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Saturday, April 14, 2012

I will never give up on the sadness of D minor

Or: Why do composers choose certain keys?
Or: Is D minor the saddest key?

I occasionally review the stats on this blog, and to my endless surprise (and pleasure, I must admit) it is my original post on D minor that gets the most attention. I, myself, am still fascinated by D minor as a key, and by the idea of key selection. I am endlessly quizzing my music teachers (I have two, now) about what the real meaning is of keys having a "colour" and how if the technology now permits playing in an easy key while hearing the music transposed to any other key, who is really choosing a key for the "colour" of the "sound" now?

In the two years since I wrote my last post about D minor, (and four years since I wrote the first) I have studied a lot of music theory. I still have the same questions, but I can now understand some of the answers. As I've said before, and if I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times, the key to adult education is repetition. (Get it?)

Here is the classic scene about D minor from This Is Spinal Tap (1984), just to get started:

A number of people have cited this bit as the actual source of the idea that D minor is, in fact, the saddest key. I think Nigel Tufnel (played by the brilliant Christopher Guest, aka Baron Haden-Guest. Yes.) is able to claim this because there is an older link from D minor to the dorian mode, which is the order of tones and semitones you have if you play the octave of white keys only from D to D, and historically associated with the qualities of 'serious and tearful', and considered to be the saddest mode. The names for modes come from ancient Greek music theory, but the names were re-purposed in the medieval period and then again (roughly) 300 years ago, to talk about scales. The actual name for the sequence of tones and semitones we know as a (natural) minor key, such as D minor, is the aeolian mode, but the minor triad on D (D - F - A) from the aeolian mode also matches up with dorian mode (ie all white keys running from D to D).

The real doorway for me was starting to learn guitar. (Too much time on my hands, I guess). After a few weeks, my teacher asked if I wanted to learn a Neil Young song, like Harvest Moon. Now Neil Young is a god of the guitar, and comes from the golden age of acoustic guitar, the 70's, during which period I was a teenager, so naturally I said OH yes! A Neil Young song! Yes! But the song I want to learn is Old Man. I have always loved this exquisite song, and I love the new version, too, by Redlight King, in which Young's music is sampled, actually the only time Young has given his permission for sampling. (BTdubs, Young and Mark Kasprzyk, known as Kazzer, from Redlight King, are another couple of nice Canadian boys! Go Canada!)

Here are the videos:
Neil Young:

Redlight King:

This song is given as written in D major, and starts and finishes with D major (the triad D - F# - A). The chords in the song are D - G - F and a little A minor. Wait a minute - that is not the usual rock music pattern (which in D would be D - A - G) , nor is it really D major, with that F natural chord instead of F sharp. I asked my guitar teacher and he said think about D dorian. No, that's not right either - no D major in D dorian, only D minor. However, my piano/theory teacher said think about a D blues scale, and BINGO! Access to both D major and D minor, and A minor (A - C  - E - all white keys not the A - C# - E of D major). A blues scale mixes major and minor chords, and on D mixes major and minor, aeolian and dorian (and the major scale mode, ionian, but who's counting).

There you have it - the D minor triad connects with dorian, and aeolian and also connects with blues in D, with its major/minor options. Blues = sad music, and the blues in D has the historical dorian element as well.

Now, I also have something fresh to say about D minor. I recently read a new book called Chopsticks. There is nothing I like better than a project with multiple strands. I know nothing about the author, Jessica Anthony, but the book's designer, Rodrigo Corral, has already made it onto my "cool-hunting" book designer list (Actually I saw a joke cover he did in a short piece in Wired magazine a few days before I received this book, and the name struck me. Shout-out to Scott Westerfeld - I think of myself as a trend-setter, the way he explains it, not one of the very coolest, known as innovators - I like to catch the trends quickly, often thru magazines. I don't make them but I get on them early. Loved his book So Yesterday. For that matter, covering something like the same ground, I loved William Gibson's Pattern Recognition to the extent that it is one of my all-time favourites. But je digress. Sorry, can't seem to stop today.)

So...every now and then a book appears that merits a second, or even a third look, and Chopsticks is one. At first it seemed like the most interesting thing about it was its existence as a new type of book: a story told thru a modern selection of ephemera and epistles - texts and playlists, for example. Interesting, but, for me, of uncertain value, both narratively and aesthetically. Then I thought about tracking down the YouTube references embedded in the "texts".

As I was paging thru the book, I started to rethink my impressions. OK - on one level it's "Romeo and Juliet with texting" (with a little West Side Story ethnic mix thrown in for good measure). Cute. Then, well, the girl is actually a piano prodigy, and her various performance pieces are shown on bits of ephemera, before the texting gets underway, and I started to look them up and listen to them (mainly the adagio movements, I confess. Love the sad music.). Then I realized they progressed with her distress from two pieces in Eb major via a couple of shorter pieces in A minor and B minor to a piece in C minor to BRAHMS FIRST PIANO CONCERTO IN D MINOR! OMG! ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL AND SAD PIECES OF MUSIC EVER! QED: D minor is the saddest key!!!!  (I should just write QEDminor.) And isn't that a circular progression? And doesn't it mirror the arc of the narrative? Nice!

Here is the great Arthur Rubenstein performing the first part of the second movement, the adagio, natch, of Brahms Piano Concerto No 1, in D minor, Op 15:

and the second part:

It's a lot of listening, and a little old, but worth it.

Then I started copying the playlists, thinking about whether they were related thematically to the plot, or more like  leit-motifs for characters, (already a nice, and musical, level of sophistication in a book). It will take some time, but I will listen my way thru them, too, even the pieces I know, in order to work out their places. Then I ran into some of the YouTube references. Funnily, the first one in the book didn't seem to work for me. I thought "Oh! It's bogus." I decided to try one more before giving up, and it led to a delightful and meaningful link. I went back to the first, and typed it in slightly differently, and watched in surprise until it made sense, too. I checked them all, and even tracked down the things that were at one remove. Fun? Wow!

And I found one that doesn't seem to have attracted the attention of the young lovers, by a pianist who is actually quite a fascinating prodigy himself.


And then I finally went to look up some stuff about Anthony and Corral. Nothing much is available. I guess I have to send in my own questions. (I have sent my questions to their publisher, but have not received any reply. Oh well, I guess they are not the nice Canadian type.)

Back at the time of my first post on D minor, Dory left a comment recommending a resource for  understanding key characteristics, called, strangely,  Characteristics of Musical Keys, kept by Mickey Koth, a fiddler and music librarian. The site is really a meta-site with links to all kinds of key-identity resources. It's a lot of fun and quite interesting, if you are motivated to look further into it.

The marigold is wondering nervously if everyone is familiar with QED? Just in case, it is Latin, Quod erat demonstradum - Thus it is demonstrated. Is that not a useful Latinism? Can you use it in a sentence?

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