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Guitober Blog #3

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MINOR THOUGHTS ABOUT MAJOR
(AND VICE VERSA):

MUSINGS ABOUT HOW WE HEAR MUSIC

By Jussi Reijonen

One of the most commonly heard things that many of us learning quote-unquote “Western” music come across is, “Major sounds happy. Minor sounds sad.” It has become so ingrained in how we are taught to hear music that it is rarely questioned, but is it actually true? Is major happy? Is minor sad? If yes, why? If not, why not?

I was born in a small town on the Arctic Circle in northern Finland, but spent much of my childhood growing up in different countries in the Middle East and Africa – Jordan, Oman, Lebanon and Tanzania – in other words, my upbringing was quite multicultural. One of the most important lessons I learned from those experiences was an appreciation and respect for how beautifully different people are in different parts of the world – both on an individual and cultural level – and how beautifully differently we all respond to different things. Music, in my experience, is no exception: our own individual and cultural backgrounds, personality and taste influence how we respond to music.

One of the reflections of my childhood in my later life has been a fascination with the musics of the parts of the world where I grew up, and Arabic music in particular; after 10 years or so of playing the guitar I eventually also started to study the Arabic oud, an 11-string fretless lute which is an ancestor of the guitar.

Oud

 

 

 

 

 

Bashraf Farahfaza [except] performed by Ahmad al-Khatib

Take a moment to watch the video above and listen to the sound of the oud and how it is played. What reaction do you have to the sound of the instrument? What imagery does it bring to your mind? How does the sound make you feel?

I remember one time when I was back in Finland visiting my family several years ago, and sat playing the oud, practicing a piece called Al Bortuqal (البرتقال) by the Egyptian composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab. After an hour or so, my mother poked her head into the room, and asked me why I was playing this tragically sad music. In response, I asked her if she was aware that the title translates to “The Oranges”, and is actually a joyful piece celebrating and being thankful for the abundance of the orange harvest that year in the Nile River valley. My mother – a Finnish woman who had spent 36 years of her life in Finland before we moved to the Middle East – could not comprehend how such a melody could go together with joyful lyrics.

Now, listen to the piece and see how you feel about the melody:

Al Bortuqal (البرتقال) by Mohamed Abdel Wahab

To bring the conversation geographically – and perhaps musically – towards more familiar waters, let’s revisit my original questions.

Is major always happy? Is minor always sad?

Listen to this C major chord:

Then, listen to this C minor chord:

How does each chord sound to you? Now listen to the song “Yesterday” as performed by The Beatles:

Theoretically speaking, “Yesterday” is composed in a major key. Is it happy or sad? Why? Or is it something else? What? Why?

Let’s examine the different ways how we hear music from a different angle: intonation, or tuning. How many times have you heard someone say, “That note/instrument/player is out of tune”? The statement itself is very interesting. Certainly, if someone is trying to play the exact same, say, Eb on a violin as someone else is playing on a piano at the same time, if the notes are not tuned the same, it could be said that the violin is playing out of tune and the unison desired does not quite sound like a unison.

However, when played independently and without comparison to another instrument, could it be that that curious-sounding Eb is actually not out of tune?

It is very important to be aware that the tuning system we have become accustomed to these days in the “Western” world – perhaps best illustrated by the notes on a piano keyboard – is by no means the only system of tuning in the world, nor was it the tuning system of choice in the “West” until fairly recently.

However, it is the tuning system that our ears have become accustomed to, and the one we most often refer to when checking our tuning. The result is that if we hear a note that is not tuned like the ones on the piano, we often react by feeling the note is out of tune.

To illustrate, listen to this example of a C major scale:

Compare that to this example of the Arabic maqam (translates roughly to “mode”) Rast on C:

maqam_rast_C.mp3

How does Rast sound compared to C major? Do you notice the differences in tuning? On what notes do they occur? Do those notes sound out of tune, or could it be that they are actually not out of tune but just differently tuned? Listen again, and focus on the third and seventh notes of Rast. For many of us here in the “West”, the intonation of those two notes are probably quite unfamiliar. In the Arabic music world, however, Rast is actually one of the most important maqams used, and just as important a foundation of music as C major is in the “West”, and is considered a very beautiful sound. The tuning of both the third and seventh notes is very particularly exactly what you heard in the above recording. So, does hearing something one’s ear is not used to mean it is out of tune, or could it just be as yet unfamiliar and new? To again bring an example of tuning and intonation a little bit closer to home, consider the African-American blues. When you hear a guitar player like Robert Johnson play and sing the blues, listen carefully to how he stretches, bends and slides into and out of notes. Listen to his version of “Kind-hearted Woman Blues” from 1936:

Can you find those “blue” notes on the piano? If not, does it mean he is playing and singing out of tune, or could it be that he is simply differently tuned? Do you respond differently to these notes than the ones you heard in maqam Rast? How so? Why? Are you more familiar with the sound of the blues than the sound of Arabic music, or perhaps vice versa? To tie this in with my earlier questions about happy vs. sad, consider that the blues is often interpreted as a music performed to lament one’s woes, melancholy and sadness. Now, listen to this recording of Jimi Hendrix performing his original blues, “Red House”:

Listen to the very end, and pay attention to the lyrics. Is the song melancholy? When bending into those notes, is Hendrix… out of tune? If yes, why? If not, why not? In summary, I would like to challenge you to think about what all the above means: to examine how you hear, listen to and experience music a little more closely. Whether we’re talking about major vs. minor, or in-tune vs. out-of-tune, could it be that the only thing all of us can agree on absolutely is that major sounds different than minor, that the C major scale is tuned differently than maqam Rast on C and that The Beatles sounds different than Arabic music or the blues? And that perhaps the true beauty of music is really in the fact that each one of us experiences it so… differently? And, most importantly: is Boston also not east of Cairo?