Major-key music for sad lyrics

22nd May 2017 | Daily Life, Musings | 15 comments

Last night I watched a very interesting episode of a BBC Arena series about ‘American Epic’ music, beginning with music from the Appalachian region, featuring the Carter Family from West Virginia who in the late 1920s brought the folk music of the remote hills to the nation’s attention.

The words of the songs were often sad or wistful, such as the Carter Family’s famous ‘Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow’, which tells of a grieving man abandoned by his lover on the eve of their wedding. Despite the lyrics, however, the music of the sad songs was always (or at least, in all the songs featured in the TV programme) in a major key and an upbeat tempo. I’ve noticed this with other kinds of American ‘country music’ and been puzzled by it. Perhaps I have been brought up in a different tradition, but if I were a songwriter I would find it unnatural to couch a sad song in a major key, unless I were aiming at some kind of ironical effect, such as you find in the songs of the Berlin Cabaret era.

Once or twice when listening to Italian opera or oratorio I have had a similar feeling of perplexity when listening to sad arias in robustly handled major keys.  Yet to those composers, and to their fans, there is clearly no ‘cognitive dissonance’. They don’t feel that the sad words are being trivialised by sunny harmonies.

In some of Mozart’s arias, or in Schubert’s and Schumann’s Lieder, there is a very poignant use of sad words set to major-key harmonies, but these effects tend to be transient and all the more powerful because of the way they emerge from minor-key settings, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds for a moment.

But ‘Bury me beneath the weeping willow‘ sung at a jolly trot? It’s a puzzle to me.

15 Comments

  1. Martin White

    Hymn tunes and their associated words add a twist to this. ‘Drop drop slow tears’ is usually sung to a fragment of a Gibbons anthem in F major. There are also hymns for sad occasions (notably funerals)in major keys. A notable example is ‘The day thou gave’st Lord is ended’ which is in A flat major, but since these hymns are supposed to give hope to the bereaved this is perhaps not unexpected. But then go to Bach and the chorale ‘Ich bins, ich sollte bussen’ in the opening section of the St. Matthew Passion which is also in A flat major. There are many other chorales in the Passions which are also in major keys or end each verse in a major key. I seem recall a discussion about this in Deryck Cooke’s book The Language of Music but in preparing this response I’ve discovered my copy has vanished.

    Reply
  2. Tony Whatmough

    Mozart’s g minor symphony is an opposite example. The general tenor of the music seems to me to be even if not joyful, at least serene. People often talk of the underlying sadness of his music, but I don’t hear that in the first movement at least.

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    • Susan Tomes

      Interesting point, thank you, Tony. I agree that the general tenor of the music is ‘even’, but I think I do feel it is sad, or at least anxious. All these things are so subjective of course!

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    • Susan Tomes

      Thank you, Martin, these are interesting observations. Hymn tunes are perhaps in the same general category as the folk songs I wrote about, in being written for the general population to sing. I wonder if that makes a difference?

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  3. Mary Cohen

    Discussing with an adult beginner (cello) how different keys elicit different feelings, initially I was surprised when she said A major sounded sad to her. I was intrigued by this as I have always felt an underlying sadness when hearing or playing the Mozart K.488 concerto, though I would normally describe A major as a sunny, happy key.

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    • Susan Tomes

      A major ‘sad’! That’s a new one for me. I have never heard it as sad, though I do ‘see’ it as red. Perhaps for some people, red is sad. One could go on…

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  4. Tony Whatmough

    Interesting, Mary. I wonder if your pupil is synaestetic? (SP?) I see different keys in different colours, and I expect that affects how I react to them. Db major, dark, gravy brown etc!

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  5. Rikky Rooksby

    Hello Susan, I share your feelings about the role of major keys in Country & Western and similar songs with miserable lyrics, and have never been able to adjust to it. Clearly tempo and arrangement style and energy will play a role. I think other facets of an arrangement can make a major key harmony sound unhappy – maybe some Roy Orbison songs create that effect. My other thought is that in the genres you cited perhaps the major key acts as a subtext of hope distancing the unhappiness of the lyric.

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    • Susan Tomes

      Thank you Rikky – I like your idea about the major key being used as a sort of cushion between the listener and the sad lyrics.
      I’ve been told that in the first phonograph recordings of folk music from the Appalachians, older and sadder musical modes were used. Alas, they seem to have disappeared from general use by the time musicians were being filmed.

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  6. Rikky Rooksby

    Hello again Susan, your comment about minor modes is interesting. I wonder whether these earliest folk tunes had any harmony at all. Harmonizing folk tunes does change their character somewhat, even if it sounds good to our ears.

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    • Susan Tomes

      Well, that is a very interesting point you make, Rikky. You’re quite right that the character of an unaccompanied tune could be changed greatly by the addition of harmony, and perhaps made to seem blander than it was.

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  7. Rikky Rooksby

    Hello Susan, one final thought: I remember in the mid-80s being played a tape of Native American Indian chants, presumably of some antiquity, which had been packaged for a New Age audience with a diatonic harmony. It was quite horrible and of course took away the character of the original chants.

    (Digression: most recent musical peculiarity features in the film Quiet Passion about Emily Dickinson. The string part from Ives’ Unanswered Question is used on the soundtrack but without the other two components of his score (!) – some woodwind and a trumpet.)

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  8. Mike Wheeler

    Following on from Tony Whatmough’s initial comment, Robert Schumann wrote about Mozart 40’s “Grecian lightness and grace”, while for Jack Westrup it was full of the spirit of comic opera. Two more apparently counter-intuitive examples – JS Bach’s jolly, bouncy Double Violin Concerto, in D minor (the principal key of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Requiem!), and Gerald Finzi’s heartbreaking setting of ‘Fear no more the heat o’the sun’, in B flat major.

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  9. Denise McClanahan

    I think it reflects what is at the heart of our American folk music, which is their strong faith in God. There lives were hard. Death was common. Children often died at a young age. Death was viewed as a release, freedom from the struggles here on earth. My husband is from Kentucky. He especially identifieds with this music. Have you heard ” I’ll Fly Away?” It is a happy tune about going to heaven and often sung at funerals here. Death, in a religious sense, is a joyous occasion, is it not?

    Reply
    • Susan Tomes

      Thank you, Denise. Yes, I do know ‘I’ll Fly Away’ if only because it features in the Coen Brothers’ wonderful film ‘Oh Brother, where art thou?’
      I completely accept your analysis of why these sad lyrics in major keys are meaningful to American folk-music-lovers, especially from certain areas of the country. At the same time, it must be a cultural thing because, for example, Eastern European folk music from the same era – such as Bartok and Kodaly collected on their travels – also deals with the harshness of life and the inevitability of death but does so in a variety of extremely sad-sounding modes and scales, as well as slow tempi. I guess that the ‘joyous’ nature of songs like ‘I’ll Fly Away’ demonstrates a certain mindset which may be particular to that area of the United States at that time.

      Reply

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