What is the difference between "major" and "minor" in music? Is it just a question of mood - whether a song is happy or sad? Or is there something else to it?
First, let's take a look at the technical side of Major and Minor:
The distinction between major and minor is one of the fundamental concepts in Western music theory. A major key, like C major, is based on the major scale, a series of half steps and whole steps that follow a particular pattern - but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Let's start with something smaller - a major and minor third - and compare them. The "third" is an interval in music. An "interval" is the distance between any two notes, for example C and E. Intervals are measured in half steps (or whole steps, since 2 half steps make a whole step). “Half steps” are two notes that are the closest to each other in pitch. On the piano, a white note and the black note that's right next to it are a half step apart: for example, C to C-sharp. C to D would be a whole step since we had to skip a black note to get there.
In the case of C to E we have 2 whole steps, one from C to D and then another from D to E. (This is also the equivalent of 4 half steps). We call this interval a "major third" because they are exactly 2 whole steps apart. This is also one of the most common intervals found in music - in every sort of music you can imagine. Check out the dots on the keyboard:
Let's take a different interval - let's go from C to E-flat. This is a shorter distance because we have a whole step from C to D, but then there's only a half step from D to E-flat, since E-flat is a half step below E (flats by definition are a half-step below the note for which they're named: for example, E-flat is the black note just left of white note E). We call this interval, from C to E-flat, a "minor third" because these two notes are 1 and 1/2 steps (or 3 half steps) apart. This is one of the other most commonly found intervals in music. More dots:
Comparing these two intervals, the "major third" and the "minor third" is interesting. For one thing, they are just a small difference in distance, but the sound they produce is very different. Also, they are the foundation for major and minor triads (3-note chords) which are used in every sort of music from rock, pop, jazz to folk and classical.
If you play a major chord, for example a C major chord (or "C chord") on a guitar or at the piano, you have within the chord the "major third" we just described. On the other hand, if you play a minor chord, for example C minor, you have in that chord the "minor third" we talked about. [Note: There's another important interval called a Fifth, which, in the C Chord would be from C to G.] Here are the notes of the C chord:
Now listen to the C major chord (above) - how does it sound? Next, play the C minor chord (below) and listen - what's the difference? Many people say the major chord sounds "brighter" or even happy while the minor chord sounds "darker" or maybe sad. Do you agree? Well, that is something of a mystery, especially when you consider that fact that the only difference between the two is one little half step.
So, what is at the heart of this difference between major and minor? Is it just the mood? Can we say that a song that is happy and upbeat will be in a major key, while a song that is sad and melancholy will be in a minor key? Well, I've found that it's not that simple as you'll see in my song list below. Most songs have both major and minor chords in them. Technically, the difference is in the interval, as we saw above: the major interval is larger while the minor interval is smaller. But why should that matter?
Another factor is what key the song is in. The “key” has to do with the chords used in the song and also the notes of the melody. Songs are usually either in a major key or a minor key. For example, you could say a song is “in C minor”. Without getting into the details, a clue to what key a song is in lies within what chord the song starts and ends with. For example, a song that starts and ends with a C minor chord most likely is in the key of C minor - lots of exceptions to this, but it tends to be the case more often than not.
Here’s a list of songs! First some really popular tunes that I also think are great. I’ll give the artist, title, whether it’s in a major key or a minor key and the mood (which is my own opinion, of course!).
Elton John – “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” – sad (but resolved) song in a major key – this one is actually a little tricky because the chord progression is fairly complex.
Adele – “Someone Like You” - sad song but it's in a major key - however there are a fair number of minor chords in there. Interestingly, a lot of sad songs happen to be in a major key. Adele's voice is what makes this so great.
Eurhythmics – “Sweet Dreams (are made of this)” - upbeat song in a minor key - a little mystery - not really happy or sad. Come to think of it, I haven’t found too many songs that I would call truly “happy” in a minor key.
Eagles – “Hotel California” - beautiful lamenting in a minor key. Kinda sad.
Beatles - “Yesterday” - sad song in a major key.
Bob Dylan – “Blowin’ in the Wind” - folk song in a major key, kind of a sad sentiment.
Janis Joplin – “Piece of My Heart” - medium rock, major key. Mad and rockin'.
And here are some of my personal favorites (!):
Jimi Hendrix – “Purple Haze” - upbeat in a minor key, just rockin', weird and mysterious.
The Doors – “Break on Thru” - upbeat minor key, rockin' and jazzy. Kinda mysterious also.
The Cure – “Just Like Heaven” - upbeat major key, pretty happy. Rockin'.
John Lennon – “Imagine” - major key but sad and slow.
Mazzy Star – “Fade Into You” - sad song in a major key.
Tommy Santee Klaws – “Straight Lines” – minor key, beautiful, kinda sad but there’s a glimmer of hope. (I’m a huge fan of Tommy’s).
Bill Withers – “Grandma’s Hands” – wonderful song in a minor key, slow, a little sad.
or Bill Withers – “You Can’t Just Laugh it Away” – lovely sad/happy (?) song in a major key.
Sonic Youth – “Teenage Riot” - happy song (finally!) in a major key. Upbeat and rockin’ (after the weird intro).
Twisted Sister - "We're Not Gonna Take it" - Wow, really dated (1984!) but it's a happy one - major key and rockin' - a lot of fun.
Beatles – “Let it Be” - sad slow song in major key.
Gershwin – “A Foggy Day” – slow and a little sad in a major key. I like Oscar Peterson’s version on his “Easy Walker” album.
Beethoven – Pathetique Sonata, 2nd movement, "Adagio cantabile" - Ok not a “song” per se, but sad, beautiful, and in a major key.
So the next time you listen to a song - ask yourself what mood or feeling the song conveys - and then, find out what chords the song has and whether it starts with a minor chord or a major chord or what combination of major and minor the song uses - also what key the song is in..
The mystery to the mood of the song may be found in the chords..