T H E  S A D  E F F E C T
Notes on A minor and Mohsen 
 Namjoo's 'Neo-Kantian Ideas'
1. We unequivocally know the word 'sad' to mean unhappy, yet that definition materialized only around the 14th century. Before then, 'sad' (German satt), extracted from an Indo-European root shared by Latin satis, implied 'enough, sufficient.' Sadness was endowed with fullness and satiety, the heavy-lifting burden of sentiment over apathy. One wearily viewed one's cup as half-full, so to speak, replete with the cares of the world.

2. Equally inarguable is our recognition of the emotive power of music
(ii) on human affect. Knowledge of music's ability to inspire feeling is older than our contemporary definition of sadness. Aristotle's treatise on the instruction of music to young boys wavers on this point, but tellingly, does not connect it to sadness: either music is a light 'amusement and refreshment, as sleep or wine, […] pleasing, and the killer of care' [my emphasis] or it is capable of being 'productive of virtue'(iii). Music used to be thought of as filling, in the same way one might take one's fill of food or wine, but not as an aggregate of sadness. This discovery transpired gradually.

The what and how of music's influence is well recorded by cognitive psychologists, analytic philosophers and musicologists. The what is the issue of the major mode in Western music cueing happy emotions and the minor mode cueing sad ones
(iv). Developmental psychologists have even been able to prove at which age a human being acquires 'responses to the affective connotations of major and minor. In 3-12 year old children who heard harmonized and unharmonized major and minor notes, 'even the youngest children showed conventional happy-sad association.(v)'

The how of music's emotive power has been the subject of comprehensive trial experiments and statistical analysis, including a Tufts University study on the minor third as a vocal pattern tied to the physiological indication of sadness. A team of psychologists, identifying the minor third as the 'most reliable cue for identifying sadness,' found that it 'communicates sadness in speech, mirroring its use in music,' based on historical associations supporting the theory that 'human vocal expressions and music share an acoustic code for communicating sadness.' Using actors who recited bisyllabic utterances with four different emotions, the psychologists found that the pitch contours of affective speech exhibited patterns 'similar to those used in the musical communication of emotion.'
(vi) (This would seem to explain how children as young as three could assign positive and negative faces, respectively, to major and minor.)(vii)

3. Long before the natural sciences ruminated on the how and why of the minor third's sad effect, the German flutist and composer Johann Joachim Quantz wrote Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen (1752), known in English as On Playing the Flute(viii). On one hand an exegesis on flute performance techniques, Quantz also recognized the emotional correlatives of musical notes on an audience, and urged both a devotion to personal judgment as well as sound training methods in acquiring and influencing musical taste.
It makes sense that a proto-Romantic composer would advocate the primacy of subjective experience in music, in contrast to the Enlightenment's fostering of ordered, rational restraint. Quantz wrote approvingly of intuition and indeterminacy in talking about music, shunning egoism and pedantry in musicianship:

Rarely do we follow that surest of guides, our own feelings; instead we seek eagerly to learn which singer or player is the ablest, as though it were possible immediately to survey and weigh the skills of different persons, just as one judges other things whose price and quality are determined by a pair of scales. Then we listen only to the person who passes for the strongest. A piece, often a very bad one, quite carelessly performed by him, and often deliberately so, is proclaimed a marvelous work, and another musician, in spite of all his efforts to perform a choice piece well, is vouchsafed scarcely a moment of attention

Quantz valued a reflexive experience of music, but not at the expense of 'personal whims' or what he viewed as wild errors in judgment, chiefly 'ignorance, prejudice and passions that are most obstructive to equitable judgment'
(x). In other words, while Romantic thinkers are frequently (perhaps even unjustly) associated with a freewheeling, careless attitude matters of personal enrichment, Quantz unfurled a solemn entreaty for careful consideration of 'certain rules' of musical a/effect.  

4. Quantz' blacksmith father died when Quantz was a child, as Mohsen Namjoo's father died when he was 12. Johannes Brahms wrote his soaring Op. 40 Horn Trio in E Flat Major (combining both major and minor elements) after his mother's death. He didn't write anything else for eight years.

5. Mohsen Namjoo's text 'In Praise of the Minor Key, A - The Third Note'(xi) connects romantic music to romantic ideology, and ultimately, to revolution. He writes of the minor third: 'This is basically a romantic interval, meaning that it has an aura of sanctity to it. Regardless of why or how, it invariably guides the listener towards a place of depth and meaning, which is also melancholic.' Namjoo eschews the mechanics of affect in favor of a close reading of the minor third interval, though this sometimes inflates into a hyper-reading.

The larger body of thought that is called Neo-Kantian tends to favor epistemology (the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion) over ontology (the investigation of the meaning of being). Frequently, this comes at the expense of human intuition for rational concepts.

Is there something specific to the history of Iran in Namjoo's gesture toward the Neo-Kantian, and his concept of a minor third as inciting revolution? Put tepidly, maybe. One thing that at least aesthetically connects the interval to ancient Persia is Nietszche, who Foucault wrote as 'having shown that the tragic structure from which the history of the Western world is made is nothing other than the refusal, the forgetting and the silent collapse of tragedy.(xii)' For Namjoo, that tragedy is anything but silent: it is nothing short of 'a manifestation of romantic fury, and the third of minor is, likewise, a romantic position.'

By far the most curious claim in Namjoo's expository is the minor third interval as a political precursor to revolution, such as one key example from the 1980s. In analyzing Shahram Nazeri's delivery of Rumi's poetry(xiii) set to Seyyed Khalil Auli-Nejad's use of the minor third in Kurdish maghami music, Namjoo writes that the spirit of The Language of Love paved 'the way towards a patriotic salvation': 

That album, in the particular social environment of the time, was a musical blessing for the nation. The minor third interval used in this section, as well as other parts of the album, was representative of the feeling that political turmoil and the start of the war with Iraq, had set forth: "The world should know that we speak the most righteous truth of all; so are we the most victimized of all nations on earth." There was also a new sense of national unity, with extravagant objectives, in the air: "Today, Karbala. Tomorrow, Jerusalem."

Like the Cuban revolution's crop of communist songs in the minor key, for Namjoo, a one-to-three progression 'partnered with any balanced rhythmic and melodic coloring is effectively deployable by all ideologues.' The conundrum lies in discerning whether he is talking about Cuba, 1980s Iran, or his own 'Neo-Kantian Ideas.'

6. One hint at cracking Namjoo's lyrical riddle and the Iranian question may lie in the work of a principally anti-Kantian figure: Carl Schmitt's Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Schmitt lays out his foundations of sovereignty with the theorem that the sovereign is he who decides the exception. This is the famous first sentence of Political Theology, the sovereign as whoever suspends the legalistic, remains outside the juristic, and crucially, remains the 'exception to the law [that] grounds the law.' Since Schmitt's sovereign imposes the law for his own benefit, the law doesn't apply to him and the juridical is exclusive of him.

One glimpses no Kantian universalism here: for Schmitt, you can only build on an opposition, a friend/enemy theorem that serves as a critical political ideology to modern state-making. While Schmitt was interested in intra-communal conflict, not inter-communal (e.g. a descent into civil war), the Iranian example still makes sense. Security becomes an issue to decide who we are versus who they are. Us v. Them is a constitutive state project when the project of pluralism breaks down.

Schmitt's division is what - famously - came to be called his political theology: autoritas (the will of the sovereign) v. potestas (the power of office). Schmitt was absolutely emphatic about the sovereign, and this is perhaps a moment of opening to Namjoo's vision of a Neo-Kantian ideology. Without the sovereign, politics becomes disenchanted and bureaucratized. An Iran without Khomeini?

The sovereign vitalizes because he has a will: his personal authority. He can suspend constitutions (Germany, February 1933; Iran, September 1978; Egypt, October 1981), declare war (U.S.A., March 2003) and build border walls (Israel, 1994). When the sovereign is vitalized (Hitler, Khomeini, Mubarak, Bush II, Rabin) his judgment humanizes the law and saves it from a bureaucratic death. Schmitt's vision is a veritable nightmare: a visible and vitalized state through authoritarian decision-making.

7. One might take Namjoo at his word and read 'Neo-Kantian Ideas' as a necessary antecedent to the June 2009 protests in Iran. But the work that he released much closer to the timing of those events was 'Morgh-e Sahar' or 'Bird of Dawn,' a track that could safely be considered more nostalgic than novel, having been composed during Qajar-era Persia (though the collaboration with the rock band Kiosk welded a significant current feel to the searing, anthem-like song).

If A minor according to Mohsen Namjoo carries a revolutionary potential, then in what emotional tenor does 'Neo-Kantian Ideas' pitch a political truth?
(xiv) Do we read into the ironic (even nihilistic) lyrics first, or the 'full' sadness of the minor third? Is the song primarily a vehicle of an uncompromising rhythmic structure (dada dada dada dada thwack!), exceptional phrasing (classical-to-contemporary wordplay) or extreme reverb (even more embodied in his voice than in the guitar)? Is it ever possible to separate musical elements that add personal depth to a song from that those that amplify a keen (and highly sardonic) sense of history?

These questions wish to go beyond a mere rhetorical twist; Namjoo's work suggests a highly serious mind on the brink of high historical stakes
(xv). His performance of 'Neo-Kantian Ideas' is made up of a lone man and a singular instrument, yet the sum effect is more like an oration of a national mythos in a massive amphitheater or minbar rather than a lonely, smoke-filled apartment corridor. Just as he was fully gripped by the tanbur in Nazeri's The Language of Love, Namjoo wants the world to believe so deeply in the minor third's immediacy that the notes of a scratchy and twanging guitar timber and a deep howling foreshadow one hot panicked summer in Tehran.


The author wishes to thank Bryan Alvarez, Ph.D. candidate in Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, for clearly, thoughtfully and generously sharing his ambidextrous musical and scientific knowledge. I am indebted to John Hamilton, professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, for his rich, highly informed philological teachings on security.

ii. In Western music a scale is a sequence of seven musical notes. Successive notes are divided from each by either a half or whole step. An interval is the distance between two notes. An interval of 'third' would be the distance between any three successive notes. A 'minor' third interval represents 1.5 steps. A minor, or Am, is a minor scale based on A.

iii. Politics Book VIII. Hyperlink:

iv. Ed. Deutsch, Diana. The Psychology of Music. Elsevier, 1982. 620.

v. Ibid, 734.

vi. Curtis, Meagan E. and Jamshed J. Bharucha. 'The Minor Third Communicates Sadness in Speech, Mirroring Its Use in Music,' Emotion 2010 Jun; 10(3): 335-48. Curtis and Bharucha do finalize their results with skeptical caveats: 'The association between the minor third (300 cents) and sadness is not so easily explained. Unlike the minor second, the minor third is a consonant musical interval. Therefore, its association with sadness cannot be attributed to underlying sensory dissonance. It is likely that this interval has been adopted as a formal code for communicating sadness. This code may not be arbitrary in origin, as it may reflect a vocal response pattern that is shaped by the prototypical alignment of physiological variables underlying the phenomenological experience of sadness. […] Given that the present findings are specific to patterns produced by speakers of American English it is necessary to examine the prosodic patterns produced a≥cross cultures to determine whether the minor third is used universally to communicate sadness.'

vii. The Psychology of Music 620.

viii. Berlin, 1752. English translation by E. R. Reilly published by Faber and Faber, 1985.

ix. Ibid, Chapter XVIII, 295.

x. Ibid, 298.

xi. The text pre-dates the release of the track 'Aghayed-e Neo-Kanti' or 'Neo-Kantian Ideas.' March 2006. Hyperlink:

xii. History of Madness. Trans. Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa. Routledge: London, 1961. Preface to the 1961 Edition, xxx.

xiii. Namjoo provides an excerpt of the poem: 'You too can go away and leave me alone now / Why not abandon this ailing, broken creature of the night / I am no longer disturbed by the waves of lonely days and nights / It's your choice to come back, forgive, or go away in betrayal.'

xiv.  I insist on calling it the minor third according to Namjoo because of the way he has vocally embraced the note as his trademark. His October 2010 concert in Toronto, for example, was called 'Mohsen Namjoo in A Minor.' Hyperlink:

xv. Namjoo has raised the ire of certain figures in Iran's religious establishment over an appropriation of Qur'anic lyrics. See Esfandiari, Golnaz, '"Iran's Bob Dylan" Under Fire Over Koran Song,' Radio Farda 8 September, 2008.

by Maryam Monalisa Gharavi