In major and minor keys

At a concert yesterday my daughter remarked that the piece we were hearing was remarkably sad, considering that it was written in a major key. She was right. We do, indeed, tend to associate the major keys with drive and optimism and the minor keys with the more melancholy and dreamy. Mozart’s Requiem, the epitome of sadness and longing, is in D minor, yet Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, distraught and as solemn as its name implies is in D major.

We choose music according to our mood, not necessarily so that we choose sad music when we are sad and happy music when we are happy, but often so that our sentiments are complemented by the music. I find myself listening to much melancholy music when I am not at all melancholic myself and I will sometimes listen to the wildness of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin when I am the most downbeat.

Yet, it is also true that some music fits a certain atmosphere perfectly. Walking through Paris at nighttime with Chopin as accompaniment is a wonder! The autumn that is meeting us presently seems to demand music in the minor keys. Christmas has its own repertoire without which Christmas would not be Christmas.

Music always moves you in some way. Even the muzak you hardly notice is found indispensable by shops to get you in the mood for buying. But oftentimes, I find, you want to be moved but do not find the music that is just right. Despite great choice perhaps the problem is that you have heard exactly the right piece too often for it to have the desired effect.

Hearing a piece of music too often is related to the topic of my book, in which I discuss how our susceptibility, or sensitivity, tends to decrease over time. Endless repetition is hard to imagine as anything but torture – the inversion of the sensitivity we seek.

At a lecture I attended recently I was struck by a scientific finding showing that human beings who lose the eyesight or hearing at a very early age and get it back 30 years later cannot really capitalize on the regained ability, because the learning process on how to use these sensory inputs was missing during a critical part of childhood. The 35 year old does not come even close to the 5 year old in terms of interacting with and learning from visual or acoustic stimuli. If that is the case what should we assume for a 1000 year old or a 100.000 year old? The answer to Francoise Sagan’s ‘Aimez-vous Brahms?’ would likely be a resounding no!

Famously Bach covered all the 24 major and minor keys in Das Wohltemperierte Klavier, and being a man of prodigious appetites he did it twice, once in Book 1 and a second time around in Book 2. But even Bach stopped there, because more would have become too much.

It is a normal human aspiration to want to experience all the major keys, all the facets of a positive life, and that many times. And we welcome the minor keys as well when they make us in the mood and dreamy – and also that many times. But the welcome is probably not endless.

In the final analysis our endeavour must be to retain as much as possible, for as long a time as possible, the impressionability of the 5 year old. In the face of disappointments and adversity we must strive to stay curious, must allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by emotion, even allow ourselves to remain vulnerable!

In Intimations of Immortality Wordsworth warns us in the most beautiful fashion about our decaying ability to be impressed:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

Upon the growing Boy,

But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,

He sees it in his joy;

The Youth, who daily farther from the east

Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,

And by the vision splendid

Is on his way attended;

At length the Man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day.


Delight in all the keys, I say – and fight, fight the ‘prison-house’!

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