We haven’t had a bit of musical jargon for a while, but I thought it might be useful at this point to introduce the concept of major and minor keys. Very briefly, most Western music is written in a key. There are a variety of fairly technical ways to explain it, but the way I like to think about it is the group of notes that you’re using to construct your melodies. So, for instance, the most famous key is C major, which – if you’re on a piano – uses all the white notes and none of the black notes.

But there are a whole range of keys that composers can use, and certainly in classical music, most of the time a movement will move through several different keys over the course of the music (which is designed to keep things moving).

It’s this careful decision of which notes you use (and which ones you don’t) that have been allowing musicians to construct tunes for the last few centuries. Play a note that’s not in the key you’re using and it sounds like a clash. Play a note that is part of the key, and it all blends together perfectly. While our ears have slightly adjusted to what notes we’ll allow to mix together, for the most part, it doesn’t look like the concept of music being in a particular key is going to go away in a particular hurry.

One of the interesting thing about keys, though, is that they split into major and minor. It’s a total generalisation and you can always find exceptions to this, but for the most part, major keys sound bright and cheery and minor keys tend to have a more melancholy sound. But they’re never far away from each other. Just change a few of the notes and you can transform one particular key from the major into the minor.

The best simple example of this that I’ve found is this YouTube video in which the song starts in the major key, goes into the minor key and then back to major again, accompanied by some dramatic shifts in weather …

Got the idea? I’ll make a mention of it at a couple of spots in the next Mahler 7 movement (and it will also come back in many, many other movements on the tour as well, so it’s useful to know about).

9 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Jargon Interlude: Major and Minor

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