why do some cultures express happiness through music with major chords while other cultures do though minor chords?


I used to think that major and minor chords were universal indicators of happiness and sadness but I realized many cultures use different modes besides just typical Aeolian. I want to know the history of why this is.

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General music composition is so much more than just what key its played in! Even western culture is inconsistent with what minor keys tend to convey: Puttin’ On the Ritz by Irving Berlin is a prime example of a happy song that is not in a major key.

You have to consider melody, sequence, rhythm, and reasons for the chord choice in the first place too. Minor chords and sequences tend to suggest change, complexity or expectation; while major chords bring a sense of conclusion and being settled. If you feel happiness because “the work is done” and you have arrived at a satisfying end, then great. Major key songs probably appeal more to you. For others, the possibility of future endeavors may be more exciting, renewing a sense of life and meaning.

I feel like your question is flawed and terribly subjective, but if you have evidence of cultural leanings, I would fascinated to see it.

Calling major happy and minor sad is an oversimplification. I’ve heard minor described as “passionate” and major as “compassionate”, but I think that how you use the chords ultimately matters much more than whether they’re major or minor.

Check out this video of sad Pixar themes. You might be surprised to discover that *none* of them are in a minor key, but if you’ve seen these movies, these songs will make you cry instantly.


Those movies all used those major themes to represent moments of triumph and happiness. However, that makes those melodies incredibly powerful, because when you play them softly and gently, they take on a completely different meaning – triggering feelings of loss and sorrow that comes from thinking back on previous happy memories, memories of things that are now gone forever.

Sticking with Pixar, how about the theme from the Incredibles?


It’s in a minor key the whole way through, but I don’t see how you could possibly describe it as “sad”. It’s exciting, but the minor key brings an element of danger to it.

So I think the whole premise is off. Some cultures use major and minor keys in different ways, yes – but “western music” is incredibly rich and conveys a huge range of emotions with major and minor keys too.

If you want to learn more about this, I suggest you read Harmonic Experience by W. A. Mathieu. It dives into the history in great depth.