Why do minor chords sound so sad?

June 9, 2009 at 6:31 pm | Posted in blogging, writing | 24 Comments

Lots of what happens in good writing in easily explainable. Momentum carries the reader through the piece as result of the visual, acoustic and thought rhythms. Images work by providing a context for abstract meaning. Someone more patient than I could write an entire text book about these things. Hopefully it would contain an explanation of why it is important not to dangle a participle. Sentences should contain thoughts, not let them trickle out.

But the most fascinating thing about good writing for me is the inexplicable. Somehow emotion can be conjured without being directly described. And sometimes that emotion, or tone, is very particular and doesn’t belong in a category like ‘sad’ or ‘whimsical’ or ‘bright’. Some pieces of writing are so unique and their effect on the reader so inexplicable, they can only be described as magical.

Here are two examples. A very short story by Chris Lacour which despite its apparent simplicity evokes a very particular but unnameable tone and a poem by Tipota that is a painting whose colours are tastes made entirely of letters.

An observation of two men working to save a life by Chris Lacour

SBT 155 by Tipota

“Why do minor chords sound so sad?” he ponderates scratching his baldy head with his quill.


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  1. Great post, Paul. Thanks for sharing these two gems with us. The flash story does have a unique tone. I do like Chris’s stuff because of this talent! The poem is fluid and beautiful.

  2. Ah Paul, i see the purist in you is rising … and i quote “someplace else some lid opens and eyes peek out” 😀

  3. Hey Paul~ thanks for sharing the short story and poem. They were both good reads. I especially liked the short story. And, it sounds like you’re thinking deeply about writing in general. Sign of a great writer, I believe. Have a great day.

  4. I love your reflections on writing Paul.

    I found myself reading the first paragraph (and agreeing with you completely), and then I found myself saying…but what about…(and I was thinking to myself about that ‘unexplained’ element of good writing)… a point which of course you go on to raise in your second paragraph. I could not agree with your thoughts more – it’s always nice to be shadowing you on a very similar wavelength.

  5. oh Paul, so full of surprises, thanks for the wonderful writing about writing, and like having a slice of key lime pie, the treat, the little sweet, topped off after the grande multicourse banquet of exquisiteness that u r.

  6. a painting whose colours are tastes made entirely of letters—-only an artist would understand what this is. 🙂 Chris LaCour’s fiction was wonderful and profound. The verse by Tipota was fascinating in the way it was cronstructed with so many differing sounds and feelings and visuals. Thanks for these reading treats.

  7. Thanks for the introduction. I enjoyed both pieces and as well your thoughtful post.

  8. the touch of magic… affected, rejected, taken in and mulled over… the emotion of writing in the abstract… good stuff, paul, thank you for the links… two wonderful examples spoken in silence

  9. I love the title came up with a couple of answers
    1)beaus they have to
    2)because they where specially made for that
    3)just because
    4)because they where asked to

  10. There is so much that could be talked about with this topic and I think there are text books, or at least articles covering what could be said.

    But one of the best lines I have read recently is when you say “Images work by providing a context for abstract meaning. ” Spot on, my man, spot on!

  11. MMmmmm love this topic. Sentences are mysterious vessels where worlds are born. Positively ineffable.

  12. Oh wow Paul – that short story – I don’t often read them (I’m too lazy, sadly) but that one, it’s damn good. Thanks for the link.

  13. The minor chords are off the beaten down, well worn path, perhaps rustic and haunted by wayward souls of poets and strangers wandering through the mists of illusion to sing minstrel tunes to a crying king.My guitar resonates the lonliness that moves through the longing in my soul and rolls like a lazy river but churning whitewater towards the horizon of falls.I really couldn’t do without the minor chords. They have a major place in poetry, music and mood.

  14. I’ve always found the best haiku achieves that magic: conjuring emotion, a concrete reaction to the abstraction of words producing a context for abstract meaning.

  15. Hmmm. I will have to come back to this after work, but I would say that something has been extracted from the minor chord; and its loss is being mourned. I could be reading too much out of this though.

  16. Paul…Yes. Words that don’t/can’t describe what’s inside of us somehow is translated in writing, but as you say, the tone and the feeling are indescribeable (sp?). And there are no “how to” books on that.

  17. Thanks for these links, Paul. The story is one of the most amazing short pieces I’ve read, and the poem is a delight.

    And I love your question, why do minor chords sound so sad? They do. But sometimes a sad song can be written in a major key.

  18. Why do Minor Keys sound sad?
    If you want to answer the question, why minor chords sound sad, there is the problem, that some minor chords don’t sound sad. The solution is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can just convey processes of will, but the music listener fills this processes of will with emotions. Similar, when you watch a dramatic movie in television, the movie cannot transmit emotions directly, but processes of will. The spectator perceives the processes of will dyed with emotions – identifying with the protagonist. When you listen music you identify too, but with an anonymous will now.
    If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    This operations of will in the music were unknown until the Theory of Musical Equilibration discovered them. And therefore many previous researches in psychology of music failed. If you want more information about music and emotions and get the answer, why music touches us emotionally, you can download the essay “Vibrating Molecules and the Secret of their Feelings” for free. You can get it on the link:

    Click to access music-and-emotions.pdf

    Enjoy reading
    Bernd Willimek

  19. Why do Minor Chords Sound Sad?

    The Theory of Musical Equilibration states that in contrast to previous hypotheses, music does not directly describe emotions: instead, it evokes processes of will which the listener identifies with.

    A major chord is something we generally identify with the message, “I want to!” The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, “No more.” If someone were to say the words “no more” slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.

    The Theory of Musical Equilibration applies this principle as it constructs a system which outlines and explains the emotional nature of musical harmonies. For more information you can google Theory of Musical Equilibration.

    Bernd Willimek

  20. ^ Self-promotion at its finest. Squires would be chuckling before roasting him on a stick. Seems he didn’t even bother to check he hadn’t already put his ad here back in 2013.

  21. it would be better if you could say something on the subject

    Bernd Willimek

  22. I did. 🙂

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