Examples of Major/Minor key?

In a recent Fortnite fortnight stream Joel talked briefly about “minor key”

I’ve never quite understood what the meaning of music being in “major key” or “minor key” was. I read that it has something to do with a song sounding happy or sad, but I don’t really know any examples of a song sounding like that.

Do y’all have examples that illustrate these differences? Are there songs that are both?

At best I can discern that a track is either fast or slow or changes a lot, but clearly there’s something I’m not hearing!
Sorry in advance if these are dumb questions!

A key is kind of a harmonizing tool (I guess you’d call it a tool). It’s basically a set of notes that work together. Major and minor keys follow different rules to find notes that harmonize. They also produce sounds that are connotationally different in Western music. Minor keys are generally viewed as more dissonant, lonely, and sad. Major keys are generally viewed as brighter and uplifting.

Music can modulate between keys, but I don’t think you often change between a major key and a minor key because the tonal shift is pretty great. An equivalent would be something like starting to tell an uplifting story about a relationship and abruptly shifting to a brutal breakup. So when you modulate you generally stay inside the same major or minor frame. (ETA I am wrong about this as pointed out here.)

For some examples How Far I’ll Go is in a major key. Major keys kind of flow together. Notes are full steps apart and feel like a smooth flow. Crazy on You is in a minor key. There are more half-steps in a minor key and you feel a kind of disjointedness.

If you take How Far I’ll Go and turn it into a minor key version you get a darker feeling. Granted there are some other changes to this song, but the key is an important one.

This video digs into some of the theory around keys and might be of interest.

I’m sure a real musician could explain this better, but I think this is a decent start.


There’s a good clip on YouTube where Satriani discusses this sort of thing as it relates to musical modes.

It’s basically a matter of desired emotional impact. Certain modes and keys will lend themselves better to certain emotions, although I’m sure there are examples where a song has been written in a key that is dissonant with its subject matter as an exercise in dissonance.

There’s a long history of the psychology of music and the sort of effects you can draw from modes and keys, i.e.: in The Republic Plato hypothesizes banning all music written in anything other than Dorian or Phrygian, the thought being that the emotions resulting from more negative modes have a detrimental affect on the soul.

I feel like this might help.

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The music theory video was very helpful with the literal difference between the keys, and a bit on the intent of them. Thank you!
What I still get caught on is that the minor version of that first song sounds different but seemingly only due to the differing instruments? Maybe not, maybe I’m getting it, but then as @Hartnote linked below YMCA sounds identical to the “normal” version.

I’m probably a long way off from understanding how a happy/sad song sounds, but hey I’m learning!

I mean, the association of “minor key” with “sad” is a culturally specific thing, not some kind of universal truth – and even within the tradition derived from Western classical music, I’m sure there are sad pieces in a major key or happy pieces in a minor key. It’s contextual, subjective, etc. Just as an example of how weird and culturally specific Western music theory is at its most traditional: the interval between the fourth and seventh notes of a scale is considered “the devil’s interval” and is supposed to be assiduously avoided in harmonies at all costs! (Spoiler: if you were expecting it to sound super diabolical and evil, you will be very disappointed.)

Personally, I don’t tend to find it super meaningful to toggle minor/major on an existing song, because for me it changes the intervals too much to really feel comparable. If that is the case for your ear as well, then… other than the bare and boring-in-isolation fact that the third note of a minor key is half a note lower than the third note of the same key in major, I think the best way to get a feel for minor/major is to just play around with it yourself – whether humming/whistling (along to an informative video if necessary), experimenting with a keyboard (even those online “digital keyboard” things if necessary), or whatever other kind of music-production you have at your disposal.

ed: And yes, songs can have both. Songs can have different sections in different keys entirely. There’s even a particular known trick where you have most of the song in one minor key, and then at the very end you close out with a major version of the base chord. (Link has some embedded examples and references a whole list of others, if you think that might be helpful.)


You can modulate from major to minor pretty easily and it’s very common. Each minor key has a relative major consisting of the same number of sharps/flats, for instance. Typically when someone refers to a “difficult” modulation it refers to large difference in sharps/flats but I wouldn’t say that is even uncommon. Looking at the Circle Of Fifths would make everything clearer if interested.


It’s interesting that you think the minor version of YMCA sounds identical to the standard version, because to me it sounds very much different. I think you are touching on some interesting points though. Differing instruments can have a huge impact on the perceived emotion of a piece of music, because the timbre or texture of sound conveys a lot of information.

Someone singing “happy birthday” while crying is going to invoke very different emotions in listeners from someone singing the same song while laughing, even if they hit the same notes. One of the interesting things about music is that the relationship between sounds and emotion is really hard to fully understand.

That said, even without varying the instruments involved, different notes should be able to convey different feelings. The way those feelings are felt and described will be subject to cultural influences since the characterization and expression of emotion is culturally-dependent in general. There is broad cross-cultural recognition of happiness/sadness tied to major/minor modes now, but that’s partly due to the globalization of music. When researchers test cultures that have never been exposed to the Western tradition of music, they do still find that people can identify happiness and sadness from the other culture’s music at rates that are above pure chance, but significantly less than someone familiar with the culture.



To specifically answer your question about being major being “happy” here’s a great video by Adam Neely explaining why major is “happy”, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

And here’s a great playlist of videos from a channel called 12tone that goes way more in depth on the basics of music theory than I can in a forum post.

Warning: this post is probably going to make things more confusing for everyone.

I considered linking that Neely video because it’s a very good video, but I’m not sure it really does what it says in the title (explain why major sounds happy). Brightness might be an important part of making something sound happy, but it’s not the entire story. Neely’s use of the term brightness is also somewhat nonstandard, though not uncommon.

In most scientific research on the perception of acoustics, brightness specifically means “the perceptual correlate of the center of mass of the frequency spectrum” (source) so sounds with more high-frequency energy are brighter than sounds with less high-frequency energy. That sounds like it should be the same thing as pitch and they are somewhat related, but confusingly brightness can be varied independently of fundamental frequency.

The things that Neely describes do tend to increase the relative brightness of the sound, but so does playing higher notes or switching to an instrument with higher overtones. In addition to brightness, the happiness of music also relates to the physicality of the rhythm (slower, plodding rhythms tend to be sadder than energetic, bouncy rhythms) and to consonance / dissonance. Dissonance, the measure of notes clashing with each other, is also difficult to define and quantify. As it’s now typically understood, it relates to the interference pattern between all frequencies present in a sound. More beating (fluctuations in volume caused by interference) relates to more dissonance. However, other uses of the term dissonance exist, including ones that categorize certain intervals as dissonant that most of us would now consider fairly consonant. All of these things help explain how aspects of music works, but there’s no complete theory of emotional resonance.

People have probably answered this better and I’m not a music major (sometimes I wish) but I’ll give my try, keeping it simple.

Minor key and major key are similar scales because they they are based on the same scale. They’re what are called “modes” of the diatonic scale. Most popular western music is written in something based on the diatonic scale. All the white keys on a piano are in C Major Diatonic. The difference between one mode and the other is basically that it starts on a different note. This is often called a “root” or a “tonal center”. A Minor starts on the sixth note of C Major. All Minor keys start on the sixth note of a major scale.

So the difference between major and minor is their tonal center. “Major” sounds, generally, happier, and Minor sounds “angrier” or “sadder”. I heard Chilly Gonzales describe the sound of a minor scale as “a complaint”.

I might have gotten a bit carried away with the theory. @Cliffzorz, if it’s hard for you to hear the difference between major and minor keys at all, I made these examples of major and minor riffs. Everything about those two examples is the same except for the scale (the major example is in C major while the minor example is in C natural minor). If you don’t notice any difference between those examples when you switch back and forth between them, you may not be perceiving pitch the way most of us do. The minor riff might sound slightly happy because it’s being played with a quick and energetic rhythm. A slower and more even rhythm would probably be more neutral and allow the minor mode to sound sadder.

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Wow, I never expected this kind of response! Thank you all for your help and insight, looks like I have a bit of homework to do this weekend :laughing: The cultural perceptions of music is a fascinating topic

By far the the easiest way to start hearing stuff in music is to sit down at a piano and work through it yourself. Play through a major scale, then a minor scale (there are a few different minor scales actually), then see if you can get through some simple chord progressions. That’s the way to go! Let me know if you want to go more in-depth with this and I’ll go in next time I’m at a keyboard.