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Minor Keys

November 29, 2007

A listener asks: Is music written in minor keys universally sad?


Minor keys got you down? I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

(theme to Love Story)
If you’re starting to tear up, you’re not alone…but why do we find minor keys so sad? According to musician and cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Levitin of McGill University, it all depends on where you grow up.

DANIEL LEVITIN (McGill University): Minor keys are not universally sad. So we’ve done experiments where we play minor key music to babies of other cultures, and try to figure out whether they have an innate predisposition toward thinking it’s sad and they don’t.

And in Pakistani and Klezmer musical traditions, for instance, minor keys are often upbeat. But in Western music, minor keys often co-occur with other features we associate with sadness. Like a slower tempo and lower pitch. If you have a science question, call us at 1-800-why-isit. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.