Minor Issues

I’ve been thinking about music a lot lately. Yesterday, I had a conversation about why certain chords tend to “sound good” together. It seems like a lot of it has to do with the physical layout of an instrument; certain chords are easier to play together on a guitar. Since most rock music is based on guitars, chords that are easy to play together “sound good” together in rock music.

The thing with this is that it’s arbitrary. There’s no real, underlying reason why certain patterns sound good; it’s just a matter of what was easiest to play, and thus what musicians played, and thus what we’ve been exposed to our whole lives. Other cultures hear different patterns growing up, and would think ours sound weird. If we’d grown up hearing random patterns of chords (within certain limitations, I’m sure), those would sound natural together.

This seems unsatisfying somehow. Music feels like this transcendental, magical stuff that, when done right, can tickle the deepest reaches of our souls. If the line between beautiful music and shitty music is really just a proxy for the line between familiar and unfamiliar, filtered through historical accidents in our culture (like the layout of a guitar), it seems less magical, less eternal.

I think an even more striking example is the difference between major chords and minor chords. To people in Western culture, major chords usually sound happy, and minor chords usually sound sad. Why? Did one of the first popular musicians happen to associate minor chords with sad lyrics, then later musicians just followed suit? Could it have just as easily gone the other way?

I dunno. I’m inclined to refuse to believe in the arbitrariness of music. Maybe minor chords are more similar to the sounds of crying and other expressions of sorrow, so their sadness is deeply imprinted in our genes and our souls. Maybe there is a deeper reason to prefer patterns of chord progressions, even if the specific set of chords in them is arbitrary.

I tried to look this up, as I figure it’d be a common issue and is certainly subject to scientific scrutiny. However, Google only comes up with speculation, and a quick search of PsychINFO (a database of psychology research) only comes up with only 10 results. One of them is an article from 1942 titled “The preference of twenty-five Negro college women for major and minor chords”, which might be a bit outdated. I guess, then, that this is still an open issue, and I’m one of the only nerds who spends time thinking about crap like this.

Of course, overthinking music is, while fun, pointless. No amount of intellectual pondering can take away the fact that music feels magical, and that is what really matters.


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