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If you listen to James Bay's - Let it Go, it sounds sad yet written in major key. In general, not just for this song, what in theory makes this happen?

I've read people suggesting flat majors make a subtle difference but after transposing the song to another major (c-major) in hooktheory, https://www.hooktheory.com/theorytab/view/james-bay/let-it-go, I find it still has some sadness to it.

Could you please explain how this is done? How does someone make this choice? Is it in the melody, chords, or a combination of the two? Chord progression?

  • How would someone use music theory to compose a piece in this way? There is this example I found on youtube which shows minor (sad) songs made happy, youtube.com/watch?v=CAXrgl_oF-8 . – Kay Bei Oct 9 at 6:10
  • Perhaps this answer: music.stackexchange.com/questions/15704/… – Aaron Oct 9 at 6:15
  • Re. the suggestions about duplicates above: subjectively, though the lyrics are melancholy, I don't think the 'sad' feel of the song mentioned here comes solely from the lyrics. – topo Reinstate Monica Oct 9 at 8:35
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    "major = happy; minor = sad" is almost entirely false (especially on the minor side of it) – Peter Smith Oct 9 at 11:03
  • @topoReinstateMonica the examples are different, but the reasoning is the same. All the answers linked touch on that and from the accepted answer: "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." This being marked as a dupe make a lot of sense. – Dom Oct 11 at 0:19
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Pinpointing a specific emotion in music is a fraught endeavor. Maybe it's "sad"... or maybe it's "ennui"... or a hundred other shades of grey on a spectrum of emotions.

I think it's simple enough to say generically it's emotional. It is expressive. Both in the vocal part and the guitar part.

It's also in a slow tempo.

Slow tempo and expressive performance are a sure formula for emotional music.

If one insist on major=happy/minor=sad, I would say: slow & expressive in a minor key can easily convey misery, sorrow, tragic, etc quite different from sad. Slow & expressive in major (this music may actually play ambiguously with major/minor as much pop music does) can shift away from a tragic feeling where "sad" might be more like lonely, reminiscent, pensive, melancholic, etc. etc.

...what in theory makes this happen?

In terms of textbook volume a typical theory book is a harmony textbook, but that doesn't mean all of theory, all of music study, is about harmony. It can become a distraction from the obvious: tempo and dynamics are powerful means to create emotion.

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  • any book recommendations on harmony?:) – Kay Bei Oct 28 at 14:29
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'Keys' are a very basic concept, suitable for getting your bearings and knowing which notes you should be sharpening/flattening. But to say that a song is in a particular 'key' is often quite a simplified description of its tonality, and not necessarily a good guide to how something is going to 'feel'.

If you are familiar with classical music, you may see a piece described as being in a certain key, and yet when you listen, you find it navigates through all sorts of different tonal feels - maybe even identifiably settling in some completely different keys for a while.

If what we want to talk about is the feel of the song, and not just what notes are in the scale, the verse of Let it go cannot be well-described as being in a major key. The chord progression very much centers around the Bb minor chord. We only hear a definite coming home to the major root once we get to the chorus, and by that time the minor mood and sad lyrics have set up an altogether different mood.

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    The song's I-IV-vi-V chord loop results in multiple clear-as-day statements of the major tonic including the very first chord of the song. It is unambiguously major. – Peter Smith Oct 9 at 10:58
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    @PeterSmith - at 0:46 it becomes unambiguously minor. And since every key has 3 major and 3 minor chords available, it's not a defining moment to take a couple of chords in a sequence for an answer. Many, many songs weave in and out. But minor doesn't have to = sad anyway. – Tim Oct 9 at 11:38
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    @Tim It resolves deceptively and hangs around the minor chord for a couple of bars before the chorus, sure. The overwhelming majority of the song is unambiguously major and frankly I'm not convinced those pre-chorus bars constitute a modulation. My point is that this answer, "it's sad because it's not actually major", is incorrect. – Peter Smith Oct 9 at 11:41
  • @PeterSmith Where do you think the answer here says that the song is "not actually major"? That very much wasn't the point I was trying to make. – topo Reinstate Monica Oct 9 at 14:32
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    "Cannot be well-described as being in a major key. The chord progression very much centers around the Bb minor chord... we only hear a definite coming home to the major root once we get to the chorus" is false regardless of whether "not actually major" is an unfair summary of those claims. – Peter Smith Oct 9 at 14:42

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