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Culture & Religion

What Makes a Sad Song?

Where does sad music get its sadness from? A widely accepted notion is that the interval of a minor third—two pitches separated by one full tone and one semi-tone—conveys sadness.

While there might be a loose correlation—reinforced by our particular musical tradition—between minor scales and “sadness,” it’s a mistake to think that the moods evoked by music can be confidently reduced to tonality in and of itself. Indeed, those recalcitrant minor key songs that defy generalization about the link between tonality and mood may tell us something more important about music than the ones that conform. Don’t forget: The main reason “Happy Birthday” sounds “upbeat” and “Eleanor Rigby” sounds “doleful” is that their composers intended that they should.


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