There are reasons, some of science and others mystical, that music affects our moods and general feelings of well-being or lack thereof. The key to understanding these dynamics is often found literally in the key -- the particular key signature of the composition.
Take, for example, last century's classic "Ode to Billy Joe" written in the key of G major. According to 18th century German poet, organist and journalist Christian Schubart, in his work "Ideas Towards an Aesthetic of Music," the key of G major is "Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love, in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key."
That's dumbfounding. No wonder when listening to Bobbie Gentry's story-song we feel the rustic, idyllic calm and faithful love wafting in floral scents above the Tallahatchie River.
Schubart's ideas provide a quick-start guide to the approximate two dozen key signatures and their respective emotions.
On the glum end of the scale is D minor, the saddest key. You've heard it before. Mozart's "Requiem in D Minor," sometimes excerpted for movies, includes the famous Lacrimosa (weeping) movement; even if the Latin words sung have nothing to do with the plot, you assimilate the mood. In the rock genre, Derek and the Dominos' "Layla" opens with a D minor guitar riff signaling a painful, unrequited love story to come.
Schubart's spectrum among key signatures ranges from the D minor to the A major at the opposite end with "declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one's state of affairs ... youthful cheerfulness and trust in God." Therein explains the urge to order another comradely round of Tecates while Garth Brooks' A major "Friends in Low Places" blasts from the jukebox.
Driving home from Kansas City one starry Sunday night in March, I felt emotions creep up on me through music on the radio. As I crossed the Marais de Cygnes (Swan Marsh) River, the college station in Pittsburg, Kansas, beamed over the prairie a song from a band unknown to me.
A piano introduced "A Little Bit of Everything" by the band Dawes. Their updated California Laurel Canyon style hinted of folk-rock of my youth. The song is of three characters and related vignettes, one of suicidal despair, one of acceptance and the last of hope. Enumerated bits of everything inform us of the characters' dilemmas. Ten miles down the road tears streamed down my cheeks.
The first tiny story belongs to a young man with one leg draped over the Golden Gate Bridge rail. Driving him to that suicidal crux was "a little bit of everything ... the mountains, it's the fog, it's the news at six o'clock, it's the death of my first dog." Patrol cars arrive. Though it's not sung, my optimistic take is that the police sergeant saved him.
Then enters the old man in the buffet line holding out his plate, contemplating his timeline that led him to his state. "Making up for when his bright future had left him," he told the server he wanted a little bit of everything, the biscuits, the beans, an extra chicken wing and "whatever helps me to forget the things that brought me to my knees." This was my gut punch approaching Joplin, recalling our lovely home there 20 years ago near a wooded park, the last place where my wife Linda and I had a very busy house filled with our lovely children. Linda and two daughters have since passed away. I'm now the empty-nester widower in Bentonville managing an empty plate in my life's buffet line.
The song's last scene is a happy, middle-class one. A bride-to-be deflects her man's observation that the pre-nuptial folderol seems no fun at all. She responds: "Just worry about your groomsmen and your shirt-size, and rest assured that this is making me feel good." She loves him for every little bit in their relationship.
Weeks later I researched the song, wondering what triggers in the lyrical tales caught me unaware. "A Little Bit of Everything" is in F major which, according to another long-ago departed European musicologist Ernst Pauer, is "at once full of peace and joy, but also expresses effectively a light, passing regret -- a mournful, but not a deeply sorrowful feeling." Those were my feelings exactly that night north of Joplin.
It's good to know that when we have enigmatic reactions to certain music, we're not crazy. It's merely the faults in our stars and the keys in our playlists.