Most of us learned from a young age that in the context of music, major is equal to happy and minor relates to sad. However, emotional representation is often much more complex than that. These complexities run the gambit of emotional possibilities and are not confined by musical genre. One way to demonstrate this is by delving into the usage of the minor iv chord in various contexts.
Roman Numerals in Music
Now you may be asking yourself: “What the heck does minor iv even mean? Why are their Roman numerals involved? How do I even read Roman numerals?”. These are all completely valid questions that will soon be answered.
What do Roman Numerals Have to do with Music?
In the 18th century, musicians and composers decided they needed a way to analyze their music more efficiently. The earliest usage of a Roman numeral system in written music was found in the first volume of Johann Kirnberger’s Die Kunst des reinen Satzes (The Art of Strict Musical Composition) in 1774. Despite this, the origin of Roman numeral analysis is often attributed to Abbé Georg Joseph Vogler in his Grunde der Kuhrpfälzischen Tonschule just 4 years later.
This analysis method was popularized by Gottfried Weber in his Versuch einer geordneten Theorie der Tonsetzkunst (Theory of Musical Composition) written in 1817. Weber also expanded the method by differentiating between major and minor chords using capitol and lowercase letters, respectively. Another addition was added in the form of the symbol ° which from then on would be used to identify diminished 5ths.
These Roman numerals are used to identify scale degrees in music (usually from the common practice period) as well as the chords built on them. Some music theorists differentiate even further by equating scale degrees to Arabic numerals (i.e 1, 2, 3, etc) with carets Ù above them. Often times in music theory Roman numerals can help give us context within the chord progression or melody. When looking at more complex sequences of notes however, sometimes it is the context that can help us find the correct Roman numerals. It is within this context, as well as why the song/piece was written, that we find the intricate emotional aspects of music.
How to Read Roman Numerals (at least the musically important ones)
First, let’s begin with how to read Roman numerals. Roman numerals originated in ancient Rome (shocking right?) between 900 and 800 B.C. There are seven basic symbols that form this numeric system which are: I, V, X, L, C, D and M. The written symbols are symbolic of the different shapes that were formed when counting on your fingers. In music, the only roman numerals that are utilized are the capitol I and the capitol V. The capitol I represents our number 1, much like the shape of holding up 1 finger. The capitol V represents the number 5 or a full hand in which a “V” shape is formed by the thumb and index finger. So, in a nutshell, I =1 and V = 5. If we put a Roman numeral before a larger one, then we must subtract the first from the second. An example of this is the chord in question major IV/minor iv. Since we have I before V (1 before 5) we subtract 1 from 5 and get 4. Therefore, we will be discussing the minor four chord represented by lowercase iv.
The Darkness of Major IV to Minor iv
Minor chords are created by taking a major triad (3 note chord) and lowering the major 3rd to a minor 3rd. This ultimately results in what the majority of elementary music teachers refer to as a “sad sound”. This is caused by the unstableness of the minor 3rd. A major 3rd is both consonant and pretty stable sound wise. This gives it a stark contrast to the dissonance of its minor counterpart. The juxtaposition of these two chords is demonstrated many times in popular music as way of adding “darkness” to the sound. This is most commonly used within the chord progression IV — iv — I. Prime examples of this progression are given by the Senior Music Editor of Guitar World Jimmy Brown in his article Give your major-key compositions a moment of darkness by employing the ‘four minor’ chord. These examples include songs such as “Creep” by Radiohead (which is built entirely on this progression),
“Desperado” by the Eagles,
and “Space Oddity” by David Bowie.
In these examples, the minor chord lives up to its name of a proprietor of sadness. A moment of darkness in otherwise major compositions. That being said each of these songs is very different in style, lyrics, and overall mood. Human emotions are very complex, and these songs are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to representing them.
In regard to the first example given “Creep” by Radiohead, lead singer Thom Yorke stated that this song is about being in love with someone, but not feeling good enough. This shows that the major IV chord can be seen as the happy feeling of being in love with someone, then it descends into minor iv to represent a dark realization that you aren’t good enough. More statements and thoughts from band members can be read about here:
Creep by Radiohead - Songfacts
Creep by Radiohead song meaning, lyric interpretation, video and chart position
The second presented example “Desperado” by the Eagles has layers of meaning represented. Originally people thought the song was about a cowboy who refuses to fall in love. The more audiences listened and analyzed it however, they realized that it was a metaphor for a young man who discovers guitar, wants to become a Rockstar and suffers for his art. Once again, this progression of emotions is represented in the chords. Starting out with major chords to represent the newfound discovery and love of music, then falling into the minor iv chord for the darkness that befell the young musician.
Lastly, we look at David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. This is a song about isolation. Bowie was inspired to write it after multiple viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was the sense of loneliness in a vast empty space that he said he related to. Further motivation to write what Bill DeMain calls an “anthem of alienation” came when Bowie broke up with his girlfriend Hermione Farthingale who left a lonely void in his life which was paralleled by the marooned Major Tom in the song.
Three iterations of minor iv encompass different aspects of its inherent “darkness”. Self-loathing, suffering and isolation are all brought into focus within these songs by simply adding this chord. There are a myriad of other examples with just as many interpretations of the dark sound portrayed by minor iv.
The Romance of Major I to Minor iv
In the realm of motion pictures, composers have used minor iv as a way of showing romance. One of the biggest film composers of all time, John Williams, is a massive fan of this harmonic idea. Some of his most famous love themes from blockbuster hits such as the “Han and Leia Suite” from Star Wars and “Marion’s Theme” from Indiana Jones start with the progression Major I to minor iv. Both of these scores are also accompanied by melodies which start with a jump of a major 6th. Charles Cornell does a great job of breaking down these progressions and their accompanying melodies in his YouTube video “John Williams and the Art of the Movie Score”.
The Han and Leia Suite from Star Wars is an iconic theme that depicts the tense but loving relationship between two of the franchise’s main protagonists Han Solo and Leia Organa. The rocky road to love for these two has many twists and turns in it throughout multiple films. Williams was able to write different variations of the suite to fit each stage of their interactions.
Similarly, Marion’s theme from Indiana Jones represents the feelings she has for Indiana Jones and the reciprocation of those feelings from him. Their relationship is equally as complicated as that of Han and Leia so it makes sense that their song would sound similar. Williams also mixes up ideas such as tempo, key, and instrumentation to use this piece in varied manners.
The fact that movie buffs and fans of these franchises can’t hear these themes without associating them to their proper scenes means that they also cannot hear them without associating them with certain emotions. For the people familiar with film scores and John Williams work minor iv is not a sad chord, it is a loving chord. It is a chord that represents holding out hope for someone despite the odds being against you.
Major and minor chords in a broad sense can indeed reflect happiness or sadness. However, there is clearly more to story than just these two emotions. Composers, performers, videographers, and actors all have ownership over the emotions they carry with them and portray through their art. It is within the combination of these cogs in the machine of a final product that we find the depth of what music can portray to the audience. The minor iv chord is but one example of this idea. Every harmonic, melodic and rhythmic idea in music can evoke something within us and no matter what that is, it is sure to strike the right chord.