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Do you recognize this piece of music?  Maybe it reminds you of something you sang in grade school.

_ Frère Jacques,
_ Frère Jacques,
_ Dormez-vous?
_ Dormez-vous?

[Note of apology: I have to break my promise of doing Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor today.  Next week will be all Schumann.]

That's Frere Jacques???  But... but... it sounds wrong!  Listen.  You can hear it.  It has just been tweaked and changed from the normal major key version to a minor key variation.

Last week we talked about C Major, why a C Major chord has C, E, and G in it and not some other combination, and how to get away with being a rock superstar with just three guitar chords if you're clever.  We called those three chords the tonic, the dominant, and the subdominant.  I said it was important to remember those words because we're going to use them.

Those three chords (and keys) are important to almost all music, even simple rock or folk or children's songs.  You just never needed to name or classify them.  It's just the way music is, right?  It's something music makers worry about, but not listeners, right?

Okay, fair enough.  But when learning how to listen to more complicated music, like classical music, longer music that tries to say more things in available space, the form of the music increases in importance.  The same three chords (and keys) used in The Trogg's Wild Thing are used in Mozart's The Magic Flute, but a more complicated work requires a larger form, which means more abstract head games are being played with those same keys.  

Introducing the Minor Scale!

Last week we talked about C Major and the good ol' Do-Re-Mi scale.  There is another scale you may not be used to singing, though, the minor scale version of Do-Re-Mi.  C minor starts on the same key (C) but has three flatter notes -- black notes on a keyboard.  Compare here:

I made a little youtube demo to help you hear the difference.  (Fair warning:  I suck at the piano.  And at youtube making.  Rush job -- what can I say?)

The minor key version of Do-Re-Mi sounds a lot more serious, maybe even grim, than the major key version, doesn't it?  Is it melancholy?  Tragic?  Angry?  Intense?  The minor key is used all those ways.






I grew up in a "musical household."  I learned early on what minor key music was.  So it surprised me a bit to read this article while searching for source material tonight:

Non-musicians can identify minor-key tunes, but only when labeled "sad"

If you've had a lot of musical training, you can probably tell the difference between a major and minor key. If you haven't had much training, even after having the difference explained to you, you're still not likely to be able to make that determination. Listen the following clip. It plays the same melody in a major and a minor key. Can you tell which is which?

But if the question is phrased differently, even non-musicians can reliably tell the difference: When listeners are told that some music (which happens to be in a major key) sounds "happy" and other music (in a minor key) sounds "sad," non-musicians can pick out the difference...

So people get the idea of minor key music being sad, in some context, but the actual identification of it is a little harder, even though it's an objective fact.  Personally, I think some of the saddest music of all is in a major key.  For instance, The Beatles' song, Yesterday. Oh!  You thought that was minor key?  Guess again, dude.

So why the sad face?

So what is it about minor key music that gives it this darker cast?  Once again, it goes back to the physics of sound vibrations, math, Donald Duck, Pythagoras, and rational numbers.  We saw in Opus 3 that the three notes of a C Major chord (C, E, and G) don't just sound nice together -- they have the simplest ratios of three notes in an octave to each other.  If C is 1, E is 5/4 and G is 3/2.  

The C minor chord though is made up of C, E-flat (the funny black "Mi" key in my illustration of C-minor), and G.  E-flat doesn't have the same sweet and simple ratio as E does.  While E was 5/4, E-flat is 6/5.  Slightly less simple.  

Let me explain that another way.  Let's say we put some crystal glasses on a table and fill them with water to the point where when we strike them with a spoon, they give us the following notes: C, E, E-flat, or G.  And let's say we strike the C glass.  The other three glasses will experience sympathetic vibrations, but E-flat will experience the least.  If we had a B glass, it would experience almost no sympathetic vibrations.  (Now please feel free to youtube the experiment and get back to me if I'm wrong!)

The Mi note in a minor key is, in this way, a bit inferior to its major key version.  It is a slight difference, but my limited understanding is that that is the basis for the different character of the two scales.  We project our own emotions upon the physical effects we receive from the sound difference.  Leonard Bernstein, in his Unanswered Question video lecture series about music, explained it this way:  In his example, he pressed down on a piano C key, then lifted it quickly and said, if you pay attention, for just a split second after the release of the key, you can hear an E note.  In C minor, there is a conflict between E-flat and the ghost of that natural E.

The Melodic Minor Scale

When I was a kid, dinking away with one finger on the family piano, (I haven't progressed much, eh?) trying to play common songs, I was frustrated with one in particular: Greensleeves.  I loved that song.  But I couldn't play it in nice, safe, C major.  Aha, though, I discovered: You can play it in A minor!  Just shift your fingers two keys to the left and you have the minor key scale...

But that wasn't enough.  I could play a decent white-key-only version of Greensleeves.  But it didn't sound the same as the version I heard on TV or at school.  Why is that?  Because there is more than one way to play it, based on the scale used.

Perusing Youtube, I came across these two different versions of Greensleeves.  Tell me if you can hear the difference.  The fifth note of the song is the problem.

Greensleeves Version 1

Greensleeves Version 2

The difference is the Minor Melodic scale, which I briefly demonstrated in my Do-re-mi demonstration.  Poor lil kiddie Dumbo couldn't play Greensleeves because he was afraid of those evil black keys, and the minor melodic scale can't be played all-white, no matter where you start on the keyboard.  The minor melodic scale arises in part because of basic difficulties of the true minor scale's harmonics.  Do you recall how we could play boatloads of songs in C major with just three chords: the tonic (C), the dominant (G), and the subdominant (F)?  In the true minor scale, those chords don't carry the same harmonic oomph factor.  I'm running short of time, so I'll spare you the mathematical reasons.  The C minor scale does have a dominant (G minor) and a subdominant (F minor), but it's often more satisfying to "cheat" and substitute the G major and F major chords.  Thus we get the compromise Minor Melodic Scale.  You can often hear both minor and minor melodic in the same song, with minor melodic being used for the melody line as it ascends, and true minor as it descends.  That is what happens in the second version of Greensleeves.

Relative Majors and Relative Minors

The REALLY magic chord when playing in a minor key, however, is what's called the relative major chord.  And this, too, is one to remember.  We may end up talking about relative majors quite a bit.

What is a relative major?  Let's put illustrations of C major and A minor side by side:

C major and A minor use all the same notes on the keyboard -- just the white keys.  The difference is that A minor is shifted two white keys to the left, at A.  C major is called the relative major of A minor.  Likewise A minor is called the relative minor of C major.  A minor melodies have a strong harmonic pull towards C major.  There is a good probability that any song, even a trivial one, will have a C major chord in it somewhere.  Greensleeves is already using the relative major by the fourth note.


I know I promised in some promos for the diary that I would have the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor.  No time, no time.  Next week, it will be all Schumann Piano Concerto!  I felt the need, though, to explain relative majors first.  I hope the extra youtubes today make up for it.

Originally posted to Dumbo on Thu Jul 22, 2010 at 04:58 PM PDT.

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