The kids dig minor keys: How pop music has changed since 1960

While 85% of Billboard Top 100 songs of the 1960s were written in a major key, that preference no longer holds true today. Minor key songs have become the majority, representing about 60% of modern hits. Scientific American's Helen Lee Lin delves into this, and other documented changes in musical preference. The research is totally interesting, even if the scientists don't seem to have a good idea of what it means. Maybe we're depressed. Or maybe we're just trying to sound more mature. Here's the original paper. (Via ScienceGoddess)


  1. What about all that dubstep? What key do those foghorn synthesizers get played in? Inquiring minds want to know!

  2. My guess is a lot of the possible major key chord progressions and melodies have been copyrighted, so song writers had to move to minor keys in order to survive (and not get sued). 

  3. My first assumption would have been that kids want stuff that doesn’t sound like what their parents listened to. 

  4.  it’s funny. i have to work a lot harder to write music in major keys. 

    much of this has to do with my primary influences — neil young’s more tortured music in my teens, nirvana in my early 20’s, radiohead after that.  some of it also has to do with what i’m trying to say with my music.  with a tendency to write slightly angsty personal lyrics, minor progressions are a natural fit. even songs that i write in major keys have a tendency to be hi-jacked by minor chords (which seems to be a radiohead trick).

    when i make an effort to write more political songs — or brighter traditional-style folk — the major chords come floating to the surface.

    i think that many streams of popular music have turned more introspective, pondering, and, yes, darker since the 60’s.

    the primal infancy of rock grew up to be a moody teenager and questioning 20-something.  there’s a reason why so much of it has been “alternative” to the classic rock of the 60’s.

    it could be that, whereas the boomers lived in a world of almost infinite social and economic possibility, the musicians that came after inherited a world that was a lot bleaker and more problematic.  the major themes of modern popular music called for minor keys. 

    it could also be that we’ve outgrown “silly love songs.”

  5. I wonder what they take as a “minor” or “major” scale (and I’m not willing to pass the paywall to find it). Anyway, the mentioned conclussions sounds pretty suspicious to me (what about the lenght of the music 150 years ago?, maybe there are other possible explanations like the maximum music you can record in a vynil vs. a CD?)… BTW in the comments of the linked Scientific American article there is an interesting objection about one of the mentioned hypothesis. Here’s the link

  6. Remember bands that used to smile while they sang? If you’re under 50, you probably don’t. (unless, like me, you love to research Pop music from the 50s and 60s) It’s very sad that we don’t have that sort of thing in the mainstream these days. We could certainly use it.

    I think it goes this way: Major keys sound happy. Happy music makes you smile. When you smile, the ‘cool kids’ make fun of you ’cause you probably look like an idiot to them.

    Also, there’s nothing more satisfying to a teenager than to brood about nothing in particular. Nearly every teenager loves to fake emotional burden. Minor keys compliment that very well… “I feel so… deep.”

    1. Umm, maybe teenagers really are miserable because our society infantilizes them, bores them to death, and subjects them to a “Lord of the Flies”-style social environment.  I know I was miserable enough as a teenager that I never had to “fake” anything.

      (The “surly teenager” thing is apparently mostly a late-20th century USA phenomenon.  I think it’s real and I think it’s almost entirely cultural.)

    2. True, but then you have people like The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, who sings about heartbreak, death, loss, near-death, and general cosmic terror— sometimes while covered in fake blood —all in major keys. With dancing furry animals. And confetti.

      The cool kids love it.

  7. Sounds like laziness to me. Kids today just don’t want to put in the extra work to get to a major chord. They think a minor chord is good enough, thanks Obama.

    1. Do you have any evidence or citations for that?  Many world folk musics use scales that are obviously different from western scales (usually by employing chromatic runs which do not crop up in the standard western modes) but as I understand almost all world musics employ the frequency ratio corresponding to a major third.

      I’m not trying to be argumentative, incidentally, I’m honestly curious about the theoretical bases of non-western music.

      1. Ha! You sound a lot more more knowledgeable than me, but I would say that the use of quarter-tones in Eastern music would generally result in something more dissonant than Western scales. That spine-tingling quality a lot of Eastern music has is specifically a result of flattened notes.

        You’re right about the major third, mind you.I know from noodling about with pedal tones on a guitar that a major scale can sound Eastern. I haven’t got much musical training, so perhaps the dissonances favoured in the East are not so much minor as sustained/suspended or whatever.

        1. Hmm, I had long thought that the quarter-tones were a result of a different theory or different scale but I had heard more recently that they’re essentially just used as leading notes and “blue” notes and they’re not really part of the scales.  Still not really sure about this.

          Scales with a major third can sound downright sinister.  A good example is Miserlou, probably better known as the “Pulp Fiction theme song”.  The scale is:
          E – F – G# – A – B – C – D#, so minor second and minor sixth but major third and major seventh.  It’s based on Balkan folk music.  Also, the Lydian mode is even “more major” than a major scale, but the sharp fourth is the same interval as a flatted fifth and can sound pretty dissonant as a result.  Some types of music trade on ambiguity between major and minor — blues in particular plays minor key solos over major chords and a lot of bent major seconds and minor thirds creating more ambiguity about the key. 

          Interesting about getting Eastern-sounding music playing with pedal tones.  One of the big differences between western music and other musics as I understand is the prevalence of drone notes in world music and their relative rarity in western music.

      2. I don’t know in general, but a good place to start for global music is pentatonic scales. Wikipedia mentions a few examples of these: Chinese and Mongolian music tend to be major; Japanese, Appalachian, and Andean music tend to be minor.

        Of course there are other modes and tunings, and different uses need not fit with our ideas of what major and minor feel like. Plato said the ancient Lydian mode makes people soft, and yet that’s the same as what is now called the Ionian or major scale, so common in martial music.

        Saying one or the other is better in general strikes me as the sort of thing that will inevitably have so many exceptions, you might as well not bother.

        1. The Lydian mode is actually not the same as the Ionian mode.  The Lydian mode has a sharp fourth relative to the Ionian mode.  I actually like the Lydian mode a lot so one more point of disagreement between me and Plato I guess.

          Honestly, I was looking for something a little more rigorous or informative than a wikipedia article but I guess it’s a starting point.

          1. The modern Ionian mode is different from the modern Lydian mode, but it corresponds to the ancient Lydian mode instead of the ancient Ionian mode.

            You see, the names have all been shuffled around since Plato’s time. As it happens, this is also detailed on wikipedia, although I agree it’s very, very far from a full survey on the subject.

  8. I wonder how much changing technology has to do with some of this?  One of the things the article mentions is the length and complexity of songs.  Well, if you have more room to record on the album,  you can make longer songs – so think the shift from shorter 78s to LPs, and then the shift to tape, then CD and final digital formats. 

    And maybe the shift to more introspective songs has more to do with our modern focus on individualism and the self, which I think post-war became even more pronounced as the culture industries became more powerful in American society…  I guess page 2 of the article sort of addresses that with Globalization, but I think that tends to be more about our exports then about imports?

    This is interesting research though.

    1. On average perhaps, but have you seen the lengths of the songs prog rock bands have been writing for the past 40 years?

      1. Good point.  The longer format of prog goes with the shift to vinyl, postwar, which is really what we are talking about (the study is from 60 to now).  I think also, there is the punk sub-genre of crust-core, which makes really short and fast songs, and that’s a more recent sub-genre of punk.  Still, I think format has an impact on what is possible on recorded music, and format is pushed by whoever is creating the mediums onto which songs are recorded (Sony or whoever).

        I think I stand by my comments on introspective songs, though.

  9. Minor modes were primary back when written music was being developed. That is why the minor key that you find on all white keys is “A.” The naming of notes started with the notes of “A” minor and extrapolated from there (why would anybody want to start with “C”). Later the key of “C” (the relative major of “A” minor) become more important as minor keys went out of fashion (for a while) and major keys became more prevalent. These things go in cycles though, thankfully.

      1. I agree that it is.  I don’t know much about the history of music theory…  But isn’t this paper trying to get at the sociological reasons for such a shift? 

  10. I think the findings could be a result of the fact that a lot of funk and hip-hop is in a minor key.  For whatever reason, we often don’t perceive minor = “sad” in those types of music.  For example, “Good Times,” by Chic (Em7) is perceived as an upbeat tune.  

    1. Good point. Reggae too. Funk, reggae and hip hop are also relatively slow. Like 86bpm. For hip hop, this may be partially due to being made out of funk. 

Comments are closed.