Friday 29 December 2017

Major Light, Minor Shadows: Changing a Song from Comedy to Tragedy, Part One

Years ago on a CBC Radio 2 show, the host Tom Allen played a transposition of REM's "Losing My Religion," written in a minor key, into a major key. Tom giggled, and so did I. Long ago I took some music theory, and I remembered transposing melodies from one key to another, and I remember learning about the different modes of western music with exotic names like Dorian, Lydian, and Mixolydian.

Scholarly journals such as Psychomusicology and Music Perception operate on the assumptions that music and mind have a relationship and that the scholarly study of such a relationship is worthwhile. Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a book, Musicophilia, about the ways that music perception is influenced by neurological conditions.

The idea that a specific key can have a specific meaning and emotional effect is something that western composers took for granted, at least until the twentieth century, when the idea of keys were called into question. Beginning in the eleventh century, western musical theorists associated different modes with different emotions, though the different theorists didn't necessarily agree (Temperley and Tan 239). Rita Steblin in A History of Key Characteristics in the 18th and Early 19th Centuries gives examples of these emotion-key mappings. Here is one specific scheme in Christian Schubart's Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806), where, for example, C major connotes "innocence, simplicity, na├»vety, children's talk" and F# Minor, the "gloomy key," "tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language."

David Temperley and Daphne Tan of the Eastman School of Music did research whose aims and conclusions are nicely summarized in the article's title, "Emotional Connotations of Diatonic Modes"  (DOI 10.1525/mp.2012.30.3.237) published in Music Perception in 2012. on the emotional reactions of non-musicians on hearing pairs of same melody written in two different modes, specific patterns of whole tones and half tones.

The mode most people call the major key is in the exotic naming I learned as a teenager called Ionian, while the Aeolian mode is similar to the type of minor key called descending melodic minor (Temperley and Tan 238). According to tradition, the major key has positive connotations and the minor key has negative connotations (Temperley and Tan 239).

In their acknowledgement of their predecessors in the study of music and emotions, Temperley and Tan make the distinction between perceived emotion and felt emotion. A song may sound sad, but the listener may nevertheless feel happy when they hear it (239). For example, I feel happy when I hear the song "Tennessee Waltz" by Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart because I think the melody is beautiful, but the song sounds sad to me, perhaps because I am influenced by the lyrics, or perhaps for another reason.

Thus  a few difficulties arise with my experiment to add "shadow" to a song that seems "light." What do I want to do: make a song that sounds "tragic" or a song that makes me feel "tragic"? Besides that distinction, what is it that a song must to be "tragic"? In their research, Temperley and Tan asked participants to classify songs on how they sounded, rather than how the songs made them feel. They also simplified the categories of emotional reaction to two: happy and sad.

Temperley and Tan's participants were fairly consistent with their categorizations. They identified the Ionian mode, the familiar major key, as "happy." That result confirmed Temperley and Tan's prediction. Ionian mode is extremely familiar to begin with in popular music, for one thing, so they result may come from the comfort afforded to something familiar. As for the results generally, Temperley and Tan acknowledged that, generally speaking, modes considered to be "far away" from Ionian were classified as "sad." The researchers noted, however, that the nonmusicians were quite able to distinguish between different modes, despite their lack of music training, and that familiarity with certain modes that often used in popular music, did not explain their preference for some modes over others, beyond their shared preference for Ionian mode (the major key). The researchers played six different modes (Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, and Phrygian) of the same melody, and reactions to the modes suggested that the participants had the ability to distinguish them, to the point that participants' reactions to a specific mode was fairly consistent. Participants didn't necessarily prefer modes that should be more familiar, either. Temperley and Tan wondered if a mode that sounded "sharper" than others made people sense it as sadder.

For my experiment, I have  only myself and my limited musical abilities (two years' worth of music theory and several years, long ago, of accordion lessons). I read and listened to a good tutorial of the modes, and then I decided to play around with Audacity, a free music editing program.Audacity can certainly change pitches, but it can't autogenerate a transposition such that some notes are dropped by a semitone while others remain as it. I frankly was hoping for autogeneration.

The easiest thing, at least for my talents, to do is to take a tune I know and transpose it myself. As part of my novelty year (which  I have posted about), I wrote a tune called "Walk On By." It is in G major. My goal, then is to transpose it to a minor key and see what happens. I am tickled by the list of keys and emotions on David Loberg Code's website, so my plan is to transpose my G major tune to G minor, which Christian Stubart describes as "Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike." To me, this characteristic is close to what tragedy often derives from: a plan to ameliorate one's condition through a plan that ultimately fails.

That transposition will take me some time to do.