A picardy third is a major tonic chord that is written into the end of a song in a minor key. This happens when you raise the usual minor third in a tonic chord to a major third, creating the major chord that is interesting and unexpected by the listener.
As an example, you can have a song in A minor, which naturally uses all white keys to complete its minor scale. When you play the tonic chord in A minor, the notes are A C E. Unlike its related major key, which is C major, with a peppy feeling tonic major chord of C E G, the tonic chord in A minor sounds somber and/or emotionally heavy. To add a picardy third at the end of a song in A minor, you would change the chord to A C# E, which will sound peppy and be a major triad.
While this method of chord progression was used before the official term was coined, the name Picardy Third was created by composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 1760s. Picardy is a historically rich region of France where a lot of church music was being composed using this chord change at the end of each piece.
It is rumored that this name was created as a joke and not meant to be taken seriously or used academically, but it just stuck, especially in the first half of the 18th century.
Few scholars argue that the term Picardy also was used since the word comes from the Old French word "picart", meaning "pointed" or "sharp", which would refer to the third going from a minor third to a sharp major third.
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Many classic and modern songs use the Picardy third chord trick. Sometimes it's used not at the end of a song, but at the end of a section of a song. Some examples are listed below.
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I love the Picardy third a lot. So much, in fact, I even incorporated it into my brand jingle! It really works for many reasons, the main one is giving a feeling of hopefulness and uplifting energy to a song that was emotionally heavy and possibly even depression. I'm sure that's why it was so heavily included in church music in the 1700s and 1800s, with the weight of religion and spirituality being so intense and the need to leave church members with a positive outlook after worship.
In modern music, thirds are more often played around simply for dynamic mood changes and are not only limited to the endings of songs and phrases. For example, the popular Game of Thrones theme song plays with major and minor tonic chord thirds in its melodic phrase very stylistically, indicating the ever-changing climate of politics that went on amongst the fighting families.
You may be wondering, does is there an opposite to the picardy third? Do songs that are completely major ever have a sudden minor ending? While it seems like there would be, it isn't really a thing. Sure, some composers and songwriters have played with the idea before, but it's super rare because it's really jarring and not something that many people would have the balls to include in their final version of a song. It's doesn't sound that bad in this Mendelssohn piece as shown below though, and I can imagine that it could work in a modern song with a message of instability or mental health.
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