Being happy in a minor key not so common these days
While there are many ways to weave emotion into music, two of the simplest are tempo and key. Happy tunes mostly have fast tempos and major keys. Sad songs often have slow tempos and minor keys.
To prove this, University of Toronto professor Glenn Schellenberg set up an experiment. He asked a graduate student to identify Top 40 songs that match these criteria. Finding happy songs from the 1960s and ' 70s was easy. “ The Beatles' “She Loves You” has a fast tempo and a major key. But, with each successive decade, the hunt turned up fewer and fewer examples.
“When it came to contemporary music, it was really hard to find unambiguously happy-sounding music,” says Schellenberg.
Looking at more than 1,000 Billboard hits since 1965, his team found that the average song has become longer, slower, and less happy-sounding. The share of major-key songs dropped from 85 percent of pop hits in the 1960s to just 42 percent in the 2000s.
What happened? Schellenberg says that pop culture seems to have developed an aversion to saccharin-sounding music. Many popular songs now mismatch tempo and key. By pairing mixed emotional cues, he says, artists create a more-complex sound.
To the modern ear, “if you have something that sounds unambiguously happy, it kinda sounds childish,” he says. Schellenberg points to Aqua's 1997 dance hit “Barbie Girl.” The fast-paced, major-key song sold well “ but as a guilty pleasure.” More critically accepted dance songs such as Kylie Minogue's “Can't Get You Out of My Head” and Madonna's “Hung Up” share the same quick beat, but both are in a minor key.
Even this summer's sugary hit “Call Me Maybe,” by Carly Rae Jepsen, tosses in a few minor chords.
Schellenberg says that classical music went through a similar transition. By the 1800s, Romantic-era compositions shook up traditional tempo/key pairings. This shift in classical music transpired over 300 years. Pop music rounded the same bend after only 50 years.
A previous study by Schellenberg found that trained musicians prefer songs with nontraditional tempo/key pairings. Mixed music, he says, sounds “sophisticated.” Now, it seems that pop culture at large favors this new “sophisticated” sound.
Chris Gaylord is a staff writer for Christian Science Monitor.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Rossi: Blount brings back Steelers’ swagger
- Steelers re-sign Keisel to bolster depth on defensive line
- Retired McKeesport police officer to pay fine for involvement in gambling ring
- Run game not primary focal point for Steelers
- Former Elizabeth Forward custodian’s attorney denies allegations
- HSFB preview by position: Size isn’t the only measure of LBs’ talent
- CF McCutchen returns to lineup, but Braves blast fast-fading Pirates
- Fugitive captured in Washington Township after eluding police overnight
- New Stanton to craft comprehensive plan to prove borough ‘more than’ turnpike exit
- Icy water, donations to fight ALS flow with social media’s help
- Steelers are hoping to mirror Eagles’ full-bore, no-huddle offense