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Recently I had seen a great TED talk by Benjamin Zander in which he says (about Chopin's 4th prelude):

...... The first note is a B. [plays B] The next note is a C. [plays C] The job of the C is to make the B sad [plays BCBCBC], and it does, doesnt it? Composers know that; if they want sad music, they'll just play those two notes. [plays Mozart's 40th symphony transposed to E minor as an example (CBB,CBB,CBBG....)] .........

I'm trying to understand this in the context of music theory, I can think of two reasons:

  1. The composer, by using those notes makes it clear to the listener that it is a minor key (otherwise it would have been B and C#) and minor keys are (usually) perceived as sad.

  2. The B and C form a minor 2nd interval which is dissonant and hence we perceive it as sad.

However I am not so sure about these reasons, here are the objections:

  1. If it is melodic minor instead of natural minor it would have been B and C#, same as the major key, but even the melodic minor is sad.

  2. Even the Major 2nd interval is dissonant yet it is present in the major scale and doesn't sound sad.

So can you please help me and clear my doubts?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Dom Aug 2 at 12:39

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    I think that it is a mistake to ascribe such qualities as "happy" or "sad" to intervals, at least without context. Consider that the "Jaws" theme by John Williams starts with sequence of minor 2nds, and that composition is not sad at all; it is terrifying. I would suggest thinking in terms of movement of the notes in your example. No real harmonic framework has yet been established, but the minimal movement may suggest calm, or lethargy, or melancholy, etc., to be fleshed out in the composition. – David Bowling May 17 '17 at 13:22
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    Can someone provide the harmonic context? Is this TI>DO in minor? Is it MI>FA in major? Is it a resolving non-chord tone? Etc. Etc. Surely the answer lies in the harmonic treatment. – Michael Curtis May 17 '17 at 13:39
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    Downvoters rarely can or do explain. It's one of the frustrating vagaries of the site. Life would be so much more enlightened if they did - or could. And no, it wasn't me. I'd have backed up with a reason! There is substance within your question, although I think the answers will be somewhat subjective. – Tim May 17 '17 at 14:01
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    @Kartik "I just want some explanation of a statement made by a famous musician" There is a well known statement in science and engineering: the plural of "anecdote" is not "data". Zander is entitled to his opinions, but that doesn't turn them into "universal truths". Finding a few (or a few hundred!) counter-examples for yourself will be more instructive than believing everything that "famous people" tell you. – user19146 May 17 '17 at 15:16
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    @Kartik - I downvoted, because the question itself is not really that good, or on topic. It probably belongs on Skeptics. We have had various questions on why a particular sequence, key, chord or whatever sounds "sad" and there is no answer, because nothing sounds sad to everyone. It's all about culture - in the west, many people find minor chords sad and it seems to be from a long term cultural use of minor chord in sad songs. Many others do not find this sad - like myself, for example. – Doktor Mayhem May 18 '17 at 7:18
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According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pianto, the C-B passage you refer to is an example of a Pianto, which is a descending minor second motif associated with laments, weeping, and sighing (and often tied to lyrics with that sad topic).

(It's not 100% convincing to me, either, but it must work for enough of the people often enough...)

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The C–B, in the context of the Chopin E-minor Prelude, are scale-degrees (♭)6 and 5.

Mozart 40, in G minor, begins with E♭–D, also scale-degrees (♭)6 and 5.

Thus both of these half steps function the same way in their respective keys, so when Zander transposes Mozart 40 to E minor, the E♭–D becomes C–B.

So although this interval is a half step, it's more about this half step and its function in a minor key.

He's being tongue-in-cheek by saying that "to sound sad all you have to do is play scale-degrees 6 and 5 in a minor key." But there is some truth to it: as Dekkadeci says, this half step has traditionally been equated with a sighing gesture throughout history.

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    The OP quoted the speaker as playing C and B then saying "Composers know that; if they want sad music, they'll just play those two notes." That's a silly notion, that those 2 particular pitch classes indicate sadness. By paraphrasing that as "to sound sad all you have to do is play scale-degrees 6 and 5 in a minor key." you've turned it into a statement which has a point, as Dekkadeci pointed out. – Rosie F May 18 '17 at 7:13
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I think it's more of a question as to where those notes C and B are in the scale of the key. C-B invoke a sort of sad sound in E minor, that never appears with C-B in G or C major. That said, the maj. = happy, min. = sad syndrome does have a very large following...

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This is wild over-generalization. The plural of "anecdote" is not "data".

As an obvious counter-example, listen to "Fučík's well known march "Entry of the Gladiators" - nothing sad about that, but it's full of descending semitones.

You can find a hundred more counter-examples yourself - and that will be more instructive than believing everything that "famous people" tell you!

  • 1
    Yes I know ... Though I completely agree with you ... But I want to point out that sometimes instead of finding counterexamples to every rule it is better to understand the rule itself and then the counterexamples become special cases to be studied seperately. Like you should understand Newton's third law first and only later try to understand why it fails for elecromagnetic forces :) – Kartik May 17 '17 at 16:01
  • "The plural of "anecdote" is not "data"." Will add that to my list. – user1803551 May 17 '17 at 16:15
  • There's some difference between a couple of minor seconds playing, and a long succession as in your example. I'm sure the harmonies that go with each will also have differing effects. – Tim May 17 '17 at 16:18
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    @Kartik-- The point is, there are so many counter-examples to the claim that an interval of a semitone leads to a feeling of saddness that it can not be a rule. The point you make about Newton III is a red-herring; these are different domains, and different conceptions of "rule", at the very least. – David Bowling May 17 '17 at 17:07
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Zander is a very charismatic communicator. He can get very enthusiastic over demonstrating a particular music effect. He was not suggesting (or shouldn't have been suggesting :-) that B and C have special significance in ALL contexts.

But look at 10'30" in this one for another B and C. Perhaps there IS something in the idea...

(Have you seen his demonstration that we play Beethoven's 'Moonlight' far too slow? Fascinating.)

  • Well yes there is probably something deeper here ...... I didn't see his demonstration for moonlight but I have seen it for Bach's prelude in C ..... In fact I had figured out the same thing about an year earleir than seeing his videos :) It was nice to see that someone as great as Ben Zander agrees with me. – Kartik May 17 '17 at 14:36

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