Question of the Week

Why does music sound happy or sad?

Sat, 22nd Aug 2015

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Dave Flange asked:

Why does a minor key sound mournful and a major happy? Are the intervals of a minor scale more similar to the intervals of someone sobbing/crying? And the intervals of a major more similar to laughing?


Would we be saddened by a minor key if we had never heard music before?

What separates crying/laughing in terms of pitch, intervals,cadence etc as it's sometimes difficult to distinguish the sounds.



Amy - We, along with Sophia Pang on Facebook are anxiously waiting for an answer to this one. I was thinking of making a new Naked Scientists theme tune and Iíd like it to be happy and exciting, not sad. Music psychologist Dr Andrea Schiavio is here to help. Firstly Andrea, is it true that music can make us feel in a certain way or is it just me being an emotional person?

Andrea - Thatís a very interesting question. Most people would agree that music makes us think certain things or feel certain feelings, but actually, not everyone would agree on how exactly these feelings are generated. Most importantly, it seems there is no way to prove that, what the question really implies, that there is a specific relationship between a certain type of musical chord in a certain emotion really occurs universally.

Amy - Okay, so there's a lot to take into account. Letís at the beginning then Ė what are we actually hearing when we listen to music?

Andrea - Well, unless we really want to focus on them, in our everyday musical experience, we do not really listen to chords as such. But rather, we listen to durations, dynamics, timbers, lyrics, and many other musical parameters. When we listen to someone talking to us for example, we do not really focus on the letters that make the words, but we rather rely on a broader context Ė the sentence, the gestures, the way we feel about that person and so forth.

Amy - Right. There's a whole host of things that we are hearing when we listen to music. But you mentioned earlier that there's no way to prove that what I would consider as sad note is what someone in, say, China would also consider to be sad. Why is this?

Andrea - Mainly because a clear distinction between major and minor keys only emerges within modern western musical system. Itís not consistently adopted in other musical cultures and traditions. This is why a number of researchers now tend to consider enculturation as a good way to look at the issue.

Amy - Enculturation. What's that?

Andrea - Enculturation is basically where you learn an association between two unrelated concepts by constantly being exposed to that association. For example, we might link certain features of music such as a minor key to certain meaningful contexts like a funeral march. So, this means that we tend to develop relationships in our engagement with music within our own culture, leading to predictable emotional correlations and meanings.

Graihagh - So, itís a learned association that means we, here in the West at least, think minor keys sound more sad.

Andrea - Well, while our lifetime of listening experiences certainly plays an important role, it might be a bit over simplified to attribute our emotional experience of music solely to such learned association. Other theories for example found commonalities with emotional cues in language, arguing that as a sad speech, minor keys may sound sad because they tend to be less stable and have lower notes than normally expected. So, in the west at least, we do think of minor keys as sad and major keys as happy because we have learned to associate these sounds with sad or happy experiences including language and our interactions with others.

Amy - Hmm, so if people all across the world are listening to our Naked Scientists show, there might be no music that I could use for a new themed tune to make everyone feel happy and excited. Maybe letís just stick to the current tune then.

Sam - Thanks Amy, I'm Sam Mahaffey and next week I'll be trying to answer a question that Llewellyn tweeted us:

Llewellyn - Why do we have toenails?


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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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