Is there any association of dur and moll with male and female like in European compositions to define the polarity of major and minor tonalities in orchestral works like symphonies?


To avoid any misconceptions I want to emphasize the terms dur and moll are neutral or used without article. My question concerns the qualifying them as feminine or masculine by their character in sound or historical use.

  • I wonder if Guido is right in his comment on my answer to this question: music.stackexchange.com/questions/100837/… Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 9:38
  • What values can 'tone-gender' take? Male/female, or just major/minor?
    – Laurence
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 10:56
  • I've never heard of major or minor being associated with gender. The German expression is new to me, and doesn't match any association I have.
    – Peter
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 11:06
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    You are getting confused by the fact that the German word 'Geschlecht' can be used in both cases. English speakers would never think of 'gender' in the context of tonality.
    – PiedPiper
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 11:15
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    I think the question in the title is very different from the question in the question body. The question title basically asks if there's a (single word) translation into English of the German word "Tongeschlecht". The answer is "no". When it comes to chords, the answer would be "chord quality". The question about the associations female-minor / male-major is a different one.
    – Matt L.
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 12:10

3 Answers 3


Tongeschlecht is one of those words that doesn't get translated very well (or easily) into English sources. Depending on context, it might refer to English language concepts of genus (e.g., referencing ancient Greek tetrachord tunings) or mode (whether major/minor or church modes) or (chord) quality.

In any case, none of these concepts are particularly gendered in modern English-language music theory. The Susan McClary source you quote is from her general work critiquing the use of gender concepts in music. (She wrote an entire book called Feminine Endings whose title was playing off of an old-fashioned set of terms for cadences that arrive on or off a beat.) In general, largely because of her work and others, the artificial gendering of musical concepts has been under a great deal of scholarly criticism in recent decades, so it's very unlikely that the male/female gendering of chord qualities or keys would be received well.

Anyhow, this is one of the few places you will see this brought up in professional literature on music theory (generally in direct reference to the original German sources). That's not to say that no English language theorists have used the male/female dichotomy in reference to major/minor duality, but those who do generally are assuming readers who are familiar with the original German sources that make this distinction. I don't remember what Alex Rehding says about this in the book you mention (and I don't have my copy handy) -- my recollection off the top of my head is that gendered metaphors for tonality were a little more common in English-language theory in the 19th century (as well as the "natural"/"unnatural" rhetoric McClary mentions, which comes out of 18th-century concepts about the harmonic series and the derivation of major triads). In general, the gendering of tonality (and related concepts, like male/female duality of sonata themes, the gendering of cadences already mentioned, etc.) is widely viewed with suspicion by modern English-language scholars as an artificial concept, so it hasn't gained wide currency in English.

  • That’s it! We shouldn’t forget that composers and analysts who wrote about music also have been speculating and their theories have been opinion based. Meanwhile I’m also convinced that this dichotomy is characterizing the key and tonality of a piece or a melody and is not referred to single chords. Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 3:56
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    @AlbrechtHügli: Yes, I don't mean at all to criticize these theories: they are a common development, particularly in languages that tend to use gender more freely than English. They are just metaphors that haven't found their way into English. And yes, I didn't mean to imply the term was only restricted to chords -- I know it's a broader sense of tonality.
    – Athanasius
    Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 4:05
  • I’ve edited my answer to the original question cited in the comment above. And Guidot must have been right. Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 4:15

In my studies I have not come across a gender designation concerning the quality of the Major/Minor keys. Instead, the quality is generally described as "Bright and Happy" for the Major keys and "Somber or Sad" in describing the Minor keys. However, since you posted this idea, it has started me thinking about trying to notice any gender specific aspects of Major and Minor keys. I don't know what word would be used to classify this kind of association, but I would understand what you were talking about if you were to refer to it as gender recognition. Since modes also have Major and minor aspects to them, it makes me wonder if these gender designations also apply to the modes?

  • how about genus than gender? Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 15:03
  • @Albrecht Hugli- Over here we hardly ever speak Latin whereas "gender" is easily understood. Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 15:08
  • so let's talk about sex? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_and_gender_distinction La distinction entre sexe et genre différencie le sexe (l'anatomie d'une personne, le système reproducteur, et les caractères sexuels secondaires) du genre, qui est une paire de rôles sociaux fondés sur le sexe de la personne (rôle de genre), rôles auxquels les personnes s'identifient ou non (identité de genre) What term do you use for the sex of the articles m. and f. in French (le/la) and der/die in German? Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 15:19
  • Of course, in earlier times, the major third was hard, while the minor third was soft.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 16:57
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    So maybe I should use feminine and masculine instead of male and female? or yin and yang? Btw. also in the lexicon they describe moll=weiblich, dur=männlich:lernhelfer.de/schuelerlexikon/musik/artikel/tonarten# Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 17:16

It would be surprising to me that so much of European theory (e.g. Hugo Riemann, Arnold Schoenberg, Willi Apel) has been translated to English and is well known in American music literature - but this terminology of a male and female principle of tonality and harmony shouldn't have been translated ...

If I look up for the translation of "das Tongeschlecht" the translation is mode.


and it says:

The word Tongeschlecht came up in the 18th century as a translation word for genos. In Greek music theory, this term included diatonic, chromatic and harmonica. However, these can only be equated to a limited extent with our current terms of diatonic, chromatic and harmonic.

But now I want to know what is to find in the English editon of the Riemann's Dictionnary!

and what articles have been published about this subject:

Musical Polarity: Major and Minor -

stable- music, whereas minor is artificial, intelligible only in subordination to major. ... pairs forms a conceptual whole: day-night, male-female, inhaling-exhal. ...


Hugo Riemann and the Birth of Modern Musical Thoughtbooks.google.ch › books Tone relations ( Tonverwandtschaft ) , a term from modern speculative theory , which ... those of the same harmonic gender ( both major or minor ) whose principal tones are related to ... 79 , he finally offered 197 Glossary : Riemann ' s key terms.

Suchergebnisse Webergebnisse

Susan McClary quotes A. Schönberg in her book:

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Reading Music: Selected Essays von Susan McClary

  • It is always interesting to see how others view different aspects of music. I have to admit it's a new perspective to me. Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 17:44

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