It’s a stereotypical notion that major keys sound happy and minor keys sound sad. In reality, it takes a lot more than simply choosing major or minor. You can have sad songs in major keys (“Someone Like You” – Adele, Dan Wilson), and you can have happy songs in minor keys (“Happy ‘Cause I’m Going Home” – Robert Lamm).
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A song sounds happy or sad for several reasons:
- The title or lyric leads the audience to perceive the desired mood. If a song is called “Happy ‘Cause…” we’re likely to perceive the song as being happy even before we click to hear it.
- The tempo pulls our mood up or down. A songwriter wanting to write a sad song will usually choose a slower tempo. Even though a slow tempo doesn’t, on its own, make us feel sad, it does tend to sound a bit thoughtful and introspective.
- Playing style affects mood. Guitar/keyboard lines that are played aggressively or percussively will, in coordination with other musical choices (lyrics, vocal style, etc.), make songs sound either happy, edgy or angry. Songs where the guitarist/keyboardist chooses to play gentle arpeggios tend to sound sad, introspective or otherwise thoughtful.
- Chord choices affect the mood. Though a sad song can be successfully written using major keys, it is true that a well-placed minor chord — especially where you thought a major chord was coming — can affect the mood.
And here’s another thing: it’s usually far too simplistic to say that a song is “happy” or “sad.” Most songwriters are likely to write songs that dig far deeper into the notion of mood. They’ll often move back and forth between various moods, sometimes within the same section of a song.
So a song like “Bridge Over Troubled Water” can sound “sad”, when in fact it’s a combination of several more complex emotions: sadness, thoughtfulness, caring, hopefulness, and more.
Most of the time, getting a song to portray the right emotion starts with the playing style, and it’s usually dealt with instinctively. But from a songwriting point of view, here’s the one thing you should be doing with every song you write: Find the most emotional moments in your song, and take a look at what’s going on musically.
You might have a moment right at the start of your chorus, for example, that displays a strong emotion, and so whatever is happening musically right there is going to either support or contradict that emotion.
Just as a good lyric is either emotional or narrative in character, everything else that happens (chords, melody, tempo, vocal style, etc.) should partner up with the lyric and support it.
When you get that right, you’ve usually got a song that works well.
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