Reading Time: 2 minutes Sal awakes late December to the sensation of a great disturbance in the Force. The holidays are upon us. Happy holidays.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

8 min screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-11-09-38-am

Major is happy, minor is sad. It’s the one music theory thing that everybody knows. But what happens when you cross the streams, taking a major song and throwing it into the soul-crushing abyss of a minor key?

That’s just what Chase Holfelder’s Major to Minor project does, turning upbeat numbers like “Kiss the Girl” from The Little Mermaid into a creepy assault fantasy, and making the sweet tribute to undying love that is “I Will Always Love You” into a soundtrack of dark obsession (20 sec):

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But there’s one pretty obvious target that Chase hasn’t transmogrified yet — a song so happy that its actual name is “Happy.” So I wonder what happens if you take Pharrell Williams’s infectiously danceable hit and put it in a minor key?

I’ll tell you what happens. NOTHING happens — because “Happy” is already in minor.

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You don’t believe me OR Anna Kendrick? Fine. First a taste of the original, then I’ll wreck it to prove my point (24 sec):

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If you read music, you can see it on the page. The F minor scale has Ab, Db, and Eb — F major does not:


Straight up F minor.

Now there is a little major cream in the minor coffee of this song, a few A-naturals peeking through here and there. It’s a common practice in jazz and R&B to let major and minor knock up against each other. But there’s no doubt that minor wears the pants in this one. If I scrubbed every little fleck of major from “Happy,” turning it all minor, you’d hardly notice the difference. Turn it all major, though, and the song is destroyed.

Lemme crank up my quaint Korg M-1 to do a reverse Holfelder, switching “Happy” from minor to major. Here’s the opening:

Gah. It’s like the Partridge Family at its whitest.

Even worse is what happens to this spot, where the backup singers sing “Happy, happy, happy, happy…” (12 sec):

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Here it is in F major:

Okay, so “Happy” is minor. But how can that be? How can anything as happy as “Happy” be in a minor key?

The answer is that emotion in music isn’t on a simple major/minor toggle. A lot of variables are in play. In his remixes, Holfelder never only changes the mode to minor — he messes with tempo, instrumentation, dynamics, vocal stylings, and chord structures as well.

This goes both ways: By fiddling with other switches, music in a major key can be just as sad as minor. This devastating number from Les Miz is in a major key:

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And aside from sad, a minor key can be powerful, goofy, thrilling…and yes, even happy.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.