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The Major-minor Contrast

Module by: Anthony Brandt. E-mail the author

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Common Practice Tonality

From about 1600 to 1900, Western music embraced a harmonic language that has come to be called “Common Practice tonality.” Around the turn of the 20th century, progressive composers such as Claude Debussy, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky moved away from traditional tonality; the result was a breakdown in Common Practice that continues to this day. In most of “Sound Reasoning,” we have studied music as an abstract artform, with generalized principles that apply to any style or era. Harmony, however, is rooted in style: The way harmony behaves in a classical work—what it can say and how it says it-- is different from how it does so in an avant-garde twentieth century work. Because Common Practice tonality underlies the Western classical tradition and has proven to be so influential, our study of harmony begins here.

The Major-minor Contrast

The contrast between the Major and minor modes is the harmonic foundation of Western classical music.

Major:

minor:

To composers of the Common Practice era, everything about human experience --love and loss, triumph and calamity, private reflection and public proclamations, the material and the spiritual, the civilized and the wild—could be expressed either in Major or minor. In the twentieth century, avant-garde composers went beyond this duality. But, throughout the classical era, the entire musical universe consisted almost exclusively of music in Major or minor. For this reason, recognizing the difference between music in Major and minor is vital to hearing Common Practice harmony.

Musical meaning should always be considered provisional and flexible. That said, through a combination of acoustic and cultural factors, the Major mode is generally associated with positive feelings of joy, hopefulness, calm and celebration, whereas the minor mode has a negative “affect” and is generally associated with sadness, anger, despair and fear. In mainstream Western music, you are unlikely to hear a funeral march in Major or celebrate a marriage in minor.

This excerpt from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G-Major illustrates the drama of the Major-minor contrast. The winds begin in Major. After a pause, the piano shifts abruptly to minor with a striking change of musical character.

The musicologist David Huron has demonstrated that there is nothing inherently “sad” or “angry” about minor. In fact, there are cultures in which the minor scale in the “normative” one and is used for joyous occasions. Even in the Western tradition, the Major-minor contrast evolved over many centuries. However, in the classical repertoire, music in Major is almost invariably more upbeat than music in minor. Such is the strength of cultural exposure, it is almost impossible for a musically literate Westerner to hear otherwise.

The slow movement of J.S. Bach’s Concerto in g-minor begins with a progression in block chords in Major.

Later, the same progression is played in minor.

Does the change in mode register as a change in mood or emotional affect?

Here are two excerpts from Bedrich Smetana’s Die Moldau: The first time, the melody is presented in minor, the second time in Major. Similarly, do you feel, as well as hear a difference between these two excerpts?

The distinction between Major and minor is a primary foundation of our study of Common Practice harmony.

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Musical Examples
  1. Richard Wagner, 'Prelude' to Das Rheingold, Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan
  2. Johann Sebastian Bach, Concerto in d - III, Vladamir Feltsman, piano and conductor, Orchestra of St. Lukes
  3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 17 in G-major - II, Murray Perahia, piano, English Chamber Orchestra
  4. Johann Sebastian Bach, Concerto in g - II, Vladimir Feltsman, piano and conductor, Orchestra of St. Lukes
  5. Johann Sebastian Bach, Concerto in g - II, Vladimir Feltsman, piano and conductor, Orchestra of St. Lukes
  6. Bedrich Smetana, Die Moldau, New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein
  7. Bedrich Smetana, Die Moldau, New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein
Richard Wagner, 'Prelude' to Das Rheingold, Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan (0:12)
Richard Wagner, 'Prelude' to Das Rheingold, Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan (0:12)
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Deutsche Grammophon
Johann Sebastian Bach, Concerto in d - III, Vladamir Feltsman, piano and conductor, Orchestra of St. Lukes (0:10)
Johann Sebastian Bach, Concerto in d - III, Vladamir Feltsman, piano and conductor, Orchestra of St. Lukes (0:10)
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Nimbus Records
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 17 in G-major - II, Murray Perahia, piano, English Chamber Orchestra (0:47)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 17 in G-major - II, Murray Perahia, piano, English Chamber Orchestra (0:47)
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Sony Classical
Johann Sebastian Bach, Concerto in g - II, Vladimir Feltsman, piano and conductor, Orchestra of St. Lukes (0:19)
Johann Sebastian Bach, Concerto in g - II, Vladimir Feltsman, piano and conductor, Orchestra of St. Lukes (0:19)
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Nimbus Records
Johann Sebastian Bach, Concerto in g - II, Vladimir Feltsman, piano and conductor, Orchestra of St. Lukes (0:19)
Johann Sebastian Bach, Concerto in g - II, Vladimir Feltsman, piano and conductor, Orchestra of St. Lukes (0:19)
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Nimbus Records
Bedrich Smetana, Die Moldau, New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (0:40)
Bedrich Smetana, Die Moldau, New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (0:40)
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Sony Classical
Bedrich Smetana, Die Moldau, New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (0:33)
Bedrich Smetana, Die Moldau, New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (0:33)
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Sony Classical