Search This Blog

Thursday, April 3, 2008

D Minor is the saddest key

After many many years, I started back at piano lessons, including theory, last year. I really didn't have time to practice, and this year I don't even have time for lessons, BUT it really got me listening to music with a new kind of attention. Luckily, the radio is like a never-ending course in the never-ending stream of Western Classical Music. My favorite is CBC Radio 2.

Aside from keyboard convenience, and possibly referrals to prior works, I have not yet really understood why one key might be chosen by a composer over another. OK, Bach worked his way systematically through all the keys, and Beethoven kind of worked through most of them, but that is not quite a reason why any piece is set in any particular key.

I can't remember what stray fragment generated the idea that D minor is the saddest key. I LOVE sad music. D minor being sad has to do with the ancient Dorian mode, apparently. I don't have a clear understanding of that. I have been thinking about it a little bit for over a year now, and looking it up here and there when I get a chance.

There are some pretty impressive D minor pieces. I just heard Fauré's Quartet in D minor on the radio. Brahms, a famously sad and tragic guy, wrote his stunning Piano Concerto #1 in D minor. I understand that Haydn's String Quartet, Op 76 No 2 is in D minor, and is called the Witch's Minuet. Promising. Bach has some sensational work in D minor. Love Bach in all keys. I was curious about Swan Lake - famously tragic also, seems to be B minor. As for Beethoven's well-known sad Piano Sonatas, Op 13 - Pathétique is in C minor and Op 27 Moonlight is in C# minor. He did write Op 31 No 2 in D minor (must listen), which was apparently inspired by Shakespeare's "The Tempest". I am wondering if Prokofiev or Saint-Saëns used it, or Rachmaninoff. Is it pop-sad or really sad? Where does Wagner use it, if he uses it?

The marigold wonders nervously:
Is D minor the saddest key?
What could make D minor sadder than the other minor keys?
What is the saddest music?

And even more nervously:
What about the keys of sad pop music?

I guess I should look up a few songs that I think of as sad, and see if I can figure it out. John Lennon should be the optimal starting point.


  1. The "D minor is the saddest key of all" thought is actually a joke from the movie "This is Spinal Tap". While some theorists believe that due to western tempering different keys have different characteristics, these theories were really only regarded as terribly important in the 18th century. Here's a site that talks more about this if you are interested:

  2. Hi Dory

    Interesting! I loved Spinal Tap, although I have not seen it since I have come back to studying music. However, I heard the comment with some ideas about Dorian mode in a program about Bach on a CBC broadcast.

    I am inclined to think that it is a smart throw-away reference in Spinal Tap, but I will check your reference, thanks very much.

    And I guess I better see Spinal Tap again, to enjoy the line. The one we use in our house is turning the volume up to 11, which is one more than 10.

    I also have read (most of) the book
    Temperament by Stuart Isacoff which is chaotic but rich in the history of tuning. Do you know it?

  3. Why do Minor Keys Sound Sad?
    If you want to answer the question, why minor chords sound sad, there is the problem, that some minor chords don't sound sad. The solution is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can just convey processes of will, but the music listener fills this processes of will with emotions. Similar, when you watch a dramatic movie in television, the movie cannot transmit emotions directly, but processes of will. The spectator perceives the processes of will dyed with emotions - identifying with the protagonist. When you listen music you identify too, but with an anonymous will now.
    If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will "I don't want any more...". If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will "I don't want any more..." with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words "I don't want anymore..." the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    This operations of will in the music were unknown until the Theory of Musical Equilibration discovered them. And therefore many previous researches in psychology of music failed. If you want more information about music and emotions and get the answer, why music touches us emotionally, you can download the essay "Music and Emotions - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration" for free. You can get it on the link:
    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:
    Enjoy reading
    Bernd Willimek

  4. This is an interesting take on D minor! Thank you for sharing. I also thought of how music was considered a branch of rhetoric in medieval culture, and was treated as a realm of affective experiences. For a medieval text I'm working on currently, I used theories of affect to approach music, but feel that I need to look up the theory of equilibration that you mention here. Very interesting stuff!