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This is an old Scottish folk song. Why does it sound so sad, even though it is in a major key, and doesn't use any of the typical tricks songwriters use to make major keys sound sad (i.e. IV-iv-I)?

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  • I count 5.5 bars of major, 4.5 bars of minor chords, so not a huge difference. And it doesn't particularly sound 'sad' to me. Sad sounding is pretty subjective. And, words will always have a bearing on feelings in a song.
    – Tim
    Commented May 16 at 8:56
  • What does it sound to you Tim? Commented May 16 at 9:08
  • Just another Celtic folk song, telling a story.
    – Tim
    Commented May 16 at 10:19
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    Does this answer your question? How does James Bay's song Let it Go sound sad in a Major key? Commented May 16 at 11:33
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    The real answer is that the idea that “major keys sound happy” is completely unfounded. Same with “minor keys sound sad”. Commented May 16 at 12:14

2 Answers 2

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I'd say it balances between sadness, but with a sense of pride and acceptance of bad fortune, as well.

Melodically and harmonically, I find it ingenious. The first stanza is very much 1/4/5 and the melody establishes the key centre rather strongly - with a rather martial feel (as fits the subject matter).

However, the next phrase starts firmly in the relative minor - a mixture of 6, 2 and 3 minor chords (which are the 1/4/5 of the relative minor). There is no real modulation, just bang, straight into it - then back to major but the phrase extended, and leaving us hanging on a four chord - before getting back to the original major key centre with a phrase of unexpected length.

So although the song is basically in major key, the melody and harmony produce a sense of shifting between major and minor, or a certain unexpectedness (from the uneven phrase lengths and "hanging" false cadence), suggesting military resolve sent awry by events, and also a reaction to those events.

I enjoy these types of songs, which create emotional depth without resorting to harmonic complexity, using only the major scale notes but still managing to create richness. Good stuff.

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  • I think "Major keys sound martial." is older and more correct than "Major keys sound happy."
    – Theodore
    Commented May 17 at 14:44
  • ...and don't forget the influence of tempo and rhythm!
    – Theodore
    Commented May 17 at 14:46
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Because key and emotion are two things that have little to do with each other.

Consider these two songs:

I Dreamed a Dream, from Les Misérables,

and Le rossignol anglais, by Hugues Aufray. (In case you don't understand the lyrics, the singer is asking his lady friend to let him stay the night in her bed.)

The heartbreaking lament is in major key; the merry racy song is firmly in minor.

This is not incredibly uncommon. There may be a slight correlation between key and emotion, but it's so small that it's much closer to the truth to say there's none at all than to pretend that "major songs are happy and minor songs are sad". Not to mention that there are more than two emotions that can be expressed in a song.

And as mentioned in the comments, a large part of expressing oneself in a song is the lyrics. Just compare The Wearing of the Green with The Orange and the Green.

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