much sense in that kind of music. –  cotroxell Apr 26 '11 at 22:10
Yes, and also songs like "We Three Kings" use it to convey a more formal tone. I see minor keys as emotional, not merely sad. –  Michael May 9 '11 at 15:11
Minor key music can convey rejoicing via energy and exuberance, but it's never "naively happy". –  Kaz Aug 11 '13 at 14:48
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This has been asked a lot on the net and it's complex to answer. It's partly cultural and partly psychological.

As Edgar Gonzales said in his answer, there's some explanation in the harmonics of the notes. What he said is correct, but he doesn't take into account temperament. Western music is based on Equal Temperament and as such, the perfect progressions of the harmonics of a note are not being respected, ruining perfect harmony.

Also, it's personal, there are many major songs that sound sad for me (in a way that disgusts me a little), and it also depends on the intetion of composer.

Personally, the major scale sound dull to me, and sometimes can be sad (in a dull way), but for me the minor scale is introspective and looking inside is something many people don't want to face (they may encounter sadness inside, I don't know).

If you want to dig into the rabbit hole, Indian Classical Music is based on the concept of Raga, a very complex one not found in Western music. It's a modal framework and as such, handles very complex "scales" and ways of travelling trough that arrangement of notes and singing melodic movements. Along with the concept of raga is the concept of Rasa, the effects and moods the raga creates on the listener, like love, heroism, introspection, wonder, and they create them on everyone universally, like musical archetypes. There are ragas that share the same Thaat (scale) but generate different rasas because of how they arrange the same notes in different melodic movements (based on a series of rules for each raga). Also can vary slightly from composition to composition. Take for example raga Asavari, Jaunpuri and raga Darbari Kanada:


Rasa: This raga evokes the moods depicting yearning for love, anguish, and melancholy. (source)


"Jaunpuri (or Yavanapuri) is a morning raga, which describes a young, sensual and beautiful woman. An ancient Sanskrit text describes her as "... fully ripe, a foreign girl. Richly dressed, her hair plaited upon her brow, she wears golden ear-rings shaped like flowers and set with precious stones. Skillful, she plays in the morning languidly, sipping the wine of grapes, letting her white limbs and lovely form be seen." (source)

Darbari Kanada

Darbari Kanada is a raga to play in the night (it was played in the court of the Akbar emperor by the mythical singer Tansen, who created that raga) and is very introspective. Some relate it to spiritual devotion.

That's an example of the shades that the same scale may have based on different factors. As you know, art deals with our wordless, subconscious, symbolic area and it can have a thousand of colors.

(There's a lot of material that I'm slowly getting into it, so anybody let me know if I made a mistake.)

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It is cultural. The ancient Greeks used a few more musical scales to denote certain moods (I'm missing my Greek history and theatre books at the moment). I'd say that minor keys sound sad because you've associated them with "sad", not that they cause humans to be sad.

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I agree with this answer. Early Christian and Byzantine music, which is still today used in the Orthodox Churches, though sometimes sad, can be very victorious and joyful. Not sure if I would use the word happy though. –  SuperMusicman Sep 19 '13 at 23:23
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I wouldn't categorize the minor scale as "sad", and I don't think it's universally sad, I would rather call it emotional or this kind of category. It's not universal because of a convention, it's just true fact that minor songs are more touching soul than major (in most cases).

The effect of the minor scale when listening to, makes you feel emotional, the human brain interprets this effect this way by nature. And this applies when played in a dance or fast songs even happy ones as well. Take Brahms Hungarian Dances for example, or zillions of Klezmer and Jewish dances that most of them are in minor, while being jolly.

So for conclusion, the right word isn't sad, but rather emotional/touching/moving.
Of course it would then be much easier to make you sad with touching scale which is minor than with major. And BTW there also many sad songs in major too.
It's not universal, it's my ears and your ears, my brain and your brain, it's nature.

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Major and Minor - the Strebetendenz-Theory

If you want to answer the question, why major sounds happy and minor sounds sad, there is the problem, that some minor chords don't sound sad. The solution of this problem is the Strebetendenz-Theory. It says, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can just convey processes of will, but the music listener fills this processes of will with emotions. Similary, when you watch a dramatic film in television, the film cannot transmit emotions directly, but processes of will. The spectator perceives the processes of will dyed with emotions - identifying with the protagonist. When you listen music you identify too, but with an anonymous will now.

If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will "I don't want anymore...". If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will "I don't want anymore..." with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words "I don't want anymore..." the first time softly and the second time loudly.

This operations of will in the music were unknown until the Strebetendenz-Theory discovered them. And therefore many previous researches in psycholgy of music failed. If you want more information about music and emotions and get the answer, why music touches us emotionally, you can download the essay "Vibrating Molecules and the Secret of their Feelings" for free. You can get it on the link: http://www.willimekmusic.homepage.t-online.de/homepage/Striving/Striving.doc

Enjoy reading

Bernd Willimek

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You wrote "This operations of will in the music were unknown until the Strebetendenz-Theory discovered them" (my italics). I think that a better word would be "proposed", as they are not something physical waiting to be discovered. –  No'am Newman Feb 23 at 7:36
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The answer is still not known. There plausible explanations but we don't know why we associate certain feelings with certain sounds in a rigorous fashion. Same holds for memory allocation for certain smells etc. So every pseudo-scientific analysis relies on certain preassumptions on the cultural habits such as Minor=sad ...

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It is generally agreed in Western music that minor is sad or serious or even melancholy, but is it the note order? I don't think so,as a thread of notes in a minor tune will contain the same sort of intervals as in a major tune. Maybe it's the implied or underlying chords that accompany the melody.Minor chords or harmony convey these feelings.Which is rather odd, as a major triad (CEG)consists of a major third and a minor third, whereas a minor triad (CEbG) contains a minor third followed by a major third, which just adds to the confusion - why should a min. chord sound any more 'minor 'than a maj. chord, seeing that both contain both intervals? So, would a diminished chord sound even more minory,(with all min.thirds) or an augmented more majory? The answer is - probably no-one knows.....

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