Major is not happy, minor is not sad, and we all need to stop using these qualifying adjectives to describe harmony. Long have I cerebrated the attachment of emotions to music. I cannot deny that music has emotive capabilities, but I would argue that our senses are entangled with lived experiences. Yet, educators, even at tertiary level, still teach the happy and sad approach to intervallic relationships.

As a smarmy first year university student, I really did give my aural skills teacher a hard time. I remember him sitting at the piano and playing C4, E4, and G4, a set of notes that nearly every person on the planet would have heard as an non-threatening alert tone prior to a public announcement.
“Brae, what’s that sound?” The tone of his voice suggests this is a facile query.
“It’s a piano,” I respond, with an irrepressible grin. This is the relationship I have with my teacher; delinquent student versus the master of humdrummery. The burden of having a good aural education at a secondary level affects my mood in this mandatory class; this is when I point out the flaw in major and minor intervallic structures and their implied emotions.
“Excuse me [name omitted], C to A is a major interval and A to C is a minor interval. Can you explain how the same notes can sound happy or sad depending on their inversion?” No answer. And to be honest, that’s a great answer.

“How do we describe an interval?” you may ask. And this is also valid, because we can describe intervals in many ways. Distance is a fairly common way of conveying transposition, for example; when transposing a concert chart on a B-flat instrument, I think ‘up a tone’. But if you hear a compound interval, like a augmented 11th (also, depending on your outlook, known as a diminished 12th, or sharp 11, or tri-tone/flat 5/ sharp 4 plus and octave) you’d be lucky to find someone who instantly responds with “9 tones” or “18 semitones.” That doesn’t mean there aren’t capabilities for educating oneself, and others, to respond that way. However, no matter how exact this method of measuring intervals is numerically, it doesn’t account for the variety of temperaments that exist that aren’t measurable in semi-tones. For example: Pythagorean, Just Intonation, Mean-tone, and Equal Temperament can all be expressed in different ratios. Whilst I understand that this is neither the most simple way to express an interval or series of intervals, it is the likely the most accurate. All of these systems, though, share the same ratio value for an octave – 2:1.

There are other commonalities: both Pythagorean and Just Intonation share the same ratio for a tone (9:8), a perfect fourth (4:3) and perfect fifth (3:2) – at least with ‘C’ as the tonic (1:1). However, in an attempt to iron-out the discrepancies of intervallic relationships when modulating between key centres (the very idea of which makes me nauseous) the Western music world created equal temperament, where a tone can always be expressed by the ratio 20,000:17,818 (for example A4=440Hz, 440x(20,000/17,818)=493.88… or B4). So, yes! There is a way to accurately convey intervals without pigeonholing them into what colour, mood, emotion, or chakra-altering vibration they are commonly associated with. Done. But…if you’re six years old and not a prodigious acoustics polymath, this method has more holes than an old pair of undies.

We can say A4=440Hz, but show me an acoustic musician who claims to have only ever played A=440Hz (and not a decimal under or over that) and I’ll show you a liar. Electronically generated music has given us penultimate control over pitch, and in turn provided electronic musicians with near-limitless capabilities of intervallic relationships. It’s possible to punch in 440Hz and let the machine do the damn thing; but then, why play in equal temperament?! And does 20,000:17,817 sound happier or sadder than 20,000:17,818?! If we were to implement this mathematical fuckery, we would have to reeducate musicians with number systems that are extremely dense and complicated; it takes a savant to distinguish between 81:64 (Pythagorean Major 3rd) and 20:16 (Mean-tone Major 3rd), and this still has no bearing on what might put me in a better mood than I am right now (furious and confused, in case you were wondering).

Maybe the emotional sentiment of music is not my concern? I mean, the thought that major is happy and minor is sad irks me to no end, but the idea that intervals have implied diatonicism grinds my gears too. Yet, the education I’ve received ingrains the principles of major and minor intervals and harmony. This internal (now external, thanks for reading) struggle is real.

This may boil down to a theme in contemporaneous music: is tonality relevant any more? Not to say we should all strive to create music which abandons previous theories of harmony, but perhaps we should reconsider the language we use to present musical ideas. The terms ‘major’ and ‘minor’ are outdated. Music has changed so significantly within the last century, and a great portion of terminologies and nomenclatures have as well. There are terms still inherent in music education at the highest academic level that should be history; the ideas behind major and minor intervals could be one of them. Major and minor harmony is, however, still in many ways infallible as a definition, and I couldn’t tell you where to begin to explain why that is. I guess that major and minor makes sense in the music theory canon for various ideas when separated from the context of a work (a major chord, but the song is still in a minor key; a major sixth between C and A, but it’s in an A minor chord; etc.). I digress… this is not my business.

The part of theory that needs to be unequivocally exterminated is this: major and minor are not emotions. Insinuating that music has any certain emotive capability is a matter for conjecture at best. I think the association between “major and minor = happy and sad” is but a fragment of a systemic problem; the understanding that music is not an emotional pursuit, but an intellectual one. Having said that, I wouldn’t dare suggest that a musician is unable to express themselves through the medium of music. By all means, write about heartbreak and puppies and vomit and rainbows; just don’t tell me what to feel about it, because I don’t care. That’s not what I listen for in music. Sometimes it affects me in an emotional way, most times it doesn’t.

Musicians need to understand that this method of teaching harmony has a stranglehold on the capabilities of music outside of major and minor diatonicism. This is not to say ‘tonality is dead’; that is not my intention. Atonality is certainly as emotively capable as any music I’ve heard. Arnold Schoenberg’s Three Songs for Low Voice and Piano (Op. 48) broke my heart the first time I heard it, as much as Human Feel’s Fuss made me smile from ear to ear and The Smashing Pumpkin’s Today makes me go blank while tears well up in the back of my throat. None of that has to do with major or minor. Schoenberg constructs beautiful melodies. Human Feel explore rhythmic devices which make me move like a child with a sugar problem. And it’s hard to be happy when the lyric “Pink ribbon scars, that never forget, I tried so hard, to cleanse these regrets” refers to a multitude of suicide attempts. So, why teach emotive responses when you can just teach major and minor harmony? Easy answer: don’t.

Don’t tell anyone what to feel about music. Imagine if we taught impressionable youths that certain foods taste happy or sad, or that the touch of silk is angry. Sounds totally fucked, right? Then why are we doing it with sound? Music isn’t a biologically threatening quality to malleable minds. So, to educators, to composers, to musicians, and to critics – stop ruining music by telling people how to feel it. Let them think again.


One thought on “The Displeasure of Major Harmony

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