Christmas Countdown, Friday #3

It’s time again for another cover of Maria Carey’s retirement plan, aka All I want for Christmas Is You, but this is one that shows the power of music in creating a mood. It’s the same song and same lyrics, but now it’s in a minor key, and that makes all the difference.

Here is Chase Holfelder’s take on the song.

A few years ago, Schmoyoho did the same thing with the song All Star, made famous by the Shrek franchise, but again the mood here is totally different. Likewise, check out KestrelTapes minor key version of Toto’s Africa. Same effect.

The reasons for this aren’t totally clear, but it is a cultural thing because people who grew up with harmonic systems outside of Western music probably don’t hear it the same way.

A year or so ago, I learned the theory behind something that I’d just known instinctively for years as a musician, but had never thought about. The concept of Major and minor really only depends on two sets of two notes.

Western music has eight note names: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The G is followed by A. The distance between each of these notes is considered a full step, so there are eight notes in any regular scale.

But the Western chromatic scale has twelve tones.

That’s because all of the notes can be either raised or lowered half a step. In the former, they become “sharp,” designated with what we now call the hashtag: A#, B#, C#, etc. When they’re lowered, they’re said to be “flat,” designated with what almost looks like a lowercase “b”: Ab, Bb, Cb, etc.

So that should give us fourteen notes, right? You’d think, but there’s a trick to it.

The intervals in a normal Major scale go whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half. In the simplest Major scale, C, which has no sharps or flats in its key signature (don’t worry about that here), the notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.

And, indeed, from C to D and D to E, and then from F until you hit B, everything is a whole step.

But E to F and B to C are half steps. If you ever look at any kind of musical keyboard, you’ll see that the black keys come in a group of two, then a group of three, and this is a precise visual representation of the Major scale. Where you see two white keys together, it’s that half step — and on the keyboard, the pair after the first two whole steps are E and F, while the pair after the next three are B and C.

The important notes in the scale, though, are the 1st, 3rd, and 5th, which are often referred to as I, III, V. The three together make up a simple Major chord, and you’ll notice that between the first two, C and E, there are two whole steps. But… from the E to the G, it’s only a step and a half E to F is a half step, F to G is a whole step.

The I is the important note, though, and the I-III relationship defines the Major. So how do you get a minor out of that? Simple. Turn it into I-IIIb. In other words, the notes are now C and Eb, which work out to whole step (C-D) and half step (D- Eb).

Most likely, the psychological effect is that it feels like the expected goal did not get reached. We started out on that happy climb up two whole steps to the happy key, but then missed and, literally, fell flat.

Here’s the other interesting part of it. Every key has a relative minor, and it’s the key that starts on the notes one-and-a-half steps down from it. In the case of C, that note is A, because going backwards, C-B-A is half step down, whole step down.

And when you start on A but the notes are A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, then the pattern becomes whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole. It really changes up the order of everything, so no wonder it deceives the ear.

The unanswered question is why one note order always seems upbeat and happy, while the other seems downbeat and sad — and it may have as much to do with our own creation and development of music as anything inherent in the notes.

Interestingly, though, the pentatonic scale, which may have existed in ancient Greek music (we just don’t know) but which is also common in Asia — and, in fact, is the stereotypical scale used in the West to instantly indicate “Japan” — has five notes, and the intervals vary depending on where you start, but they are whole step, one and a half, whole step whole step, one and a half.

You can play this using any starting point you want on a piano, but you can do it automatically by only playing the black keys. And here’s the really interesting part: You can play any or all of those keys in any combination or order, even all at the same time, and nothing sounds dissonant at all.

Note, too, that the C Major scale is only the white keys, while only the black keys make up a pentatonic scale. I don’t know that that has anything to do with anything, but it is a fascinating thing nonetheless.

Check out the previous post, or the next.

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