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Merry in Minor Key

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When you think of "happy" music, there are a few different types of music that may come to mind. You may think of pop music that plays on the radio every day. You may think of traditional kids' songs that you heard when you were young. You may think of generic corporate music that plays in advertisements or YouTube compilations of cute animal videos. These types of songs are all usually written in a major key since major keys tend to be seen as uplifting.

Then there's the opposite of major keys, minor keys. Minor keys have a more downbeat sound, and as such music in a minor key is usually depressing, ominous, or both. Minor keys tend to be associated with evil or death. (In the case of the latter, see Deathly Dies Irae for a specific tune.)

But not all minor key songs are "bad." Sometimes, songs in a minor key can convey good things. They can be associated with heroic characters and/or an "epic" sense, be ideal for dancing, or even just provide a little extra flair and variety to the soundtrack.

Types of songs that usually fit this trope include:

  • Traditional folk music of some cultures.
  • Jazz. Since many jazz pieces use atypical musical keys, that often includes writing songs with upbeat messages and melodies in minor keys.
  • Music associated with Dark Is Not Evil types. In these cases, the music is usually less "merry" and more quiet and subdued.
  • Bittersweet themes such as Amicable Exes.
  • The theme of a superhero or other action hero. When in a minor key, instead of conveying the character's morality, these types of songs tend to convey the danger that the character is boldly facing. May overlap with the Dark Is Not Evil type above.

Compare Soundtrack Dissonance, for songs that are deliberately meant to be unfitting for their context (usually by having a happy song play over a disturbing scene), Lyrical Dissonance, when the lyrics are unfitting for the sound of the music, and The Sacred Darkness, where darkness (a typically depressing thing) is portrayed in a positive way.


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    Anime & Manga 

  • Bill Bailey discusses and plays with this trope in his "Minor Key" routine:
    • He says that he actually prefers minor keys to major because major keys are almost too happy, while minor keys are usually more evocative.
    • Subverted with the melodic minor scale. According to Bill, it sounds happy when the scale is going up, but depressing when it goes down.
      Bill Bailey: (singing along with the scale) Things-are-look-ing-happy-and-joy-ful no-they're-not-they're-depressing-and-bleak.
    • He claims that the harmonic minor scale is more fun because it sounds like Arabian music and that it's impossible to play the scale without getting the urge to turn it into Arabian-style music.

    Film — Animated 
  • Aladdin:
    • "Friend Like Me" is a big band-style number in D Minor. It introduces the Genie and shows his powerful wish-making abilities, as well as his kind personality and eagerness to help Aladdin with whatever he wishes.
    • "Prince Ali" is an energetic and bombastic number in which Genie introduces Aladdin (in disguise as a wealthy and heroic prince) to the people of Agrabah. It's mostly in A Minor, with a Truck Driver's Gear Change to C Minor.
  • Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation has "It's Party Time," sung by the Kraken, who appears intimidating at first, but is actually friendly. It's a jazz song in C Minor introducing the main cast to The Casino and encouraging them to have fun.
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas is an odd case. Most of the numbers sung by the citizens of Halloween are bouncy, orchestral tunes in minor keys. The monsters sing these songs in a very sinister-sounding way, yet they don't really have evil intentions, and genuinely believe they're doing good. The songs may sound scary to the viewer, but to the characters, this is just ordinary happy music. Examples include:
    • "This is Halloween," in which the citizens of Halloween Town introduce themselves and their town, and explain that they love to scare people, but mean no real harm.
    • "Making Christmas," which is set to the melody of Deathly Dies Irae, in which the citizens make creepy, twisted toys (that they think kids will actually like) for their own version of Christmas.
    • Subverted with "Finale." As Jack returns to the town, having saved Santa Claus and Sally from Oogie Boogie, the song starts with the citizens reprising the tune of "This is Halloween," but it soon switches to a major key version.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Downplayed in both film adaptations of Animal Farm. Old Major's song "Beasts of the World" is in D Minor in both films. The song is about how animals will rise up and be free from the humans who are oppressing them. The song's tone is bittersweet yet hopeful.
  • "Hushabye Mountain" from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a soothing lullaby but is in a minor key, which makes it somewhat haunting.
  • In King Kong (2005), a lot of the music related to Kong is in a minor key which makes it sound tragic, but it has a noble and even heroic tone. The theme for his and Ann's relationship is also in minor key but sounds gentle and hopeful.
  • The Fellowship theme from The Lord of the Rings is in a minor key but backed by major chords.
  • The Avengers theme from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is rousing and triumphant-sounding, but is in E minor.
  • The "He's a Pirate" theme from Pirates of the Caribbean is in D minor, but is exciting and upbeat sounding.
  • The iconic "Force Theme" from Star Wars is in a minor key, and while one of its most famous renditions (the "Binary Sunset") sounds slightly mournful, there are also more triumphant variants, such as the one that plays in The Phantom Menace when Anakin Skywalker destroys a Trade Federation battleship.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Played with in the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song "Remember that We Suffered". It's a Musical Pastiche of Jewish folk songs (including being an upbeat number in a minor key) and is performed at a wedding. However, the lyrics are all about the suffering Jewish people have endured. Lampshaded:
    "Nights like these are filled with glee
    Noshing, dancing, singing, whee!
    But we sing in a minor key
    To remember that we suffered..."
  • The main theme from Lost is in D minor but has a reflective and hopeful tone.
  • Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?: The show plays this straight then subverts it when a contestant wins the top money prize. It starts out what would normally be considered fear-and-stress-inducing, but then changes to a triumphant major key finish to complete the theme.

  • AJR: "Bang!" is a bombastic tune in C Sharp Minor. Amusingly, in the "Making of Bang!" segment from one of their live shows, Ryan describes the bassline of the song as "angry and evil-sounding." However, the song overall has a fun tone that makes it sound perfect for a party. The lyrics seem to be about having fun one last time before leaving your childhood behind and embracing adulthood.
  • Backstreet Boys: "Larger than Life" has a powerful, bold tune in C Minor. The song is about the band thanking their fans for all the love they've shown, and how the fans' support keeps the band going even when times are tough.
  • The Beatles: "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band alternates between C Minor and D Minor. It describes an exciting show, not for a Circus of Fear, but for a Real Life circus belonging to Pablo Fanque.Fun fact Almost all of the lyrics were based on a poster for Fanque's circus. The song seems to straddle the line between Happy Circus Music and Creepy Circus Music, however, it learns more towards "happy" because the circus is legitimate.
  • Most of Cab Calloway's music is in a minor key, and his songs usually have cynical, depressing stories about people turning to drugs. Despite this, they played the songs in such an energetic way that they could still get audiences dancing with excitement. However, "Zaz Zuh Zaz" is perhaps his best example of this trope. Despite the song being in D Minor, it seems to be about staying positive no matter what happens.
    "There's no need for them to be blue,
    Cause 'zaz zuh zaz' will always see them through!"
  • Cesar Franck's "Pièce Héroïque" (Heroic Piece) is an intense and dramatic organ piece. It's in the key of B Minor, and borders on Ominous Pipe Organ at times, although the middle section is much softer and gentler.
  • The Cog Is Dead:
    • Zig-zagged with "WEIRD," which is in D Minor. The verses tell about how John has been bullied and treated like an outcast for his weird behaviors, but overall, the message of the song is that John doesn't mind what other people think of him, because he enjoys being "weird," and he wouldn't have it any other way.
    • Double subverted with "The Girl and the Clockwork Dragon," which is in E Minor throughout. The song tells a somewhat grim fantasy story of a king who sends his knights to kill a dangerous mechanical dragon. However, the story has a happy ending. The final chorus sounds especially triumphant, but it's still in E Minor.
    • Zig-zagged with "Freak Show." While the whole song is in D Minor, the tone of the song varies wildly. The verses tell a rather sad story about a man with a metal jaw who has no choice but to join a circus freak show. The chorus plays this trope straight, in that the circus freaks sing about their group and how everyone is welcome to join them. Near the end of the song, the chorus is reprised in a much sadder tone by one of the freaks after the metal-jawed man dies of tetanus... but then, right after that, the chorus is repeated one last time in its normal, cheerful tone.
    • They did a cover of AJR's "Bang!" which is in C Sharp Minor. John's vocals, along with the instrumentation, sound more aggressive and sinister than the original version, but the song still retains its original lyrics about having fun while your youth lasts.
  • Elton John: The chorus of "I'm Still Standing" is in a minor key, but it's actually more hopeful sounding than the verses, which are ironically in major key.
  • While Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters" from their self-titled album is an uplifting love song about marriage, it is played in E minor in the verses, creating an odd Lyrical Dissonance where the music sounds mournful.
  • Pharrell Williams' "Happy" is in F minor and is almost maddeningly upbeat.
  • All but two songs in Sabaton's discography were composed in a minor key, but despite their military history theme, many are quite upbeat. One example is "The Last Battle", which describes how US Army troops, German defectors, Austrian resistance fighters, and prisoners of war joined forces at the end of World War II to hold off a Waffen-SS death squad for several hours until Army reinforcements relieved them.
  • Vocaloid:
  • "Weird Al" Yankovic: "Albuquerque" from Running with Scissors is, well, a weird example. Most of the song is played in F Minor, although aside from the guitars playing F notes, the verses are mostly atonal. The chorus, which is repeated several times throughout the song, is where you can hear the minor key most clearly. However, there's also one short segment ("If you'd like to make a call...") which is played in F Major. The song tells a story that is quirky and fun, even though it occasionally dips into Black Comedy.

    Puppet Shows 
  • Sesame Street:
    • "Song of the Count" is sung by Count von Count about how he loves to count things. The song is in B Minor and mimics Eastern European folk music, which is fitting for the Count's Bela Lugosi-esque accent.
    • The show also did this with the beginnings of the "Slimey to the Moon" season-long story arc! When the Wiggleprise rocket carrying Slimey and 4 other worm astronauts successfully launches, the ending shots of it flying through space are accompanied by a serious and triumphant "The Planets, Mars Suite"-like music score.

    Video Games 
  • Balan Wonderworld: "Balan's Bout" is the leitmotif of Balan, the mysterious, powerful Big Good. Since Balan has a showman/theater motif, the song has a jazzy show tune style. It's played in B Minor.
  • Figment 2: Creed Valley:
    • Double subverted with "Dance Like an Idiot," the Jester's song, which they sing snippets of throughout the game. It's in A Minor, and the lyrics are all about letting go of logic and giving in to craziness. Since the Jester initially seems to be evil, the minor key definitely helps their song sound like a Villain Song. However, they're Good All Along, and they just want to restore a sense of childish innocence and fun to the Mind.
    • Zig-zagged in "The Dance-off, Pt. 4," which is sung near the end after Dusty finally befriends and makes peace with the Jester. The verses are in a major key, but the chorus is reprised from "Dance Like an Idiot," except in B Minor and with slightly altered lyrics.
  • The Myst series can be known for this:
    • Riven: The ending theme (Atrus' Theme) when you get the best case scenario; trap Gehn, free Catherine, and signal Atrus, which in turn, starts the destruction of the age of Riven, is very mournful and mystical. However, the ending itself is not necessarily bad: the age of Riven is collapsing in on itself, but everyone important is safe, including Atrus, Catherine, the innocent villagers, and the rebels who fought against the oppressive rule of Gehn. Plus, Atrus has gone on a hunch that you, the player, will be taken home as well by the enigmatic Star Fissure, as his Myst Book fell into that very same fissure, and found its way into your hands, somehow, kicking off the events that brought you together to save Atrus, his family, and the people of Riven, which also brings about a contemplative air to the theme.
    • Myst III: Exile: And as happens to be: Atrus was correct, as 10 years after the events of Riven, you return to Atrus safe and sound for a visit. However, a new danger threatens Atrus' people. The leitmotif of the villain, Saavedro, who makes the threat, is just as sad and longing. However, again, if you are able to bring the game to its best-case conclusion, Saavedro's leitmotif plays in full, melancholy, but triumphant, as he is now able to reunite with his people after being separated from them for 20 years. Plus, you are able to return the book that links to the age of Releeshahn back to Atrus and Catherine, with a triumphant choir and orchestra, still in minor key, finishing the final game cutscene.
  • Nancy Drew: The Haunted Carousel: There are two themes for the carousel. Both are intended In-Universe to be Happy Circus Music for an innocent carousel, but both use minor keys to an extent:
    • Zig-zagged with "Carousel A." This tune goes back and forth between C Major and C Minor, creating a quirky, dissonant mood.
    • Played straight with "Carousel B." This tune is all minor, being mostly in A Minor with one segment in C Minor. It's stated that this was Joy Trent's favorite song when she was a child. Nancy must learn to play the first six notes of the tune to help Joy regain her memories.
  • Sonic Forces: Downplayed. "Fist Bump," the game's theme song, is an epic, motivational song about The Power of Friendship. The verses are in C Minor, and the chorus is in E Minor; however, the pre-chorus jumps around between various major and minor chords.
  • Super Mario Bros.: Being the track that would become the main theme for a silly and lighthearted series like Super Mario Bros., it's only natural that the ground theme would be upbeat and bouncy. And with it being a bit jazzy, it's played in A Minor.
  • Super Metroid's Theme of Samus Aran is played with a Harmonic Minor scale.note 

    Web Original 
  • Discussed Trope in 8-bit Music Theory's video on the Aoelian mode: it's usually the upbeat rhythms of a piece of music that make it sound happy or heroic; without that, then the "natural" sense of the mode takes over (and to prove his point, he ends the analysis with a sad piano version of Guile's theme)

    Western Animation 
  • Batman: The Animated Series: Batman's leitmotif is an epic fanfare, usually played with trumpets, in D Minor. With its soaring, ascending melody, this tune is clearly meant to make viewers cheer. It plays in some of Batman's most epic moments, such as when he makes a dramatic entrance.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: The song "Flawless" is sung in a parallel key alternating between D major and B minor, which perfectly describes the flaws of the Mane Six as they embrace them as well.
  • Spider-Man (1967): The show's famous theme song, which has since become a leitmotif for the lovable hero Spider-Man, is in C Minor.

    Real Life 
  • Several national anthems, including Israel's "Hatikvah" and Japan's "Kimigayo", are in a minor key. (link to more examples)