“What Child Is This?” – Season 2, Episode 15

What makes a song sound bright or dark?

What makes one song sound like it fits at any party, while another song sounds like Bruce Wayne’s parents just got killed again?

Why can a song in minor sound happy? And why can a song in major sound somber?


Welcome to 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 over the month of December, we’re doing a miniseries where we take a look at why we like 5 Christmas songs: 4 on the podcast and one on Patreon. So on this episode, let’s take a look at one reason why we like “What Child Is This?” with the help of the music theorist and elephant cartoonist Cory Arnold from the YouTube series 12tone. I’ve just finished watching all of 12tone’s videos and if you’re the kind of person who likes Song Appeal, I can’t recommend 12tone highly enough.

You can find the full transcript for this episode, references, and a link to hear the song at SongAppealOfficial.com/WhatChildIsThis.

You can also help support Song Appeal at Patreon.com/SongAppeal, where you’ll find some great perks, including the full version of the interview I had with 12tone.

One of the fundamentals of music teaching is that major sounds happy and minor sounds sad. That’s a little oversimplified, but it’s useful for people taking their first piano lessons. If we were in a piano lesson together, I might spend some more time explaining it more, except there’s really nothing more to explain: Major usually sounds happy. Minor usually sounds sad.

Today, let’s take a look behind the curtain. YouTube music theorist Adam Neely made a video that a great job answering the question “Why does major sound happy? And why does minor sound sad?” He explained that it’s not so much about happiness or sadness; it’s about brightness and darkness. In music theory, brightness and darkness are exactly what they sound like: Bright songs are songs that sound like good feelings, and dark songs are songs that sound like bad feelings.

But what causes brightness or darkness in songs? According to Adam Neely, it’s all about the size of the distance between the notes (or the “intervals”) in different scales. Major has a few really important large intervals, so songs in major sound brighter, while minor’s important intervals are smaller, so songs in minor sound darker.

But major and minor aren’t the only scales. So how bright are the more obscure scales?

For this part, let’s get some help:

Cory Arnold: “My name’s Cory. I produce a YouTube channel called 12tone about basically whatever music theory topics I happen to be interested in that week.”

And normally, Cory Arnold is interested in music theory topics that revolve around scales. We’re used to scales with 7 notes like major and minor, and Cory’s done plenty of videos about 7-note scales, but he prefers to take a look at the more uncommon ones with names like “the double harmonic major scale” and “Phrygian dominant”. He’s taken a look at scales with 8 notes like “altered” and “the whole tone scale”, and even a 43-note scale called “the Genesis scale”, which sounds like something the Autobots and Decepticons want. Cory loves scales so much that he was worried he would eventually run out of scales to geek out about, so he made up a scale at random and spent an entire video on it, just to prove that he would never run out of scales.

So when I wanted to dive into some relatively obscure scales, I knew Cory Arnold would be the perfect guy to talk with. And after talking with Cory and doing some research of my own, one of my major takeaways (no pun intended) is that “What Child Is This?” weaves its way through 4 different scales to build in brightness until it reaches a climax of brightness.

The song starts in minor, or at least, what we usually mean when we say minor. We’re about to dive into a few different scales that are all called “minor”, so we need some way to say that right now, we’re talking about a normal, natural minor scale with nothing changed. And fortunately, we already have a name for that: It’s a natural minor scale, because music theorists like to play around with things that are exactly what they say on the tin.

We hear a line or two in natural minor, which gives us a baseline for how dark this song is. Natural minor isn’t a super-dark scale. In Adam Neely’s video on brightness, he suggested that minor is just one shade darker than neutral. But starting in natural minor is dark enough that “What Child Is This?” has room to get brighter and brighter throughout the song.

But it doesn’t immediately start getting brighter. Instead, it goes a little darker by dipping into “harmonic” minor. Cory Arnold told me that “Harmonic minor is exactly like natural minor, but we take that 7th degree… and just raise it up a little bit.” You can hear this in songs like “Believer” by Imagine Dragons, “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones, and of course, “What Child Is This?”

You would think harmonic minor would be brighter than natural minor. After all, to move from note 6 to 7, [Cory:] “it has this forced leap you have to go through”. But none of those 3 examples use the leap between 6 and 7. Instead, they drop down onto 7, and the sharp 7 means the song doesn’t have to go as far down to reach that 7. The way these songs use harmonic minor, there’s a shorter gap between notes, which means less brightness. We’ve gone from our starting point in natural minor to something just a bit darker in harmonic minor.

The song quickly goes back to its baseline natural minor, then starts it ascent into brightness when it moves into melodic minor. It acts like natural minor, but it borrows the sharp 7 from harmonic minor and adds a sharp 6.

Cory: “So we get this thing that’s almost like the major scale, but with this kind of minor quality in the minor third.”

That makes it so much brighter than the natural minor scale because [Cory:] “You have this brief visit to major-ish but still in a minor context.” It has most of the major scale, but it uses a flat 3, which is darker, more minor, and sometimes even bluesier.

That’s why “Lips Are Movin’” by Meghan Trainor sounds brighter than a lot of “What Child Is This?”, even though it’s still minor: the song is in melodic minor.

“Life’s a Happy Song” from The Muppets also sounds brighter than a lot of “What Child Is This?”, because the only reason it leaves major is to take a vacation to melodic minor.

And in “What Child Is This?”, we get one phrase in melodic minor at the end of the verse.

Cory: “And that’s kind of what melodic minor is doing in that song is giving you these brief visits to a brighter, more hopefully-feeling soundscape.”

Melodic minor lets the song climbs to something brighter than it was in before, even though it’s still technically minor.

That way, it can build and build in brightness until we reach the climax of the song’s brightness when it moves into Dorian.

Cory: “Dorian is kind of like melodic minor, but with a flat seven, so you get that raised 6 for brightness, but you lose that raised 7th for that resolution and direction. So you get sort of a relaxed minor is how I think of Dorian. Calmer, less tense, but still sort of sad and minor-y.”

In his video on brightness, Adam Neely listed this as the midpoint between bright and dark, the standard by which all brightness is measured. He even suggested we could name the unit of brightness the “Dorian Brightness Quotient”. When Dorian walks the line between light and dark this delicately, it wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate to call it “Dorian grey”, although you may lose friends calling it that.

Yes, on a scale of brightest to darkest, Dorian is grey. But on a scale of “the brightest in this song” to “the darkest in this song”, Dorian is right at the top. And “What Child Is This?” emphasizes how bright Dorian can be by playing this [“This, this is Christ the King”], which is exactly the same notes the song would play if it just walked down the major scale. The only reason this is Dorian is because the notes aren’t acting like they’re in major; they’re acting like they’re in Dorian. This [“King”] would be note 1 on a major scale, but note 1 in major is designed to act like a resolution, and this isn’t acting like that. Instead, it’s acting like a flat 7, which is exactly how it would act in Dorian, the brightest part in this entire song.

The tune of “What Child Is This?” almost feels like it’s trying to make a simple point: Brightness is relative. Even though Dorian is a “grey” scale, it can still feel bright as long as it comes after something darker. And this concept of relative brightness becomes even clearer in the chorus when the melody starts in a relatively bright Dorian, bungee jumps into a dark harmonic minor, then gets pulled all the way back into a bright Dorian, and finally mellows out into a slightly-less-bright melodic minor. With that much difference between the two, we can feel how bright Dorian is and how dark harmonic minor is.

But there’s another point we can take from “What Child Is This?”: Brightness can change. The melody focuses on starting out dark and building into something brighter and brighter, showing that a song filled with darkness, a person filled with darkness, or a world filled with darkness can change to become bright.

Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for more episodes.

If you have a song you’d like to request, you can contact me over Twitter (@SongAppeal) or by visiting Facebook.com/SongAppealOfficial.

You can help support this show on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal, where you can get some great perks, including the full interview with 12tone.

Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you next Friday. In the meantime, have a great day, and enjoy your music.

This episode was made possible by the generous support of the following Parons:

Brenda Farris

Jake Lizzio