The Key of a Track can have an important effect on its emotional impact. Choosing whether to use a Major or Minor scale will determine which notes sound “in key” and will define how you write the elements of your track.
Music in a Major key is traditionally associated with feelings of happiness, celebration and jubilance, while music in a Minor key is often described as sad, melancholic or brooding. One explanation for these emotional associations has been that we've become “musically conditioned” by listening to famous songs such as the Happy Birthday song (in a Major key) and the Funeral March (in a Minor key). Another theory suggests that these Keys sound similar to the way that we sound when we experience these emotions. For example, it was found that excited speech sounded similar to music in a Major Key and that people who were talking about sadness often used the Minor Third interval.
Compare the Metallica song: Nothing Else Matters, originally recorded in a Minor Key http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tj75Arhq5ho and transposed into a Major Key http://vimeo.com/24938649. Transposing the song into a Major Key definitely makes it less dark and despairing. It also demonstrates that writing in a Major Key doesn’t automatically transform a song into a jubilant celebration.
There is, in fact, many examples of songs which don’t follow the traditional characterisations of the Keys. There are songs in a Major key which are brooding and Minor Key songs which are uplifting. For example, “Creep” by Radiohead is in a Major key but sounds dark and almost sinister.
As well, the history of Electronic Dance music is full of driving, uplifting tracks which are written in a Minor key. In fact, the top 10 of the Mixmag Greatest chart http://www.mixmag.net/words/news/what-is-the-greatest-dance-track-of-all-time and Beatport Top 100 http://www.beatport.com/#/top-100 showed only one track to be in a Major Key. The clear majority were in a Minor Key (using the Minor Third).
How is it, then, that Electronic Dance music has used the Minor key to make such exciting and exhilarating music. As well, why do Producers continually choose the Minor key for their tracks. There could be an element of “musical conditioning” which drives them to write tracks that sound like others in the genre. As well, there could be an excitement to writing and listening to music which goes against the musical tradition of hearing celebratory music played in a Major Key.
It’s also possible that the Minor key melodies provide a balance when played against the driving rhythms and hyped production characteristics of Dance music. In fact, maybe melodies in a Major Key make a track with these characteristics sound too overtly happy and positive.
Either way, its important to recognise how the Key of your track can guide its emotion. Your choice of a Major or Minor key impacts the Leads, Basslines, Chord Progressions and other harmonic content that you then write.
Here’s some considerations for choosing a Major or Minor Key.
1. Explicitly choose a key for your track as early as possible.
2. Choose the Key of your track within the context of your overall track.
3. Use the rules of the Scale to glue your melodies together.
4. The third note of the scale is a defining characteristic of a track’s Key.