Why does music sound happy or sad?

23 August 2015

Question

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.

Answer

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 I'd 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 - That's 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. Let's at the beginning then - 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 - 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. It's 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, it's 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 let's 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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