The Major and the Minor Switch

This is one of the many articles/review that I have reblogged from Caffeine Crew, the collaborative geek blog I write for.  I am in the process of editing/updating them to truly post here on my personal blog.

The minor key plays grim hostess to most of my favorite songs. Like many I find it to be the register of rue and darkness, and that just speaks to my eclectic tastes. I decided to catalog just what percentage of my regular playlist was minor one day, and the results were pretty substantial.

One day I was puttering around TV Tropes where I spend a good portion of my time, and I ended up in the video games section of the Awesome Music page, and there was a link to a G major version of “One Winged Angel.” I listened to it and just…no. No, no, no. It’s just wrong, and wrong in a different way than the wrongness the song is trying to project. This did get me thinking though about other instances where major songs are switched to minor, minor song are switched to major, and songs that use both throughout. I’m going to post both the original song and the switched version where applicable in my attempt to break down what I’ve found.

Note: I am not a music theory expert.  I actually failed that class, but I have played piano since the age of 5, have good enough relative pitch to figure out most melodies by ear, and am a pretty decent vocalist.

John Lennon & A Perfect Circle


The original John Lennon version of this song is written in C major, which is the key every piano player learns first (at least I did when I started), and it has a bittersweet but hopeful cast to it. The world isn’t like this now, but it could be, and we all, as Lennon say, “live as one.”

Contrast this to A Perfect Circle’s version, which is rendered in an unconfirmed minor key. I believe it’s C minor, but the internet is being uncooperative with providing this information. It takes a song that could be hopeful and turns it completely dark. Now the almost whimsical “Imagine there’s no countries” in a bid to aspire hope that one day we won’t need them is now a glaring warning that perhaps one day there really won’t be any countries and we better imagine what that will be like because that darkness is coming. The dreamers are tormented by nightmares and “living as one” implies we shall all endure this agony.

“Get Happy”
Judy Garland & House (TV Show)

Get Happy

What could be a happier song than (what for it) Get Happy? The Judy Garland version is light and gay and just an all around joyous spirit. Even though Judgment Day is mentioned, it’s looked forward to like a party, as if we’ll all be judged worthy and be able to enter heaven or the promised land, which is another locale referred.

Then we have the version from House in the episode “Bombshells,” which has a twisted carnival milieu to it with undead/zombie looking medical staff. The whole idea of “Get Happy” is distorted, which makes perfect sense for thee episode (Cuddy, House’s current love interest, is about to undergo surgery and this scene is supposed to be one of her hallucinations beforehand). There is some jocularity to it, but it’s undercut by the darker tone of the song and hearing Judgment Day makes me think there will be some serious sentences handed, and everyone does NOT get to go the promised land.  Despite the declaration that “it’s all so peaceful on the other side.” I tend not to trust songs the dead men sing.

“One Winged Angel”
Nobuo Uematsu Original & G Major switch

Sephiroth in the Flames 3

This is one of my favorite songs for my favorite fictional character in my favorite game. Symphonic Nightwish-esque opera metal. What more could you want? If I had to describe it in one sentence I would say it sounds like the love child of Orff’s Carmina Burana, from whence the lyrics hail, and “Night on Bald Mountain” by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. It’s beautiful, dark, and foreboding to show an angel’s ultimate descent and is the perfect musical number and title to a pretty dead on parallel of Satan/Lucifer’s story especially when placed beside Paradise Lost. Originally written in E minor, the violins send chills down my spine and the vocals sound like a lament.

This is where I began…on TV Tropes with the version in G major. Oh god it’s just terrible. The original song is supposed to denote a sense of brokenness, of distortion, of corruption. That’s its purpose. It’s as though with the major flip, they’re trying to fix it, but you can’t. You can’t fix this by making it sound happy. The G major version sounds more distorted than the version that’s supposed to be. Some songs weren’t meant to be happy. This is one of them.

I initially thought that it was just this song that didn’t sound right flipped from minor to major. My below examples will prove this supposition incorrect.

The next examples all come from this website. Someone took several songs and switched them from major to minor or vice versa to present the astounding difference in mood and tone.  I would recommend checking out the link before reading further.

“Losing My Religion”

Forlorn is the first word I think of when I hear this song. It hurts my heart if I really listen to it.

And then this just hurts my ears. I get what the guy is saying about how it does sound sadder because of the incongruency of the words against the upbeat tone. But it’s grating like a thousand nails scratching, almost parodic as if the major flip is mocking torment and pain.

“Don’t Speak”
No Doubt

We have a pretty quintessential break up song so the Eb minor key makes perfect sense. It draws you into the sadness and finality of the end of a relationship.

Then we have again the incongruence of the upbeat major key with the break up lyrics. It’s like Gwen is saying, “Haha, we’re over; isn’t that hilarious?! I’m going to mock your pain with my lighthearted, little ditty and smile like a kid in a candy shop as you wallow in despair.”

“Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Yes, the angsty teen anthem perfectly rendered in F minor. It screams for the need for perpetual entertainment, for a constantly changing crowd. I’m a fan of the unresolved guitar riff.

And then we have this. It’s again just…not right. The tone of the song should match the words, unless you are going for the parody effect, which this song is not going for at least not in that way. The pain factor is up there with “One Winged Angel” in G major.

“Hey Jude”
The Beatles

To show I’m not biased I included a major to minor flip in “Hey Jude.” Originally written in F major. I find it funny that one of the first lines is “take a sad song and make it better.” Strangely appropriate.

While this obviously changes the tone of the song (like all of the above have accomplished), it’s not grating on your ears and soul like some of the minor major switching. It puts me in mind of a dirge and the words are a bit ambiguous and can be taken a couple of ways depending. The darker tone draws out a sorrow that may or may not have been the writer’s intent (writer’s intent and reader interpretation are other issues that will require another blog post to resolve). I like the minor key “Hey Jude,” so I suppose my ‘I’m not biased’ claim is hypocritical.

The final songs show both major and minor keys in one piece.

“Not While I’m Around”
Sweeney Todd

The song is mostly in the major key since Toby is the one singing in. Then we get to the last part with Mrs. Lovett, and it switches to minor with a lone, eerie violin. The deception is so blatant in her words that’s matched in the music going against the meaning to find the rotting heart inside. That part gives me chills and then it goes back to Toby’s utter sincerity in what he’s saying to contrast her deceit. I’m also jealous of her awesome goth eyes.

Next we have one of my favorite singer/songwriters:

“Gloomy Sunday”
Sarah McLachlan

Per the Wikipedia link above this is also known as the “Hungarian Suicide Song.”  The melody was composed by Hungarian pianist Rezső Seress and published in 1933.  The original lyrics translated to “the world is ending,” and the song was about despair caused by war and finished in a quiet prayer about peoples’ sins.  The poet László Jávor wrote his own words to the melody, which he titled “Sad Sunday” where the protagonist commits suicide following his lover’s death, and these later lyrics became more popular where the former were forgotten.

Sarah’s version of the song has the trappings of the latter, but the final verse has a “major” change when the singer realizes it was all a bad dream, though she hopes and prays her love is never haunted by what she endured.

“And the Waltz Goes On”
Sir Anthony Hopkins conducted by André Rieu

This gorgeous piece of music was a recent discovery while scrolling through Facebook one day in the recent past.  It was written by Sir Anthony and sent to Mr. Rieu who was utterly blown away by its staggering beauty.  It begins in the minor, switches to major, and finishes where it began.  The first time I heard this song, I wept without shame as oft times happens when I’m exposed to beautiful music.

Sir Anthony’s reaction to hearing the waltz he composed more than fifty years ago is as beautiful as the song itself.

Last but not least is Aeris’s/Aerith’s Theme, another one of Nobuo Uematsu magna opera written in D major, though not entirely.

Aeris Amidst the Northern Lights

This is my current project to master on the piano.  In learning it I have noticed that it slips into the minor key quite often in fact right in the second measure. It’s as though with these dark undertones Uematsu-san is foreshadowing her death. The song has a bright, almost lullaby quality, overshadowed by this darkness just waiting to descend…but throughout of course the hope remains.

I always try to find the whys and hows of our feelings and thoughts in deconstructing not only written and visual narratives, but musical ones as well. Learning the psychology and the meaning behind things is paramount to understanding and empathy, which will make this a far better world.

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