Flipping the major-minor scales of songs

A Ukrainian engineer Oleg Berg has found a way to change the key of a song from major to minor and vice versa, thus transforming its effect on the listener by completely altering the mood.

Here is an example that uses one of the Beatles classics Hey Jude switched from the original major to a minor key.

My verdict on the net result? The new version sounds terrible. Maybe this works better for songs where you are not that familiar with the original. R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion sounds better to me in the revised major key. Anyway, you can decide for yourself.

However, I found the technical achievement to be impressive, especially the fact that the voice still sounded like Paul McCartney, even as the notes he was singing changed. A friend of mine who is extremely knowledgeable about music (and is a huge Beatles fan to boot) explains what he thinks was done.

There is apparently a program called Melodyne (Celemony Melodyne) which reverse-engineers an MP3 into individual notes. It’s essentially parsing a full-spectrum recording to musical ‘atoms’ (which is almost already done, because MP3 is sort of a compressed Fourier transform of the music already). Now each atom can be classified as a particular note. It won’t be exact, because there’s bound to be a little wobble in the note. The really clever part is how they manage to decouple notes that are sounding concurrently! I mean, we have known how to do harmonic analysis for years, but how do they apportion the sound spectrum between the various instruments?

At any rate, once this has been done, I think it is not difficult to, more or less automatically, replace all the occurrences of, say, E natural, to E Flat, and similarly for any other notes that would be different in the one mode than the other. Now, they have to go back and fine-tune certain notes, because a minor scale uses one note sometimes, and another note other times.

NPR’s All Things Considered had a piece on this with some additional examples that you can listen to here, along with an interview with the person behind this, and some discussion of how changing the major/minor key strongly affects the way we perceive the music.


  1. says

    I can’t listen to the YouTube video, but my question: Is it modulating the original to the relative major/minor or to the major/minor of the same root note? The difference is between moving from A minor to C major (relative minor/major) and moving from A minor to A major.

    If it’s the former, then Paul McCartney’s voice won’t have to change at all, it will still be the same key signature. If it’s the latter, then it might be a bit trickier and more impressive.

  2. says

    For me it’s a good lesson in the effect of modes. I hate the remixes. It shows that there were good reasons for the songs to have the modes they do.

    I find it interesting that Mano likes the major mode version of “Losing My Religion.” I suspect that today we (don’t know who “we” counts, exactly, but it includes me) have a much stronger tie to the major mode than people of the past did.

    I assume, for example, that the note “A” is labeled as it is because people used to see the minor mode as more fundamental than the major mode. (If you go from A to G with only natural notes — no sharps or flats — it’s a minor scale.) If we were naming notes today — the way we teach music and think about it — we’d move the start of the scale (the label “A”) up to C.

    And the major and minor scales are only two of the seven modes that the Greeks used — and which I assume used to be considered equally fundamental musically.

  3. OverlappingMagisteria says

    The technicality is not that much different whether or not its the relative major/minor or the same root. Either way, you have to pick out certain notes from the rest of the melody and shift those while keeping the rest the same (primarily shifting the 3rd to a major/minor 3rd.)

    Transposing an enitre recording is not difficult at all: just play the song faster and the key will shift up. With easily accesible software you can even shift everything without changing the tempo. It’s the shifting of individual notes that is impressive.

  4. dukeofomnium says

    Your point is valid, but only for English and German. In the Romance languages, CDEFGAB are do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si (more or less like in the song)

  5. Mano Singham says

    I am w-a-a-a-y out of my depth in this discussion but am enjoying the insights of others!

  6. says

    Is that true? I had thought that solfège applied to any key — that “do” is the tonic, etc., regardless of what note one starts on for the major scale. Do some cultures/languages really label C in particular as “do”?

    Isn’t it the case that musical conventions of note labels are pretty uniform throughout the western world at least (we all use Italian, don’t we?).

  7. says

    Ah, Wikipedia to the rescue:

    “There are two methods of applying solfege: fixed do (used in China, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Romania, Russia, South America and parts of Québec, Japan, and Vietnam) and movable do (used in the United Kingdom, Germany, (German) Switzerland, Hungary, Indian classical music, and the United States) and Canada.”

    Learn something new every day. I hadn’t heard of fixed do solfège before.

    That does indeed put the major scale on a pedestal.

  8. says

    Speaking as an electrical engineer/comp sci prof who has developed and coded tons of audio DSP algorithms along with playing multiple musical instruments for decades, I just don’t “get it”. I mean, it’s an interesting intellectual exercise but seems rather pointless beyond that.

    It’s rather like taking a Van Gogh and replacing all occurrences of cadmium yellow with cobalt blue, or taking a Robert Frost poem and substituting the word “big” for “small”. Other than to claim you did it, what’s the point? The artist was trying to say something and they chose that note or that color or that word for a reason. Unless this new version somehow makes its own statement, perhaps some kind of musically ironic twist, it’s just an adventure in being awed by minor technology. Call it “stupid human technology tricks”.

  9. Sophy says

    The chords get weirder too if all you do is change one note every time it shows up. If I used A, D and E to accompany a song in A major I probably wouldn’t stick with Am, Dm and Em if I changed the tune to A minor.

  10. says

    The reason I suck at making music (though I love, with a passion, hearing it) is I really can’t pick out anything really off in Hey Jude, one of my favorite songs by my favorite band. I mean, it occasionally seems to have an odd note, but if someone played this without the explanation, I wouldn’t have noticed.

    And seriously, I listen to music all day long. Rock, traditional, classical, folk. I studied linguistics before changing to biology. I can pronounce Old English quite well, in addition to German and French. But music? Something between my ear drum and brain just doesn’t get it.

    My father plays the guitar. He’s very good, not just to my very poor ears, but to many others. He used to win band contests “back in the day.” He spent years trying to teach me and finally bought me a nice stereo and explained it’s the only way I’ll be able to make good music. Disappointed, yes. But after years more of trying and too much money on any trick I thought would work, he was right.

  11. left0ver1under says

    Songwriters deliberately choose major or minor keys deliberately to set the mood, so changing it doesn’t just change the mood, it changes the intent behind the lyrics and melody. Del Shannon’s “Runaway” in a major key would never work. And the key changes in Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy” evoke the title of the song, removing them would kill the song.



    But the worst alteration of a song’s sound was the one done deliberately by the singer himself. “Layla” was a song written out of desperate emotion (Clapton was in love with George Harrison’s then-wife), but then Clapton “unplugged” the song (read: he castrated it).

  12. Rain says

    One commenter on http://evolver.fm/2013/01/24/how-major-key-version-of-r-e-m-s-losing-my-religion-was-made/ says:

    You’re missing one key element (aside from the painstaking hand-tuning): the multitrack originals that arrived on the web recently, ripped out of the video game Rock Band. Having the instruments separated means Melodyne can work properly.

    So there are versions of songs with the instruments already all separated out into separate tracks. They could possibly be copies of the songs that are directly from the studio since that’s how studios record songs–each instrument goes on a separate recording and then later they mix all the recordings together. Each player gets one or more of their own microphones to record from if all of them are playing together at the same time. Heck, usually each piece on a drum set (snare, tom, cymbal, etc.) gets its own microphone.

    With Melodyne it’s possibly to click a button and automatically have the notes line up (or “snap”) to a different scale. Yes it can be dome for an entire already mixed song too. Usually there is a lot of fine tuning involved of little notes and bits and pieces where the program didn’t get it exactly right though. So doing this is actually kind of easy if you have Melodyne, and it especially would sound very good if you have a copy of the song with all of the instruments separated onto their own tracks.

  13. Rain says

    P.S. Melodyne is like the “Autotune” that we all know about, except it’s a little more advanced in its ability to split chords into their separate note components.

  14. Ysanne says

    Actually I think that this is a very accessible demonstration of how extremely the mode of a piece influences its mood, character and message.
    It’s one thing to learn this in theory and hear 2 different pieces, one in minor and one in major, as an example, and quite another to see this one parameter tweaked for one piece, especially if it’s a well-known song. I wish we had had this at school.

  15. Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc says


    I’m a guitar player, and one thing that has been becoming more discussed in the electric player fraternity is the increased use of digital modelling instead of analogue amplifiers. Digital has a long history of being used for recording and also effects, but it’s relatively recent that near-“natural” sounding products have hit the market (both hardware and as VST/plug-ins for Digital Audio Workstations). There are other tricks that modern DAWs can do, like record at 1/2 time and then speed you up but keeping pitch the same….

    WRT left0ver1under at 7: the most egregious use of minor/major contrasts that you’re likely to hear regularly are in TV advertisements. It’ll start, grumpy looking model will have problem x (minor key), product introduced (emphasis of some sort), and the mood music will switch to major (along with visual effects like screen brightened, maybe colour palette softened). You’ll be surprised at how many follow this formula. It shouldn’t be because culturally we are conditioned to associate minor with sad, major to happy.

    There are some things that I love: a song with a major tune and grim lyrics, or a song in a minor theme that’s cheerful. It amuses me what some people will sing along to!

    As for the clips, very interesting. Personally I quite like the change to Hey Jude! What I would like to hear is some mapping from fairly standard major/minor keys to something a bit more creative… I’m a big fan of harmonic+double harmonic minor scales/whole tone/diminished and imagine that some very odd results could be mapped against those. Whole tone would be an abomination…!!

  16. Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc says

    For me it’s a good lesson in the effect of modes. I hate the remixes. It shows that there were good reasons for the songs to have the modes they do.

    Ah, but would you think that if Hey Jude was originally written in a minor key? You already have preconceptions about that song.

    A very cool experiment would be to compose a fresh piece of work, record it in both major and minor versions (no pitch shifting in case there are artifacts) and compare at that point?

  17. Timothy says

    Okay, but beyond the educational part, I’m still with jimf. Why would someone want to do this?

    For what it’s worth, I though “Hey Jude” sounded terrible. And I the new REM version made my skin crawl.

  18. baal says

    Ouchy. This whole discussion blew entirely past me. It’d be interesting to hear the effect for a song I didn’t already know. For the examples here, it was awful for every one of the flipped somethings.

    I keep thinking i’d like to learn an instrument (7th grade band trombone doesn’t count) but then there is all this depth.

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