Music is very much a part of our lives. It touches us in many ways and evokes various emotional, cognitive, and physical responses. Music can convey many themes and ideas. Music communicates with us in terms of our own thoughts and feelings. The early Greeks believed that certain modes (scales) or tonalities elicited specific emotions.
Let’s visit two of the most commonly heard scales in Western music (the major and minor tonal systems) and the responses that these scales may elicit from the listener. To readily hear a major scale, play from C to the next C using only the white keys of a piano. To hear a minor scale, play from A to A using only the white keys.
For the child, the difference between major and minor is a difference of mood. Major scales tend to increase feelings of happiness and joy. Minor scales are more somber and tend to dampen one’s spirits. Children often describe songs in major as sounding bright or cheerful. They describe minor as sad or spooky.
While teaching music to young children, I discovered that they can sing songs in a major tonality more easily than songs in a minor tonality. It may be due to the interval relationships within these two scales. It may also be due to lack of experience in singing in a minor key.
It is interesting to observe young children during free play as they improvise their own melodies and songs. While the tonal patterns may be brief and repetitive, they tend to be in a major key. This may be due to environmental influences such as music in the home, children’s television programs, and/or music training. Many children’s songs are composed in a major key.
Silly Bus composes many of its children’s songs in major keys. Their songs in major tonality have great appeal for children due to the bright, happy, and energetic qualities inherent in this tonality. The melodies are very appropriately wedded to each song’s text.
Tempo, the arrangement of the pitches in a melody, rhythm, and harmony also play an important role in setting the mood or expression of a song in addition to tonality. Researchers have yet to explain why and how music affects our emotions. What we do know is that music affects us all and has the power to call forth emotions that reside within us.