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Title: No Minor Matter
Date: 17-Aug-2007
Description: By Bernard McDonagh


I'd like to discuss Minor keys, and the concept of 'Minor' in music generally. It is an important area of music, but it has been misunderstood by some in the Church. Incredibly, and indeed quite unfortunately, it appears that minor keys have been at the centre of some theological controversy; even, I would say, doctrinal foolishness! You may not be aware of it, but there are people who believe music in Minor keys is intrinsically bad for you; the idea being that minor tonality is a negative influence on our lives. It has even been suggested that the reason the nation of Israel backslid from the LORD was that their music was based on a minor scale! Unfortunately, I'm not joking.

In one case, reported when I was in Bible college, one 'teacher' said that minor chords are no good because the 3rd of the chord is lowered, and this supposedly dishonours the Lord Jesus Christ who is the second person in the Godhead, the Holy Trinity! HUH? In this thinking, the third is the '2nd' (?) note in a triad. i.e. the '3' in the 1-3-5. So then a minor triad, being 1-b3-5, is no good because it "dishonours" Jesus our Lord! Let's take this thinking to it's logical conclusions. A 'flat 5' chord, (i.e. 1-3-b5), must therefore dishonour the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead! A diminished triad, (i.e. 1-b3-b5), must dishonour both the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit! What about a 7th or 9th chord of any kind? This must mean that we are adding a fourth or fifth person to the Godhead!! An inversion must turn the Godhead upside down!! From what scripture passages then, does this nonsense derive it's basis for existence? Exactly, there's no substance to it at all. It is as ridiculous as it sounds. Yet some people have taught this in the Church! Worse still, is that some may have taken it to heart.

This subject came up when I was chatting with some friends not too long ago. At a certain point, one friend disappeared into his room and re-emerged with a book by an Australian Pentecostal teacher and minister. My friend read out to us what the book had to say. There was talk of God's creation originally being "Major", which was defined as being 'positive'. It said sin was the root of all the negative things in the world; things like sadness, suffering, etc. (By extension, 'Minor'-ness.) I doubt any of us would have any objection doctrinally with the view that suffering and sickness, etc. are the result of 'The Fall'. This book went further though; saying that in God's original plan minor key music would not have existed, and that it wouldn't exist today if the fall had not occurred! It wasn't the first time I had heard of this particular view, but to hear it detailed in a 'Fundamentals of Theology' type of textbook was really quite a shock.

This teaching was not just added on to a general discussion on the nature of the 'fall'. It was a chapter dealing exclusively with music, as part of an overall guide to fundamental Christian doctrine; you know, the "What we believe" type of stuff! He talked about scales, and mentions specific chords, and so on. He even outlined for us what specific cadences music must have, and how music should end, etc. The nerve! I believe he correctly uses the basic truth of the 'fall' to explain the horror of sin, but is mistaken when he says sin is the source of minor tonality. I believe it is important to address this opinion, and I'd like to give you my views as to why I'm certain he is dead wrong.
Let's check out some terminology first. How can he possibly arrive at the conclusion that only 'Major' music existed before the fall? The very word "major", as he himself uses the term, can only be referring to one thing, which is the Western harmonic concept of Major and Minor tonality. This has it's origins in 'Christian' Europe of the Middle Ages (1000 - 1300*). It developed throughout the Renaissance (1300 - 1600*), and by the time of the Baroque (1600 - 1750*) these concepts were almost fully developed. (* approximate dates.)

It's a long story, but music up until the Middle Ages had been based on various scales, which were called 'modes'. There were no chords, just a melody line. Eventually there came to be several melody lines sung at the same time. This is known as 'polyphony', which means 'many voices'. These many voices being sung together will obviously produce notes happening at the same time. When this occurs you get 'intervals', which have relationships to each other and to the tonic. The result we call 'harmony. Some of this 'Early music' (as it is called) is strikingly beautiful. I highly recommend you check some out! Anyway, as time went by more careful consideration was given as to which note 'should' occur with which note.

There were several modes in common use in the 'modal' system. What we know today as the Major scale (doh-re-mi), was actually only one of the modes, and it was originally not a very common one. As time went by composers began to choose two of these modes more and more, (one was major, the other minor) to the point where they became all prevailing. These were the 'Ionian' and the 'Aeolian' modes. These two eventually became known as the 'Major' and 'Minor' modes. The harmonization of these two scales followed gradually, and eventually became the next important step in musical development. So then, out of this use of scales or modes in the early polyphonic music of Medieval times grew the theory of harmony and the discovery of chords. It didn't happen in a few days, but took place over hundreds of years.

This concept became so well established that it has really been the basis for music ever since, though changes have been made to the minor mode. It hasn't been superseded in music practise, though of course concepts like 'atonality' have existed for a while. Music has also become much more complex. Some music is tonal, but doesn't really have a key as such, and some music has reverted back to a kind of revised use of modes. But still, essentially, we have Major and Minor keys, with Major arguably being more common. (Well, in church at least!)

So anyway, we are tracing the origins of the notion that music before the fall was 'Major' in essence. We need to recognize that both major and minor tonality have the same source - the modal system of scales. Therefore the nature of music itself tells us that it is not possible for major to exist without minor. What is a Major key anyway? It is a whole system of music that consists of scales and diatonic chords. It exists as God has seen fit to create it. The minor chords are valid, as are the dominant chords, the diminished chords; or any other possible configuration of notes! We cannot deny the existence of the other chords or ignore them. To have a major chord there must of necessity be a minor chord as well, because the same scale produces both!

Even music based on a major scale has within it minor intervals! Consider the major triad itself. C major has the notes C - E - G. From C to E is a major third interval, but from E to G is a minor 3rd interval. So even in the major chord itself there is evidence that says minor intervals are a normal part of God's creation and musical reality; a part of what is - created, as we are, by The LORD!

I also think that part of this misconception about Minor music stems from simplistic teaching methods. From early in their musical experience people are encouraged to think of major key music as being 'happy', and to think of minor key music as being 'sad'. This idea is only an attempt to define the two sounds, in order to help children distinguish one sound from the other.

Now it is also true that Minor tonality can and does convey those expressions of sadness, etc. which are presently a part of life in our fallen world. These emotions are surely not what our Father intended for us to bare, yet we do experience them. But it could just as easily be argued that Major tonality conveys a sense of fun, or a worldly spirit. We weren't created for independence from God either. Should we also then never use Major keys?. Where does this thinking end? We will not be far from the error of those who banish music altogether.

But is Minor music negative? Should we never weep, because weeping originates from the fall? Of course not. God in His goodness has given us a way to release our feelings. Praise be to His lovely Name! In that sense, this particular use of Minor keys is as natural as having tear ducts in our eyes. God created both of them. You may say: "Ah, but God did not intend for us to cry. Tear ducts are for cleansing our eyes from dirt!" But I would say that just as it is possible to weep for joy, it is also possible to experience beauty, and ministry from the LORD, through the use of Minor keys, chords and intervals. There is some truly beautiful music which is in Minor keys. Far from being negative or depressing, it is inspiring and deeply moving. Let's not be robbed of it!

So then, assuming we believe minor sounds are a normal part of created reality and we accept their existence, and if in fact there are any benefits or uses in/for minor music, what could they be? Well, firstly Minor tonality music can be far deeper in it's expression of emotions; both human and Divine. For example, I think only minor sounds have enough depth to convey something like the compassion God feels for us. There is a depth and intensity in minor tonality which majors cannot match.

Then how about something to express our need for humility before the Lord? What could convey this better than Minor key music? What about repentance? Sometimes a major key would seem almost frivolous. But most of all, Minor tonalities are great for just MAKING MUSIC!! God has created them and thus they need absolutely no other justification!

God's creation is awe-inspiring, and every aspect of life is rich with meaning. Let us allow no-one to diminish our experience, with decrees of "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch", etc. Let's never be enslaved again to sin, or to burdens placed upon us by the un-informed. "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof", and "The whole earth is FULL of His glory"! May He bless you richly in all your musical endeavours.

© 2001, by Bernard McDonagh

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