What Makes a Song Sad



Where does sad music get its sadness from? And whom should you ask—a composer or a cognitive psychologist?

Scientific American recently reported on a Tufts University study that purportedly lends experimental reinforcement to the widely accepted, albeit vague, notion that the interval of a minor third (two pitches separated by one full tone and one semi-tone) conveys sadness, in speech as in song.

From the Scientific American article, by Ferris Jabr:

Almost everyone thinks "Greensleeves" is a sad song—but why? Apart from the melancholy lyrics, it's because the melody prominently features a musical construct called the minor third, which musicians have used to express sadness since at least the 17th century. The minor third's emotional sway is closely related to the popular idea that, at least for Western music, songs written in a major key (like "Happy Birthday") are generally upbeat, while those in a minor key (think of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby") tend towards the doleful.

While there might be a loose correlation—reinforced by our particular musical tradition—between minor scales and "sadness," it's a mistake to think that the moods evoked by music can be confidently reduced to tonality in and of itself. Indeed, those recalcitrant minor key songs that defy generalization about the link between tonality and mood may tell us something more important about music than the ones that conform.

Don't forget: The main reason "Happy Birthday" sounds "upbeat" and "Eleanor Rigby" sounds "doleful" is that their composers intended that they should. And because that's what their composers obviously intended, that's the way the songs are typically performed. But there's much more than tonality that goes into evoking those moods.

Take "Eleanor Rigby." It's actually a very bad example of the idea that minor key tonality is inherently sad. The best evidence for that view would be minor key songs that are stubbornly, ineffably sad despite other song elements—lyrics, arrangements, tempo, etc.—that are emotionally neutral or positive. The worst kind of song to adduce in support of minor key determinism is one in which any sadness intrinsic to the melody gets a lot of "help" from the other parts of the song. And "Eleanor Rigby," remember, was considered a breakthrough for the Beatles precisely because it was one of their first songs of this kind, one that combined song elements in mutually reinforcing ways to create a unified artistic whole.

The dank pall enshrouding the Beatles' original recording of the song depends on a musical context broader than simply its chord progression and melody: Bleakly atmospheric story-song lyrics, obviously, and more subtly, George Martin's production, especially the chilly, staccato strings, implacably clocking the flight of time with their tick-tocking rhythms.

Still think the song's emotional valence is largely reducible to its minor tonality? Try a thought experiment. Don't change a pitch in the song's melody—but imagine it performed by a good-timey band, say Madness or the Specials: Speed up the tempo, put a ska beat under it (amazing how this change alone can transform the vibe), add steel drums, lots of horns. Substitute some lyrics that convey an un-self-conscious, slightly libidinal joie de vivre. Have a chorus of exuberant male voices sing them in unison. I tried something like this. My substitute lyrics were too embarrassing to include here, but they proved their experimental worth: The reductive view that in music the minor third is inherently sad doesn't pass the Ska Rigby Test.

It doesn't look like the interval is inherently sad in speech either. I raised the question with Gideon Rosen, a Princeton philosophy professor (and the unofficial musical director of a band I once sang in called the Mystery Dates.) As he pointed out, "The schoolyard taunt—Nah, nah na-nah, nah—begins and ends with a minor third ... but it's not sad: it's sort of hostile."

Gideon's schoolyard speech example suggests another from music, the similar melody (probably no accident) from the chorus of a famous Queen anthem: "No time for losers/Cause we are the champions ... of the world." I count 3 minor thirds here: We are/champions/of the.

"Sad?" Hardly. Try "exultantly, boastfully jeering." Another example just occurred to me as I sat strumming: Jonathan Richman's "Egyptian Reggae." Inspired by an earlier reggae song, this simple instrumental novelty is plain funny, and part of its humor seems to spring from the exotic, vaguely "Egyptian" associations its minor key melody mysteriously evokes in Western listeners. (It's even funnier if you suspect, as I do, that the source of the melody's "Middle Eastern" redolence lies in its resemblance to a ditty called "The Streets of Cairo, or the Poor Little Country Maid"—sometimes known as "The Snake Charmer Song"—composed by American entertainment impresario Sol Bloom for the popular Egyptian attraction at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.)

And then there's the interesting, equivocal case of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things." If this minor key standard exuded a dominant sadness despite the feelgood self-talk of its lyrics, it would be powerful evidence for minor determinism. But most would agree that the song is, instead, on its surface at least, almost therapeutic in its inventory of heart-gladdening pleasures like crisp apple strudel and schnitzel with noodles. (Maria has so many favorite things she has the luxury of cherry-picking ones that rhyme to sing about.) At the same time, there is a hint of melancholy shadowing the song's overtly happy face. But that shadow probably derives at least as much from Oscar Hammerstein's words as from melody and harmony. For me at least, it emanates from the lyrics' catalogue of wintry comforts like "bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens," which evoke a particular range of snug feelings that presuppose vulnerability—a sheltering, fortifying happiness salvaged from an enveloping Alpine harshness.

The shakiness of the reductive position might be more immediately apparent to anyone with even a spotty exposure (like mine) to Jewish religious music and its folk cousin, klezmer. Despite its characteristic minor tonality, this music encompasses a vast range of human emotion. How could it not? It has to cover everything from prayers for the dead to adoration of the deity.

The clinching example of minor-key mirth-compatibility just might be that jolt of delirious energy familiar to anyone who's attended a Jewish wedding ... or a baseball game: "Hava Nagila"—a Prozac sundae, ethnic folk music's answer to the umbrella drink.

Other good examples, anyone? We can compile and post here the definitive, crowd-sourced list. Better yet, if there are any musicians out there with too much time on their hands, I invite you to perform your own "Eleanor Rigby" tests: Keep the melody—alter anything else (lyrics, tempo, orchestration) at will to produce a non-sad result. Polka and zydeco settings seem especially promising to me. Email us your musical rebuttals, and we'll upload them here.

The complementary principle in tonal determinism—major key songs are "upbeat"—seems even flimsier than its minor key counterpart. Two extremely sad major key songs immediately occur to me—Charlie Rich's abject confession of failure and despair, "Feel Like Going Home," and "Boulder to Birmingham," in which a depleted Emmylou Harris seeks relief from her apathy and emotional isolation following the death of Gram Parsons by trying to commune directly with him.

The myriad exceptions to the "sad minor third" rule illustrate a perhaps banal but basic truth about music: It's irreducibly emergent. All its elements act reciprocally, and their infinitely variable interplay produces a correspondingly variable range of emotions. Obviously, if every chord came out of its original factory packaging charged with its own specific, predictable emotional valence, we wouldn't have much need for composers or musicians. Musical composition would be reduced to translation, instead of creation, and pretty much anybody could do it. Literal-minded cognitive psych professors could write music.

In a less reductive intellectual climate it might not need saying, but the emotions evoked by music can't be simply reduced to correlative harmonic or melodic intervals, and sad songs can't be reduced to intrinsically sad building blocks. "Eleanor Rigby" isn't sad because it's constructed of sad chords built from sad intervals—any more than Albert Einstein was a genius because his brain was wired with uniquely smart neurons.

If a cognitive psychologist tries to tell you the minor third interval is intrinsically, universally "sad," it's not true. If, on the other hand, she says that, well, in the right musical setting and cultural context it can help evoke an ultimately elusive range of sad or mysteriously unresolved emotions—then it's not exactly new.