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10 Dark Songs in Minor Keys

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Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.


One thing that almost all songs in minor keys share is negativity. Songs in minor keys can express a wide range of emotions, but there's always a troubled edge to them, which, unlike major keys, makes them pretty useless at expressing qualities such as celebration, triumph or joy. Major keys can also express negative qualities such as sadness in songs like "You Were Always on My Mind" by Willie Nelson, but for a uniquely troubled effect, nothing beats minor keys.

The following list of minor key songs shows that troubled edge clearly, especially in their lyrics.

1. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" by The Beatles

The title encapsulates the troubled sadness of this George Harrison song included in the 1968 Beatles' "White Album" featuring Eric Clapton on lead guitar. The song lyrics express despair at the declining state of the world and no way to change it. The minor key music of the song is the perfect vehicle for the lyrics.

2. "The House of the Rising Sun" by The Animals

With words and phrases such as "sin and misery", "the ruin of many a poor boy", and the title referring to a brothel, this folk song is a great example of minor key troubles. It's of uncertain origin and has been recorded by many artists over many decades. The version below by "The Animals" is the best known and most successful version.

3. "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" by Pink Floyd

"Shine on You Crazy Diamond" by Pink Floyd is a song that reaches out to founder member Syd Barrett who developed severe mental problems that forced him out of the band. His problems are reflected in the lyrics with lines such as "Now there's a look in your eyes like black holes in the sky.", "Frightened by shadows at night..." and " You reached for the secret to soon". In the video below, from the album "Wish You Were Here", this is the opening track. It features a long instrumental section with the vocals not making an appearance until 8:27.

4. "The Thrill Is Gone" by B.B. King

"The Thrill Is Gone" is a 1951, minor key blues song written by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell, and the title sums up the sentiment expressed throughout the song. The version in the video is by B. B. King.

5. "Greensleeves" by The Celtic Ladies

Published anonymously in 1580, Greensleeves is a story of spurned affections. "Alas my love you do me wrong to cast me off discourteously" is the opening line, which isn't too different to the blues cliché "You done me wrong" in "The thrill is gone".

6. "Time" by Pink Floyd

"Time" from the album "Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd is all about time slipping away as you grow older. Lines such as "And then one day you find ten years have got behind you" and "shorter of breath and one day closer to death" against a driving minor key accompaniment, really get the point across. The song features a long ominous intro with vocals starting at 2:13 in the video.

7. "Behind Blue Eyes" by The Who

With lyrics like "No-one knows what it's like to be hated, to be fated to telling only lies", this song by The Who fits the minor key mood of the music perfectly.

8. "Perfect Day" by Lou Reed

On the face of it, this song by Lou Reed seems to be expressing happiness and contentment, but there's an underlying negativity to it in lines such as "You made me forget myself — I thought I was someone else". The song was used to great ironic effect in the drug overdose scene in the movie "Trainspotting". Musically, the song's chorus is in a major key, so it's a useful song for letting you compare the rousing quality of the major key with the languid quality of the minor key verses.

9. "Sad Lisa" by Cat Stevens

A sad and very beautiful song by Cat Stevens or Yusuf Islam as he's now known. It was released on his 1970 album, "Tea for the Tillerman". See the video below for the full lyrics.

10. "Angie" by The Rolling Stones

Featuring on the 1973 album "Goat's Head Soup", the song is about the pain of a broken romance. The line "When will those clouds all disappear?" is a good example of minor key lyrics.

What Are Minor Keys?

If you're unfamiliar with music terms and want to know what a minor key is, read on.

When we say a song is in a minor key, such as the key of A minor, for example, we mean that most of its notes correspond with those of the scale of A minor. Not all of the scale notes need to be used in a song, and some foreign "out-of-scale" notes may also be included if the songwriter requires them.

In addition (still using the example key of A minor), the notes would be arranged in such a way that the first note of the A minor scale, A, features prominently as the principal note (or tonic) to which all the others relate in pitch. It's these unique pitch relationships between the notes that give minor key music its distinctive sound.

As is the case with major keys, all minor keys are exactly the same as each other, whether it's A minor or B minor or whatever. In all cases, the pitches will be different but the pitch relationships between the notes will stay exactly the same. A song in the key of D minor will sound exactly the same if you change the key to E minor. The pitch will be a little higher, but the song's minor-key quality will remain intact, whether the song is sad, serene, sleepy or whatever.

Why minor keys are eminently suited to accompany songs that are, dark, sad or troubled is due in part to the third scale note. It's called a "flat 3rd" because it's one semitone or half step lower in pitch than the third scale note of the corresponding major scale. When combined with the first scale note, the pitch difference or interval between them is called a "minor 3rd", which has a somewhat dark sound compared to the brighter sound of the corresponding interval in a major scale.

© 2021 Chas Mac


Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on September 28, 2021:

Amazing compilation, thanks for sharing.