The Emotion Behind Chords and Scales

I’ve always wondered why certain chords and scales evoke certain emotions. What is it that makes a minor chord “sad” sounding and a major chord “happy” sounding? How can a combination of musical notes actually affect us emotionally? It is one of those topics that never really comes up because it is so engraved in our brains. No one ever sat me down as a kid and said, “when you hear a major chord you will feel happy, but once you lower the third of that chord, you’re gonna cry”. It was almost as if I naturally associated those chord qualities with those feelings.

For now let’s focus on major and minor chords, as these are the most common and the easiest to associate with emotion.

Take a listen to these two melodic lines.

Example 1:

Example 2: In example 1, an A major chord is arpeggiated, leading to a D major chord. Example 2 uses the same melody, but now minor chords are being used. Think about what emotion you feel as you listen to them. Does either one make you happy? Sad? Enthusiastic? Shameful? Envious? Enthralled? Sympathetic? Hungry?

Alright so maybe you don’t experience anything too deep from these two tiny, simple melodies, but if you are like most people, you would classify example 1 as “happy” and example 2 as “sad”.

The question then arises, why? Please note, I understand that this topic has been studied and discussed amongst people who have done far more research than I have. I am simply stating what I am aware of and theories that seem plausible to me.

We’ve heard it before:

This is the first theory that pops into my head, but it seems to bring up more questions than answers. Simply put, we attribute such emotions to certain chords and scales because those particular chords and scales are used in songs we’ve heard that evoke a certain emotion. In other words, we hear songs that are about sad subjects, most of which utilize that minor sound, and therefore associate the minor sound with sadness. However, why was the minor sound chosen for those songs in the first place? This is similar to the “chicken or the egg” scenario. Did minor chords get the sad stigma because they were used in sad songs, or were minor chords originally chosen for sad songs because those chords already sounded sad by themselves? Perhaps it is something that slowly evolved over time?

It’s all in the notes:

As another theory, we can examine the notes that make up the chords themselves. Could there be a link between the actual intervals contained in the chord and our emotions? (Warning: Haters of music theory should only skim this segment)

In its simplest form, a chord is composed of three notes played simultaneously, which is also known as a triad. These three notes include the root, some sort of 3rd and some sort of 5th. By altering the 3rd or the 5th, we can make four different qualities of chords. The four qualities are major, minor, diminished and augmented. A major chord contains no alterations to the 3rd or the 5th. A minor chord is made by lowering the 3rd by one half step. A diminished chord is made by lowering both the 3rd and the 5th by one half step. Finally, an augmented chord is made by raising the 5th of a major chord by one half step.

Let’s focus on the difference between major and minor. We will simplify things by using C major and C minor as examples.

C major is composed of the notes C, E and G. C to E is a major third and E to G is a minor third. If we look at C minor, which is composed of C, Eb and G, we will find the opposite. C to Eb is a minor third and Eb to G is a major third. Both contain a major and minor interval, but they sound like completely different chords due to where those intervals are placed. The third can essentially be viewed as the center point of the chord, which can be why it has such an effect on the way the chord sounds. Take a look at this visual representation.

As you can see from the clever picture, both chords contain the same amount of “space”, but if we focus on the positioning of the notes with respect to the lowest note, the major chord just looks more…confident than the minor chord, which looks almost droopy. Could this actually have anything to do with the common emotional association of each chord? Perhaps not, but it is thought provoking none-the-less.

Of course once we begin talking about chord inversions, this theory gets a little more complicated. In fact the visual diagram of a first inversion C major triad would look shockingly similar to the root position minor triad shown above. So surely it cannot only be the shape of the chord. Perhaps it is the shape PLUS a specific combination of intervals. This leads to my next thought.

By the way, if you know nothing about music theory but are dying to learn about it, check out my basic scale theory post!

Your brain + frequencies:

Without getting too technical and drowning this page with numbers and graphs, I’ll just generalize this theory. Could it be possible that the actual combination of frequencies in major and minor chords actually trigger these emotions in our brains? In other words, could the combination of notes in a minor chord generate a frequency which, after being processed by our brain, naturally triggers a negative emotion? I would like to point you to another site that discusses the link between sound and emotion:

Wisdom of Sound

The idea that sound, be it as specific frequencies or as music, can effect a persons health is a science in itself. Just ask anyone in the field of music therapy.

Since I’m too lazy to continue I meant for this post to be only a small taste of the matter, I think it’s time for me to stop writing. I’m sure I’ll come back to this topic more than once in the future. Hopefully people will get involved and express their own knowledge and opinions on the subject, giving me more content to discuss in future posts. I didn’t even begin to talk about how the most commonly used chords and scales differ depending on what part of the world you’re in. That puts a whole new spin on the topic.


5 comments on “The Emotion Behind Chords and Scales

  1. Luiz Roberto Meier says:

    Thank you very much.

  2. Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, with which the music listener identifies. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but I want that the sound stays unchanged), then we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – the Research on Musical Equilibration:

    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek

    • dflomusic says:

      Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. It’s great to hear from someone with so much musical experience. When I get the chance I’ll definitely investigate your paper further. Very interesting read!

  3. sachin Lakra says:

    ( No one ever sat me down as a kid and said, “when you hear a major chord you will feel happy, but once you lower the third of that chord, you’re gonna cry”.) LoL 😀

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