When a song has both a major and a minor feel at the same time. I'm not talking about major sounding minor song or vice versa. I'm talking about a song that isn't strictly one or the other. Some examples I can think of are The Velvet Swing by Acoustic Alchemy, On The Case by Acoustic Alchemy & Body Talk by Red Velvet.

I think I need to clarify something. I'm not talking about what key a song is in, I'm talking about the tonality which isn't necessarily dictated by the key the song is in. Like how God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is in the minor but sounds major. I'm asking what would the proper term be for a song that has a mixture of major and minor tonality.

3 Answers 3


'Major/Minor' would be a good description for a tune that couldn't make up its mind whether it was in C minor or C major. That isn't the case in 'The Velvet Swing'. If it's in any key, perhaps D major? But the tune doesn't really play the dominant - tonic game that makes it useful to talk about tonal centres.

  • 1
    Would that push it into the modal camp?
    – Tim
    Oct 6, 2017 at 13:46
  • But it isn't in one mode. It switches between two modes, major and minor.
    – Laurence
    Oct 6, 2017 at 19:12
  • 1
    Most modes are like a key, in that they will contain maj and min harmonies, thus will move in and out.
    – Tim
    Oct 6, 2017 at 20:00

The general concept of a piece being in a given key has more to do with what key within a piece is considered the "home" key. This is often determined by which key is most emphasized throughout the piece. You will often find that a piece in a certain key will tend to resolve to the tonic chord at the end. There are definitely times that this doesn't happen, such as the Picardy Third or ending on a half cadence. More traditional musics tend to more commonly resolve to the tonic, while more modern music doesn't do so as strictly. More modern songs are more apt to end on a half cadence, or some other modal cadence that similarly does not resolve to tonic, or to modulate at the end of the song and end in the key of that modulation instead of modulating back to the tonic. So Classical and early Jazz pieces are more often strict in the desire to resolve to the tonic, especially pre-Romantic for Classical.

So if I were looking at a piece of music and trying to judge whether or not it makes sense to refer to it as being in both minor and major, I'd be looking for a few factors. If the piece tends to switch back and forth between the tonic being expressed as major and minor (eg, switching back and forth between C major and C minor), I would look for which sections seem the most important and feel the most resolved, particularly the ending. If those are more consistently in major or minor, I'd make my choice to say that is the overall key. I'd take the same thought process when looking at a piece that modulates between the relative major and minor (eg, C major and A minor). This is a particularly common modulation and in many circumstances, it's easy to tell which is more important/emphasized.

I would also consider what purpose placing the piece in a key is serving. If I were in a band situation, I might just communicate the opening key of the piece, so everyone knows where we're starting. I might also choose to communicate in a less formal way that the piece frequently modulates, however, modulating between the relative major/minor may be less important due to its common usage. If I were analyzing something in an academic setting, it would likely be more important to place the piece in a single key, as that is the standard. More modern Classical opens the door for an analysis calling for a mix between major and minor but would need a good argument to support it.

The one time that I can think of that would most appropriately call for an analysis of major and minor at once would be a tonality that is major and minor at the same time, ie, the harmony has both a major and minor third within the tonic of the key, which is incredibly uncommon. In a lot of those situations, it's actually a blues type of thing where the tonic is a dominant chord and the minor third is considered a #9.


"Modal mixture" (or just "mixture") is one term for when there is borrowing from F Major while in F minor, or more often the other way around, borrowing from the minor into the Major. ♭6̂ is a notable import into the Major; the lowered sixth scale degree drops nicely to the dominant by a half-step, among other advantages.

Another term is "melodic mixture" where the root of the chord is unchanged but the quality is chromatic, e.g. using the i chord instead of I in Major; this makes the mode ambiguous.

Examples of these can be found in especially Romantic composers such as Schumann "Ich Grolle Nicht" (third measure) or Schubert ("Schwanengesang" op. 23, no. 3, D. 744).

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