How much does it really matter what key a song is in?
Have you ever heard someone take a song in major and put it in minor? You might notice how Michael Buble’s major version of “All I Want for Christmas is You” feels. Now notice how it feels when Chase Holfelder sings the same song in harmonic minor, which means that he flattened note 3 and note 6 on a scale. That sounds completely different, and it feels completely different. I sometimes call this “the killer-stalker version”, and that happened because Chase Holfelder changed just 2 notes.
Or have you ever heard someone take a song in minor and put it in major? You might notice how the original minor version of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme feels. Now notice how it feels when Steve Terreberry changed it from minor to major by sharpening notes 3, 6, and 7 on a scale. It feels so much happier that the video to this version showed a serial killer… frolicking around.
Now, when someone changes a song from major to a normal, natural minor key, they do it by changing 3 notes, specifically flattening notes 3, 6, and 7. But when scales only have 7 notes, changing 3 of them is quite a lot. That’s why songs feel so different when we change them from major to minor, because we’re changing almost half the notes.
But what happens when someone changes just one note? You get the theme to the NBC sitcom, Community.
Welcome to Season 2 of Song Appeal, where we dive into your favorite songs to answer the question “Why do we like the music we like?” I’m your host, Hunter Farris, and on today’s episode of Song Appeal, let’s take a look at one reason why we like “At Least It Was Here” by The 88 – better known as the theme from the NBC sitcom Community.
You can find the full transcript for this episode, the shownotes, and a link to hear the song at SongAppealOfficial.com/Community. You can also find new video versions of older episodes on YouTube or at SongAppealOfficial.com. You can support Song Appeal on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
This episode will be spoiler-free.
Welcome to Greendale Community College, home of the NBC sitcom Community. The show has something for everyone, from eccentric characters to tender moments, from meta-humor to heartfelt reunions, and from parodies of other shows to characters hugging and learning.
But we’re not always ready for all of that at once every time we sit down to watch this show. Sometimes, we’ve had a bad day and aren’t ready for something quite so weird. Some days, we’re on top of the world, and aren’t ready for something that could make us cry.
So how do we get prepared for something that’s as zany, but personal as Community? Partly because the theme for Community uses a Mixolydian mode to set the tone for a show that’s at the same time both absurd and something you can take seriously.
If you’re wondering “What on earth is a Mixolydian mode?”, you’re in luck. Let’s get into that right now.
It’s a typical major scale, but with the 7th note flattened, so that it sounds like this: [scale].
We’ll get into another song in Mixolydian soon, but for now, I’ll just put in a clap every time the Community theme uses a flattened 7th, so you can hear that the song really is in Mixolydian. [music]
Now here’s the same tune in major: [music]. The difference comes from changing from major to Mixolydian, which changes just one note: a flat 7.
So now that we know what Mixolydian is, how much does it really matter if a song is in major or Mixolydian?
Here’s where the Community theme becomes a great example of this: The Mixolydian mode helps us to prepare to watch a weird show.
How? 3 reasons:
First, it’s not what we’re used to. We’re used to songs being in either major or minor. So when we hear the Community theme in literally anything else, whether it’s Mixolydian or not, we feel like something’s unusual. After a little while, we get used to the weirdness, and our minds accept that “weird” is normal for this show. So once normal situations turn weird in the show, we’re more ready to accept it.
Second, this song is BARELY different from quote-unquote normal. After all, we’re used to hearing songs in either major or minor, and Mixolydian is just one note different from major. Since only one note is different, we feel like something is a little off, like it’s barely not what we expected, like it’s a little weird. And once our brains get accustomed to something a little bit weird (like the Community theme’s Mixolydian mode), we’re prepared to watch something a little bit weird (like Community’s wackiness).
Third, the Mixolydian mode can give us a subconscious reminder of other Mixolydian theme songs to other weird shows. If Community can be known for anything, it’s changing the style and tone on rapid-fire. Season 2 had at least 8 different genres, and one episode had 2 different genres at the same time. So how do we prepare for that kind of genre whiplash? By getting reminded of another show. One that ranged from solving mysteries to rewriting history, and ranged from racecars, to lasers, to aeroplanes… the show was a bit of a duckblur. [music: Ducktales – woo-ooh] Since the Ducktales woo-ooh theme was in Mixolydian, when we hear Community’s Mixolydian theme, our subconscious minds say “The last time I heard a theme like this, the show was like a hurricane. I bet I’m about to experience something just as weird.”
Since Mixolydian isn’t what we’re used to, since Mixolydian is barely different from what we’re used to, since Mixolydian reminds us of other shows that weren’t what we’re used to, the Mixolydian mode in this song makes the song feel weird and prepares us for a show that isn’t what we’re used to.
But as absurd as Community is, it’s also heartfelt. So it’s fitting that, as weird as the Mixolydian scale is, it also feels heartfelt and prepares us for a heartfelt experience.
Why? 2 reasons:
First: It’s just a little bit darker than major.
YouTube music theorist Adam Neely once lined up all the modes in order of brightest to darkest. Now, he made his list based on how many sharpened or flattened notes a mode had. The only mode with a sharpened note was considered the “brightest”, and the more flattened notes a mode had, the “darker” it was considered. If a mode had 5 flattened notes, he called it 2 points darker than a mode with 3 flattened notes.
So first came the only mode with a sharp. Adam Neely listed that as the brightest. Then came major, which he said was a little darker. And then came Mixolydian, which he said was a little darker than major, because it only has one flattened note.
That’s because flattened notes have lower energy, or in other words, the sound waves move through the air a little less quickly, so Mixolydian gets to have a little less energy than major, making it sound a little more sedated than major, or in the words of Jake Lizzio (host of the YouTube channel Signals Music):
“The major scale is so happy, it borders on annoyingly sweet, like a delicious cupcake with far too much frosting. … Now if I wanted to scrape off some of that delicious frosting and take away some of the sweetness of the scale, I could bring in mixolydian.”
Now, there’s the music theory behind why Mixolydian should sound darker than major, but sometimes music theory is just theory.
And sometimes, we put music theory to the test.
Meet David Temperley. He’s a Music Theory Professor at the University of Rochester who focuses on how our minds perceive music. Alongside him at the time was Daphne Tan, who has since co-founded and co-directed the Music and Mind Lab at Indiana University. When they were working together in 2011, Temperley and Tan set up an experiment: People who weren’t musicians heard two melodies in different modes and had to judge which melody sounded happier. One melody might be in major, another might be in Mixolydian. The participants didn’t know. Temperley and Tan found that major was happiest and that the closer a mode was to major, the happier it sounded. Now, a mode could have as many as 5 notes that are different than major, so Mixolydian is pretty close to major, so these participants placed it pretty high on their “happiness meter”, but they put it a little lower than major. Their participants said it felt a little darker than major. A little less happy than major. A little more serious than major. And these judgments were made by people who weren’t musicians!
So once we hear enough of Community’s Mixolydian theme, we get used to feeling something that’s a bit more serious than what we’re used to. That way, we’re ready to take the things on the show seriously, even when they’re absurd.
One last reason Mixolydian prepares us for a heartfelt experience:
In 2014, Ian Straehley and Jeremy Loebach tried an experiment that (on the surface) sounds a lot like Temperley and Tan’s experiment that we just discussed: They gave 34 people random melodies in certain modes – some of the melodies were in major; some, in minor; some, in Mixolydian – any mode really. But Straehley and Loebach were looking for something different. Instead of asking their participants to write how the tunes felt, Straehley and Loebach recorded how the people felt when they listened to those tunes. They found that when people were listening to music in Mixolydian, they generally felt trust and acceptance.
That does not mean that when people play music in Mixolydian, they’re automatically trying to manipulate you into trusting them. I can see that being done on Leverage, but there are plenty of other reasons to use Mixolydian, not just when someone’s trying to con you. It could be at a concert or a dance, when the music transitions from energetic to serious by playing a Mixolydian song so the audience can feel a little more serious, a little more trust, a little more acceptance of what comes next. It could be a movie soundtrack that switches from major to minor for just a moment so you can be prepared for the serious scene where you need to trust the characters and accept what they say. Or, like the Community theme, it could get the audience prepared for something heartfelt and prepared to trust and accept that these absurd things could actually happen in a place like Greendale Community College. All that because of a Mixolydian theme.
Community isn’t your normal TV show. It’s filled with enough zaniness to keep pace with the Animaniacs and the Muppets and enough heartfelt moments to make This Is Us cry. So if you try to watch Community when you’re happy and hyper, you need something that will tone down your mood just a bit so you can be ready for something heartfelt, for comfort, for a friend you’ve known so well and for so long you just let it be with you. And if you try to watch Community when you’re feeling mellow, you need something to gear yourself up for a wild ride.
That’s why the Mixolydian mode used in the main theme is perfect for a show like Community, because it prepares us for something zany by being barely different from what we’re used to unusual and reminding us of other odd shows; and because it prepares us for something heartfelt by being a little darker than major and by helping us develop trust and acceptance before we go into the bulk of the show.
Was this on purpose? I was wondering that, too, so I reached out to Keith Slettedahl (the songwriter behind this theme). He told me that he didn’t know what a Mixolydian mode was. He just wrote what he thought sounded cool.
But whether it was intentional or not, the effect is still there. And the effect is impressive. It makes me appreciate this song so much more, whether it was intentional or not. And maybe some songwriters will write in Mixolydian completely on purpose. Because whether Keith Slettedahl was trying or not, just by putting this song in Mixolydian, he made this song feel weird, feel serious, and bring a sense of trust, acceptance, and community.
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Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day. And enjoy your music.