Major Keys and Minor Keys

We were talking last week about thinking in terms of multiple drafts. The corollary is to concentrate on only one objective per draft — e.g., stakes, rhythm, theme, length, and so forth.


Debate #1. When the Prez slipped into a minor key, it almost finished him.

Another one I like is Major Key and Minor Key.

I’ll go over a manuscript or screenplay, for example, looking only for these. I’ll ask myself, How much of this piece is in a major key? Are there moments in a minor key, and, if so, where are they and why are they there?

What do I mean by “major key” and “minor key?”

Action movies are major key. Films for kids. Comedies use a lot of major key. Shakespeare said all comedies should end with a wedding. Most weddings (in real life as well as in fiction and film) are major key.

Independent movies often go heavy on minor key. They start out depressing, get more depressing, then build to a climax of extreme depression. Or sometimes they’ll descend to a non-climax, which is even more depressing.

(I’m not knocking this, by the way. Indie films are meant to be interior, moody, reflective. I love ’em.)

Major-key scenes are big, bright, straight ahead. Car chases. Fist fights. Head-to-head clashes in soap operas.

A minor-key scene is thoughtful, unhurried, internal. Minor-key scenes are shot in shadow or muted color. Often they are “private moments,” with only one principal on screen. Sometimes they are silent.

The Godfather has many minor-key scenes, even sequences. So does Casablanca. Lost in Translation is almost all minor-key. Transformers II not so much.

Some films play keys “against type.” The violent scenes in Taxi Driver were shot in a minor key instead of a major. This made them twice as creepy and twice as scary. Remember when Travis Bickle massacres everybody at the end? Or even the “You talking to me?” scene. That was in a minor key. Much of the violence in The Godfather pictures is played as minor-key. The Sopranos too. Bloody scenes in vampire movies are often shot against type, in a minor key.

Minor-key scenes are more intellectual. One associates them with seriousness, depth. The danger with minor-key moments is they can become pretentious. (Pretentiousness sometimes wins awards.)

A great book or movie or album should, like life, have a balance of major-key and minor-key moments. It should follow the symphonic model: take the same musical theme and explore it in both major and minor keys.

A restaurant can have major and minor keys. We may enter to a bright, welcoming reception area (major key), but ask the maitre d’ to seat us at a moody, romantic booth (minor key) in the back.

Burger King has no minor-key seating options.

Did you ever see the series, Victory at Sea? I can’t think of any long-form piece that alternated major and minor keys more effectively. Victory at Sea is a 24-part documentary about the U.S. Navy in WWII. The producer, Henry Salomon, took the viewer’s emotions through heart-bursting battle sequences (major), then slowed to depict the mournful, tragic aftermaths (minor)—all with wonderfully evocative music by Richard Rodgers, scored by Robert Russell Bennett conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra. If you haven’t seen Victory at Sea, it is definitely worth netflixing.

The United States is a major-key country. When Barack Obama lapsed into a minor-key during the first Presidential debate, it almost cooked his goose. We Yanks don’t like minor keys in our politics. When Jimmy Carter uttered the word “malaise,” he was toast.

One of the reasons Americans are skeptical of Europe is that Europe is in a minor key. The Euros think too much. The continent has endured too many wars and too much tragedy. The experience has made them moody and reflective. I hear they even read books.

My favorite nation for major and minor keys is Russia. That’s why Russian literature is so towering, not to mention ballet, classical music, and even the Leningrad Cowboys (though technically they’re Finnish.)

But seriously:

If you have a project that’s past the first-pass stage, take one run-through to examine it for major and minor keys. A mistake I often make is to be too light on the minor-key moments. I’m afraid of being boring, of slowing down the momentum.  This is a mistake. Too much major key makes the piece feel like Burger King.

We all need a moody, dimly-lit spot in which to sit, order an absinthe, and think things over.

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  1. Beth West on November 28, 2012 at 6:18 am

    What a great topic for thought. My favorite segments of songs are often the ones where they shift from major to minor keys and vice verse. I’ll spend some time today thinking about how I can incorporate this concept into my paintings, both as individual works and as a collection.

  2. Paul C on November 28, 2012 at 6:28 am

    Gates of Fire, like The Godfather, hit all the right keys. James Clavell was another great writer who could hit the major and minor keys- action and depth. Before that, Graham Greene and Eric Ambler.

  3. Rebecca Lang on November 28, 2012 at 6:34 am

    This is really interesting. I often call my minor key moments, “Not much happening” and I feel almost apologetic for them, but this is encouraging. Once again, you help me to change the way I think about writing.

  4. James on November 28, 2012 at 7:15 am

    Excellent Post! So this is why when I am listneing to music to work, I have found that I like to have Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55” folowed by Limp Bizkit’s “Behind Blue Eyes” a little major, a little minor. I will begin to look for that in my writing. What a magnificent polishing and perfecting piece!

    (For you Classical music fans, The Art of Fugue by Bach is a great rendition of this idea. Basically same four notes, inverted, reversed, slowed down, sped up to make a whole album. Brilliant and way beyond my ability.)

  5. Pamala Knight on November 28, 2012 at 7:46 am

    Thanks for this. It’s a very interesting way of looking at the flow of a piece and for achieving balance in it.

  6. claire on November 28, 2012 at 10:16 am

    Great post, it’s given me much food for thought and I new way of thinking about my work, which is often too much in the minor, I can see that I need to move a bit more into the major to really bring what I’m doing to life.

  7. Basilis on November 28, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Hmmm, perhaps the Euros are thinking it too much.

    Or maybe not?



    Anyway, how can we keep a good balance between major/minor keys is something that needs a lot of thought!

  8. S. J. Crown on November 28, 2012 at 11:37 am

    Seems to me, if they’re done right, the minor key scenes are where a work’s creator can really explore and sometimes even baldly state the theme/underlying metaphor, without the reader/viewer even realizing it until the major-key climax offers that “Aha!” moment. Roy Hobbs’ and Iris Lemon’s conversation about heroes in The Natural (the novel) comes to mind.

  9. Joel D Canfield on November 28, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    “Too much major key makes the piece feel like Burger King.”

    I will never again worry that my minor key sections should be downplayed. I’ll just keep reminding myself that I’m not writing fast food. (One could make it even more terrifying by using McDonald’s instead of Burger King. Maybe that’s just me.)

  10. Sally Sublette on November 28, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    Victory at Sea:

    26 total episodes, 26 minutes long each; almost-constant music (NBC Sym.)
    Richard Rodgers, at the piano, composed only his “12 themes”–no more than 20 minutes of music total. Two of these themes are in the minor mode:

    1) the submarine/danger theme (first heard at the beginning of Episode One)
    2) the death-and-discouragement theme (first heard at the end of Episode One)

    Robert Russell Bennett transformed the Rodgers themes through a huge range of moods (alternating turning the same tune “major” and “minor,” to use your generalization), but then composed much, much of the music on his own–in the end, much more than Rodgers.


    Your non-musician readers might not understand that most any piece in a predominantly major mode uses as least some minor chords–but that doesn’t necessarily mean that “it changes to a minor key.” Think of the third chord in the Pachelbel Canon, the third chord in the Mendelssohn Wedding March, whatever….

  11. Christiano Kwena on November 29, 2012 at 3:43 am

    I am looking into ways of putting this major-minor balance into my blog posts.

  12. Brahm Memone on November 29, 2012 at 8:25 am

    Another great post.
    I wonder how I can use this in a non-fiction personal development genre.

  13. Solid gold creativity on November 29, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    Really useful analysis. Thank you.

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