Can You Make Sad Songs Sound Happy (And Vice Versa)?

Mar 8, 2013
Originally published on March 8, 2013 4:15 pm

Oleg Berg, an engineer and musician in the Ukraine, had a dream as a kid. He wanted to be able to take popular songs, the recordings of which were instantly recognizable, and invert their sound: making major keys minor and vice versa.

Decades later, he has finally done it. Using a variety of music software, he created inverted versions of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," Ella Fitzgerald's recording of "Summertime" and — his favorite — "Hey Jude" by The Beatles.

Berg isn't the only musical alchemist of his kind. Earlier this year, a major-key version of R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" popped up online. The switcheroo turns what was a mournful ballad into a shiny, happy pop ditty — and that prompts a lot of questions about how the human brain processes music.

To answer some of those questions, All Things Considered turned to Rob Kapilow, a composer, conductor and music commentator. Kapilow says Oleg Berg's reworking of "Summertime" is a perfect example of the emotional cues presented by a major or minor key.

"One of the things that's so beautiful about 'Summertime,' which is originally in a minor key, is that the words are about, 'Summertime and the living is easy,' but there's a wonderful undercurrent of sadness because the chords are minor," Kapilow says. "When you put it in major, it actually is easy. And you actually lose all the complexity and that kind of bittersweet flavor of the minor."

Rob Kapilow spoke with NPR's Melissa Block; to hear more of their conversation and more minor-major conversions, click the audio link on this page.

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. I got an email from a friend this week, who asked: Have you heard the YouTube reworkings of popular music - which turn major-keyed pieces into minor, and vice versa? Well no, I hadn't. But now I have, and I'm hooked.


ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) Summertime, and the living is easy.


EURYTHMICS: (Singing) Sweet dreams are made of this. Who am I to disagree?

BLOCK: These minor- to major-key reworkings are from Oleg Berg, an engineer and musician in the Ukraine. Mr. Berg does not speak much English.


BLOCK: So his daughter, Diana(ph), did the talking. She says her father has always imagined doing this since he was a kid and now, he can, using a variety of music software.

DIANA BERG: It could take an hour, and the more complex songs could take, he says, about a week.

BLOCK: The song Diana says her dad is most proud of shifting into a minor key, is this one.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) Hey Jude, don't make it bad. Take a sad song, and make it better. Remember to let her into your heart, then you can start to make it better.

BLOCK: Mr. Berg says the reworked versions are both appealing and a little scary. Well, this musical switcheroo prompted a lot of questions about how the human brain processes music, questions that go beyond the work Oleg Berg has done.

OLEG BERG: Goodbye.

BLOCK: So we've turned to composer, conductor and music commentator Rob Kapilow, for an explainer. Rob, welcome back to the program.

ROB KAPILOW: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Berg says that when you do this - when you change from minor to major, or the other way around - that it takes people out of their comfort zone. It makes them fantasize, and think outside the box. What does science tell us is happening in the human brain, then?

KAPILOW: Well, you know, I think some of it you don't even need much science for. I think one of the things is that, you know, we have heard these pieces so many times; and all the ones that you've played, they're so iconic. And we are so used to hearing them a particular way. And, you know, that's one of the things about the recorded generation of music - is that these pieces have become really fixed in our imagination, in one particular version.And so part of the shock is not only switching from major to minor, but just hearing somebody who you thought you know show a completely different side to their personality.

BLOCK: But is there something in the spectrum of sound in the vocabulary, say, of a minor key that triggers something in our brain; or is it just culturally imposed? Do we know, oh, minor keys, those are sad songs?

KAPILOW: Well, if you only realized how many thousands of pages, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of research, you have just tapped into by that very provocative question.


BLOCK: I see.

KAPILOW: That is one of the hottest debates in the whole neuroscience world, these days. I mean, there is research on both sides; and I just want to tell you that the answer, as in so many of these fantastic questions, is hmm, not sure yet. But, you know, there have been studies done where they found like, the Mafa people of Cameroon, who had supposedly never heard Western music in any way whatsoever, could still tell - when they were played certain extracts - whether they were happy or sad or fearful, even though that was not culturally conditioned for them.

And then there are also some examples where Western listeners who have no experience with like, Hindustani music or Kirgizstani music or even Navajo Indian music, were able to tell whether songs were joyous or sad. So there's debates on both sides. But whatever the science shows, there's no doubt in the Western world, we've grown to assume that happy is major, and minor is sad.

BLOCK: I want to play you another example pulled from YouTube, and this was from somebody who calls himself CityPrime(ph), and it's a case of a minor-key song being converted to major. It's the REM song "Losing My Religion."


BLOCK: I love this one because it's such a hugely angsty song - right - in the original, in minor key. And now, it's just a boppy, happy thing.

KAPILOW: You know, you bring up such a good point. You know, you played earlier the Ella Fitzgerald "Summertime." I mean, one of the things that's so beautiful about "Summertime," which is originally in a minor key...


KAPILOW: Is that the words are about summertime and the living is easy, but there's a wonderful undercurrent of sadness because the chords are minor. So even though the text is summertime and the living is easy, the music tells us that the story is more complicated. It's minor. But when you put it in major...


BLOCK: So when you switch it, that tension is just gone, right?

KAPILOW: Yeah, it's totally gone, and it totally transforms the music. And that's why - and one of the powers of, you know, classical music is the completely different worlds that you can access when you're in a major key, and the ones that are in a minor key. And, you know, one of the things that's really interesting is, classical music continually shifts musical ideas that were originally in a major key to a minor key and vice versa - because in a way, I often say classical music is about becoming, not being.

It's not about what an idea is, or a person, when you first meet them, but it's who they can become over the course of a piece. So there's a famous set of variations by Mozart on what we now think of as "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," but he called (speaking foreign language). And we all know the tune...


KAPILOW: a major key. But if you shift that to minor key...


KAPILOW: sounds completely different. And then if you decorate it...


KAPILOW: ...which is now imitated, that creates the art. So it's not just major and minor; but it's the art of transforming a musical idea that we thought we knew, into a new person that we'd never met before.

BLOCK: So Mozart might be telling Mr. Berg in Ukraine, you know - with all due respect, Mr. Berg, have been there, have done that in much more complicated ways.

KAPILOW: Have been there and done that. And this is only the beginning. It's an important beginning, and major and minor are big differences. But in the hands of a great artist, it's only the beginning, and one of many tools that creates the complex worlds of a piece of music.

BLOCK: Well Rob, it's great to talk to you. Thank you so much.

KAPILOW: My pleasure.

BLOCK: Rob Kapilow, talking with us from the piano bench in his home, in New Jersey. He's the man behind the series "What Makes It Great," which explains great works of music. We were talking about how songs change when they're switched from minor key to major, or vice versa.

(SOUNDBITE OF REWORKED "BEAT IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.