Previously I talked about the difference between major and minor scales. So far all the tracks I’ve shown you have been in A minor. I also mentioned that songs written in major scales are (roughly) happy / upbeat and songs written in minor scales are moody, sad, angry, anxious, or suffering from irritable bowel syndrome.
I thought it would be fun to illustrate this, and at the same time share a little more of my badly misunderstood over-simplifications of music theory. As before, keep an eye out for the music majors. They will say things that are deeply confusing. If a music major tries to teach you anything using words like chromatic, octatonic, consonance, or “Shamus Young is a clueless hack who doesn’t know what he’s doing”, then slam your hands over your ears, close your eyes, and begin singing the Batman theme at the top of your lungs. Actually, you should be doing that sort of thing anyway. It’s like yoga for the musical parts of your brain: It makes you look silly but it feels good.
Here is a song I made in C major:
That’s pretty different from the stuff I’ve been doing. It’s bouncy, jubilant, and playful. That’s a result of it being written in C major. As I said before, to make a major scale you pick a starting key (C in this case) and walk up the keyboard this many keys at a time:
2 2 1 2 2 2 1
If you follow that pattern from C, you’ll land on every single white key and no black keys.
If you want to make a minor scale, then you follow this pattern:
2 1 2 2 1 2 2
If you do that from A, then… you’ll land on every single white key and no black keys? So A minor and C major use the exact same keys on the keyboard. Does that mean they sound the same? Actually, no. Very no. Here is the same song from above, translated into A minor:
I want to stress that aside from moving the notes around very slightly, this is the same song as that joy-gush at the top of the post. Same tempo. Same instruments. Same drum arrangement. Basically the same octave. Drawing from the same group of 7 keys.
When I was even more musically incompetent than I am now, I always thought the mood of the song came from how high or low the notes were. (Oh, that sounds too happy. Better drop it down a few notes!) But it turns out that moving the notes up or down doesn’t change the mood of the music. That would be like trying to make an email seem less hostile by changing the font size. In fact, 90% of the mood comes from how the chords are arranged.
Because black keys make everything confusing, let’s imagine a keyboard where all keys are the same width and painted the same color. (I have no idea how the musician is supposed to tell them apart, but that’s not my problem.)
This probably looks like an abomination to a real pianist. Like, I hope you have very long fingers and arms, because this thing would be a monster to play. But it’s really convenient for talking about note relationship. Also, this is the type of environment I work in when assembling songs a note at a time:
Everything is on a nice neat grid, without any worry over the physical dimensions of the instrument. (Although you can see the keyboard depicted over there on the left.) This type of uniform-width depiction of keys is really handy. It’s like an update to the old, confusing system of handwritten musical notation that was developed hundreds of years ago for instruments we no longer use, but has hung around until now out of habit and tradition. The obvious difference here is that time is literally depicted as horizontal space instead of using symbols. The longer the blue bar, the longer the note. Probably the most useful change is that now each row is a unique key, as opposed to the old system where you needed to use sharp and flat symbols to clarify if you were taking about a sharp, a flat, or a… natural? Whatever you call something not sharp or flat. I dunno. Go ask a music teacher.
This notation system takes up a ton of space, which would be horrible in an age where paper and ink were precious, but super-convenient on a computer screen where you can scroll and zoom at will.
For the curious, the grid above shows the bit of the song that starts about 32 seconds in.
Anyway, on our fixed-width keyboard a major chord, like the kind used in the happy song, is shaped like this:
A minor chord, like the kind used in the second song, is shaped like this:
That’s it. That tiny difference is what makes these two songs sound so radically different. You take the middle note in a three-note chord and move it down ONE notch, and the mood goes from “happy” to “brooding” just like that. (You also have to move the entire group up or down very slightly, just to avoid landing on keys that don’t belong in your scaleWhich are the black keys, in our case., but this shift doesn’t have anything to do with the change in mood.)
So yes, C major and A minor use the same keys. But the reason you call it C major is because you build major chords, and you start building them on C. And the reason it’s called A minor is because you start on A and build minor-shaped chords. So the naming of your scale is less about what notes you’re using and more about how you use them. It’s not a hard-and-fast definition – like “metric” versus “imperial” – but a soft, stylistic system – like “Sci-fi” versus “fantasy”. Most work sticks to the conventions, but there’s plenty of stuff that plays around in the margins, thumbing its nose at expectations.
 Which are the black keys, in our case.
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