Generations in major thirds

Generations in major thirds

A new study finds there’s a link between music and speech to communicate sadness:

A scientist in Massachusetts thinks she’s discovered a link between the interval of a minor third (C major to E flat, say) and expressions of sadness in human speech. Meagan Curtis found in her study that the speech-melodies of actors’ voices (the movement of pitch in their intonation) happened to encompass a minor third when they were asked to communicate sadness. And when listeners were played the same speech-melodies, shorn of the words, they accurately interpreted the actors’ emotion.

The research asks a chicken-and-egg question, then, of the music-and-language pair:

[W]hich came first, the sad minor third in music or the sad minor third in speech? Have centuries of music in minor keys conditioned us to the sound of sadness, or has music through the ages drawn from the cadences of our speech and heightened its emotional power?

My grandfather wrote a lullaby. Five decades ago, he passed it down to my mother, who, a few years ago, passed it down to me. The piece — never written down — was gifted to me at the piano bench, side by side with my mother one evening. Not an occasion. Not a ceremony. I believe there were running, barking dogs. Dishes clanking in the next room. As she revealed stories of her father who she, at that time, hadn’t seen in several difficult years, she played from memory. While the chords in the piece are major, the sentiments were clearly minor as she spoke.

Today I play variations of that lullaby. I play when I should be practicing. When I should be leaving for work or meeting a friend. When I should be sleeping. I play, and the sentiment is major. Its interpretation is mine. The links we make between music and story, between theirs and ours, between craft and narrative, are our own.