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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Musical mood

Al King, Flickr

I made a fool of myself... again.

It wasn't my fault. It was music's fault.

We were out shopping for back to school supplies (yes, it's that time already!) This song (click here) was playing in the store. I got carried away. Thinking I was alone in the aisle, I expelled a loud (and high pitched) "Come See About Me!" As I did, I walked around the display's corner. That's when I suddenly found myself face to face with another customer. She looked at me with a grin. I apologized. She laughed. "Oh, don't worry, she said, I was singing along in my head too".

Yes, in your head. The way normal people do it. Meanwhile I was probably giving a show to a few more invisible customers! Ah, this will teach me.


Brought back to my senses by the sudden encounter, I stopped singing. And I started thinking. Isn't it peculiar that such a cheerful sounding song has such depressing lyrics? What's fun about crying over someone and complaining of desperate loneliness? Yet The Supremes sing it as though it was the best day of their lives.

When I came back home, I did a little research and I realized there are many songs that follow the same contradiction: happy melody, sad words. As a general rule (in Occidental culture and if you are not suffering from certain kinds of dementias such as Alzheimer's), people recognize a song as happy if the tempo is fast and the scale major. Conversely, a song in minor scale and with a slow tempo will be perceived as sad. There are many possible combinations within one song, but there usually is a consensus as to the general mood of a tune.

So why would musicians, who certainly know that, combine music and lyrics that have nothing in common? That remains a big mystery. For now, I shall content myself with sharing some prime examples of this paradox.

The French 
(see Theme for an idea of what is talked about in those songs):

(by Jacques Brel)
Theme: unrequited love

D'la Bière au Ciel
(by Jim Corcoran)
Theme: impossibility to make the first move until it's too late

Le Columbarium 
(by Pierre Lapointe)
Theme: death, a columbarium

Je chante
(by Charles Trenet)
Theme: starts happy, ends with a suicide

Tout le monde est malheureux
(by Gilles Vigneault)
Theme: everyone is miserable

The English:

Build me Up Buttercup
(by The Foundations)

It's my Party
(by Lesley Gore)

I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself
(by Elton John)

It's not Unusual
(by Tom Jones)

Ain't too Proud to Beg
(by The Temptations)

Proof that a song can be made happy or sad 
by singing it differently:

Hey Ya
(by Outcast)

Hey Ya, take 2
(by Obadiah Parker)
Same song, completely different spirit

Higher Love
(by Steve Winwood)

Higher Love, take 2
(by James Vincent McMorrow)
Same song; again, quite another spirit

Any favorites here? Any other examples?


  1. I can't think of any examples right now but I know that sometimes a certain song triggers completely different feelings in me than it does other times.
    And, I love that you were singing in the store and got busted!!!

    1. Interesting point, Kim! It's true that the same song can have a different effect at different times.

      It wasn't my first time (and might not be my last) getting busted singing in a store! :-)

  2. How I read this post:
    1. Clicked on the You Tube link.
    2. Read post while listening to song.
    3. Visions of crazy dancing and singing played in my head. It really enhanced your words well. haha.

    Thank you for that. :) I used to do the old Sweatin' to the Oldies videos with a friend for fun. The one day a song from the video came on at the grocery store. My husband was so embarrassed when I tried to get him to dance with me. Party pooper.

  3. I GET DANCE CRAZY to Michael Jackson.
    that count? :-)

  4. African-American music and poetry has a tradition of saying sad things in a "happy" way. I came across this a lot during my final thesis. I could probably dig up some articles that discuss this. I can't think of any specific examples of songs at the moment, but it was the Supremes who triggered this post.

    Oh, watching Janelle Monae's video to "Cold War" really changes the song. It isn't a particularly happy song to begin with even though it has a fast tempo, but the video adds a whole other emotional element since Janelle is crying while singing it.

    "Danger" by Eryka Badu sounds like a fun song, but it is about the difficulties of being a cocaine dealer.

    Amanda Palmer's "Oasis" is also a strange song. It was banned in the UK for "making light of rape and abortion."

    I feel like the music I listen to can't easily be classified as "happy" or "sad." A lot of them are fast, but emotionally intense. Or slow and empowering/positive.

  5. Nice examples! I've had a song by Mr. Big in my head for days now. There are examples in music for everything we experience. The universality of music give me more hope for humanity than anything else.

  6. Music, Art is so special in our lives.

    I think it's brilliant.

    We are special sing and shout about it ....... especially good things.

    All the best Jan