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So I have been tasked with trying to write a thing over a backing track written in G minor (scale is harmonic), and I have been asked if there was a way to make it sound "less dark". My question is: is there a way to overlay something on top of G harmonic minor that would "lighten it up"?

I know that the relative major is Bb Major (harmonic), but that doesn't really do any good because it's just the same notes in a different order. Is it even possible to stack something on top of a minor scale/key that will help it sound "happy"? (Person I'm helping doesn't know music theory, so all I have to go off of is "happy" & "sad".) In my head, once the key is picked, you can't really add on top of that to change the tone/feeling, but I really don't have a clue what I'm talking about when it comes to theory.

(I know very BASIC theory so I'm hoping there are some music/music theory nerds out here that can help figure this out. I can understand a decent amount, but I am self taught so there are gigantic gaping holes in my knowledge once you leave a major scale. A simple "yes or no" is fine, but I'm actually kind of (extremely) interested in this question as a general curiosity so any extra explanation and/or links would be amazing!)

Thanks in advance for anyone that can help!

Backing track link below

youtube.com/watch?v=xWG4dEzxTlo

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    Happy/sad or dark/bright are the usual antonym pairs when comparing major and minor. Ignoring that part, what is usually connected to the somewhat dampened sound quality of "natural" minor lies in the minor sixth in the scale. You could try the "happy minor" scale (aka dorian). Just exchange the minor sixth for the major sixth. After some more hearing practice one can realize that a lot of popular tunes in minor are actually dorian in parts. – cherub Oct 2 at 14:54
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    Does it have to be the harmonic minor scale (harmonic minor isn't a key)? If not, melodic and natural minors use different notes, while still being 'minor'. There's also a couple of modes that are 'minor'. Take a listen to various songs in minor keys. They don't all sound sad! – Tim Oct 2 at 14:55
  • If you use the major subdominant (C) instead of c minor it will be lightened up, or you can change the rhythm and make it more joyful a la Turkey. – Albrecht Hügli Oct 2 at 15:06
  • UPDATE: (Probably should have linked the backing track initially youtube.com/watch?v=xWG4dEzxTlo. Take a listen cuz it's a pretty cool piece and so that my point makes a little more sense) My biggest issue is that the composer of the backing track (which was not me) has an extremely strong emphasis on the # 6 (F#) and actually has a string section rocks back and forth from the G to the F#. I cannot edit the original and have no idea how to take away the focus on the F#. Honestly sounds like we may just need to find another track. – Tony Oct 2 at 18:17
  • I'd actually think that a substantial amount of what makes a tune sound dark or light is its instrumentation and its octave voicing. It's quite a bit harder to make anything sound darker on a piccolo or lighter when played by a heavy metal band, for instance (although both can make consonant tunes sound ridiculous). – Dekkadeci Oct 2 at 18:18

11 Answers 11

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Neither major nor minor need be light nor dark. During early days of keys (as opposed to modes) and through the baroque era, composers tended to write about half major and half minor key pieces. The classical era composers wrote mostly (maybe 75%) or so major key works but their minor key stuff tends to be more dramatic than sad.

One method of countering the popular conception is by using more quickly moving notes. Speeding the entire piece is good to. Quick harmonic rhythm works; change chords every 2 beats or every beat (irregularly is good too). Another thing to try melodically is some leaps (most upward) followed by quick moving backfills. Slow moving melodies tend to emphasize sadness (if the rest of the music doesn't contradict it). Quickly moving melodies, not so much. Repeated quick notes (eighth notes in normal tempi) play staccato also tend away from sadness. Perhaps something like a descending scale melody in quarter notes; each quarter divided into staccato eights; then displaced a half beat early. One gets a chain of suspensions which emphases the melodic rather than harmonic aspects of the melody.

Just play around until something sounds good.

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Just a quick-fire answer, cos theory isn't my strong suit, but try this…

  • More 'mysterious', use a lot of 2nds - so your Gm features a lot of A.

  • More 'neutral', use 4ths - adding C

  • More 'sad or wistful' - Use minor 7s - so you feature F

You can push those right through as your chords change & it will hang onto that feel.
Depending on exactly what your structure is, you can try pedalling some of those so they become common tones - whether or not they belong in the simple minor or not & whether they change function or not. The repetition can lend emphasis to your key centre.

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A couple other suggestions:

  • Blues tonality (Blues music tends to come across as less dark than just straight harmonic minor, at least if you do it right)
  • Temporary emphasis on the relative major (in A minor, C major)
  • Natural minor, as User Tetsujin already mentioned, but in general, there are other minor scales that sound less dark. To me, minor pentatonic is less dark than natural minor. Dorian is less dark than natural minor.
  • Swing/shuffle (this seems to lend a sort of energy or motion to the song that may result in it sounding less "dark")
  • Seventh chords (again, subjective, but Am7 sounds less dark to some people than Am).
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A lot of the answers so far seem to miss the point that you've been given a backing track. You're stuck with it. What does it contain? Backing tracks normally include the chords, bass line and rhythm, so you're not going to be able to change any of those. The most you can do is write a sprightly melody.

If I've misunderstood the nature of the backing track, please give better details. Perhaps even find a way to let us hear it.

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If you go with your idea of using the relative major, B♭ major, then another thing you can do is to use chords of d minor in preference to D major. It might sound backwards, using a minor chord instead of a major one to make your music sound less minor, but here's the thing: D major chords suggest the key g minor because it's the dominant of g minor, and leads towards the chord of g minor. But d minor chords suggest the key B♭ major instead, because a piece in g minor will generally have D major chords, not d minor.

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Most importantly, avoid accented dissonance.

Next, I think harmony is going to be your friend here. The backing track's harmony is rather sparse and therefore somewhat ambiguous, so there's plenty of room for you to steer the mood with how you choose to harmonize the melodies.

I know that the relative major is Bb Major (harmonic), but that doesn't really do any good because it's just the same notes in a different order. Is it even possible to stack something on top of a minor scale/key that will help it sound "happy"?

Keys are more than just collections of notes. Even though they use the same notes, G Minor and Bb Major sound different. Yes, you can play Bb Major over G Minor, and yes, this will make it sound less dark.

Here are some harmonic ideas which might help. These work because they are diatonic, ie native to G Minor, so they won't sound too exotic or dissonant.

  • Use Bbmaj as your tonic chord instead of Gmin. If you're harmonizing a G or Bb, use Bbmaj. "But Bbmaj doesn't contain G" you say. True, so it's really more of a Bbmaj6. You can assert this by keeping Bb in the bass.
  • Use D7 as your dominant chord. D is the dominant of G Minor anyway, so nothing strange here. But I specifically recommend making it a dominant 7th chord, which to my ears at least make it sound brighter. If you're harmonizing a D, F#, A, or C, use D7.
  • When neither Bbmaj nor D7 works, try Ebmaj. This will harmonize the Eb which is featured in the backing track's melody. It will also harmonize G and Bb, and can be used instead of Bbmaj if that sounds better to you.

The theoretical basis for this is chord function and chord substitution. Basically, there are 3 functions: tonic, subdominant, and dominant. In any given key, each function will be strongly associated with a particular chord. In G Minor, these will be Gmin, Cmin, and Dmaj, respectively. This is a basic i iv V progression, and lots of music uses it. But it's kind of vanilla. Other chords can substitute for these chords, serving the same function while providing a different flavour. The simplest chord substitution is to use the diatonic chord found a 3rd away, either up or down. This is called a mediant relationship. My suggestions use III in the tonic function (instead of i), and VI in the subdominant function.

major

  • tonic: I (vi, iii)
  • subdominant: IV (ii, vi)
  • dominant: V (vii*, iii)

minor

  • tonic: i (VI, III)
  • subdominant: iv (ii*, VI)
  • dominant: V (vii*)

(Note there is some overlap between the categories, so context is important.)

You could go for more exotic sounds by borrowing notes and chords from other keys. This is called chromaticism. Technically, in G Minor, D7 is borrowed from G Major, but it's so common that we don't hear it that way anymore. But make note of how taking the natural minor scale and raising the 7th scale degree has made it sound less dark. And if you raise the 6th scale degree too -- which makes the melodic minor scale -- it gets brighter still. You can carry this idea further. By making flattened notes natural, or natural notes sharp, you're brightening the sound. There are 2 more or less equivalent ways to think about this. You can either think modally, recognizing that some modes are darker than others, or you can think in terms of key relationships and the circle of 5ths. If you're more comfortable with the circle of 5ths, you want to borrow notes/chords from sharper keys, ie those that have more sharps (or fewer flats). If you're more comfortable with modes, borrow notes/chords from the less flat/more sharp modes.

the modes from dark (most flat) to bright (most sharp)

  • locrian
  • phrygian
  • aeolian (aka natural minor scale)
  • dorian
  • mixolydian
  • ionian (aka major scale)
  • lydian

This idea is fraught with peril though, because as you add chromatic notes (ie notes foreign to the key) you are more likely to run into dissonance, so be careful. Also keep in mind that notes/chords borrowed from distantly related keys will sound more foreign than those borrowed from closely related keys.

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For minor music that doesn't sound "dark," think of Klaus Badelt's music for Pirates of the Caribbean. As ttw said, the rhythm moves more quickly. It also uses lots chords from the relative major (B-flat for you).

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Lots of good answers already, but I wanted to add another idea. I like to throw in the Dorian note/chord periodically sometimes, which lightens up the tone without moving you out of the key.

In G Minor you have an Eb, but in G Dorian that E is natural. So you can play a C major chord and go back to G Minor when you're done, or you can use it as a passing tone after playing a D.

G Dorian by itself is already a nice minor-ish sounding mode that's lighter, but we all want to get back to the Eb chord eventually :)

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Very simple answer. Use a descending bass line starting at the root. (Like in 'Stairway to Heaven', 'My Funny Valentine', 'Prelude to a Kiss', etc) It's very easy to write some nice melodic lines over that.

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Change all F# notes to F, so it becomes less melancholic. With F# there's like Gm and D7, Gm's dominant. But with F it's not as melancholic because the dominant feeling isn't so strong.

I made the change for you with Melodyne's trial version

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The tonality of the backing track is clearly minor.

Trying to get a minor key piece to sound less dark will be a problem if darkness is equated with minor. From that perspective all solutions amount to: change the tonality.

Tempo and rhythm create mood too. Work with those elements instead of harmony/tonality. I assume a tempo change isn't an option so try rhythms which are playful. An example to look at is the opening of Debussy's Dance of Puck. It's minor tonality but playful. It isn't a perfect example - the tempo if faster than your backing track and the exact tonality isn't harmonic minor - but the idea is minor and a light-hearted mood.

If long note values and even rhythms are characteristic of a serious mood, try working from the opposite perspective. Try quick rhythms, dotted values, syncopation, unexpected rests. That kind of stuff should change up the mood to something lighter.

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