Question of the Week Podcast

Question of the Week episode

Sun, 23rd Aug 2015

Why does music sound happy or sad?

Louis Armstrong, jazz trumpeter (c) World-Telegram staff photographer

This week Dave asked why does a minor key sound mournful and a major key sound happy? Amy Goodfellow asks music psychologist Dr Andrea Schiavio from the University of Sheffield if this is really true.

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I wonder if it is a matter of association with received speech intonation? Eastern music, associated with tonal languages,  uses completely different scales, and Klezmer, which sits somewhere between blues (mournful but generally in major keys) and Arabic (lots of minor intervals) is usually very jolly.

Perhaps it's a question of frequency ratios. The eventempered major scale approximates to rational intervals and the chords contain mostly even harmonics. Odd harmonics sum to a sawtooth waveform which is more "attention grabbing" - whether you associate this with a baby's cry or a call to dance depends on culture rather than physiology.    alancalverd, Fri, 21st Aug 2015

Since when is "Marie's wedding" a sad "mournful song"? Pecos_Bill, Fri, 21st Aug 2015

Ever since I fell asleep whilst playing it, and got sacked from the band. But you have a point: a lot of folk dances are pretty bland during the verses and only wake up in a minor "middle eight" that refreshes it.

Anyway (a) Marie's Wedding should be played on the Great Highland Bagpipe so it isn't really in a recognisable key and (b) bagpipes can sound mournful and inspiring at the same time, to the extent that any Scottish march is enough to turn peaceful farm hands into the sort of mad butchers that win infantry battles.

alancalverd, Fri, 21st Aug 2015

Now I wouldn't exactly call "Beat it" a folksong.

On the other hand here are some sad songs in a major key:

Dock of the bay
Pachelbel's "Canon in D"
Rainy night in Georgia
Knockin on Heaven's Door
Amazing Grace
I'm so lonesome I could cry
Cold, Cold Heart

FURTHERMORE As to bagpipes turning people into "mad butchers" look at this and see what the Trombone does to Oliver Hardy..
Pecos_Bill, Fri, 21st Aug 2015

I'm a musician. Minor keys do always "feel unresolved" to me. After fifty years playing...I can dwell on the intervals in my head and feel out where they want to live. Minor keys need to go somewhere, IMO. Teakhat, Sat, 29th Aug 2015

I think you're onto something when you bring up both language and culture. That probably has something to do with it.

I would also like to point out that there is another element independent of culture that has more to do with your comments about frequency ratios. I watched a program on BBC or Discovery several years back, and they were talking about how the mathematical portions of the brain respond to certain harmonic relationships. This led the Greeks to develop several "modes" that they perceived as corresponding to certain emotions. The mode that they deemed the most "feel good" of all the modes is the one they had playing in the background during orgies. The most common chord progression on the radio today is based on that mode, whether the genre is pop, rock, hip-hop, country, etc.:

Record companies use this information to their advantage, relying on Pavlovian responses of the human brain to rake in millions from naive listening audiences, and I'm convinced they force even credible artists to include this in their material as a stipulation of their recording contracts when they could be writing new songs. Craig W. Thomson, Sun, 27th Sep 2015

Its probably got to do with sound frequencies and resonance ,possibly even vibrational frequencies too and the way our brain interrupts these "frequencies" resulting in our emotional responses -its an interesting question stevaneq, Wed, 7th Oct 2015

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