minor thirds = sad song?

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.

via The Atlantic.