Home > music psychology > These are the sad songs… A few words on music and emotion

These are the sad songs… A few words on music and emotion

psycho_blood-431Music has the power to induce specific emotions to the listener. Just of think of its use on movies. Try to imagine how  the classic shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” would be without music or with a different tune. If the wrong song had been used, it could have easily ruined the scene (the famous tune was composed by Bernard Herrmann btw).

Even back in ancient Greece philosophers like Aristotle and Plato had realised that music can affect human emotion. According to them, certain structural factors determine whether a song evokes unpleasant, pleasant or other moods to the listener.

Nowadays, music is one of the most hyped subjects in psychology and cognitive neuroscience. It seems that ancient Greeks were half right. Scherer & Zentner in their 2001 study suggested that the relationship between music and emotion is determined by 4 factors:  the structural features, the performance features, the listener features, and the contextual features.

In this post I’m going to talk about the structural features and ignore the other three factors. Most studies suggest that the emotional valence of music depends mostly on the mode (major/minor) and the tempo (slow/fast) of the tune. Mode refers to the specific subset of pitches used to write a given musical excerpt and tempo to the number of beats per minute in a song. Major mode and fast tempo are associated with “happy” songs and minor mode and slow tempo with “sad” songs. Other emotions such as fear and anger are less easily studied, but can be also recognised by the listeners. These seem to be induced by other features apart from mode and tempo. Fear excerpts seem to have fast tempo, dissonant harmonies and vast variations of dynamics and pitch.

Interestingly, it seems that children use the same properties as adults (i.e. tempo and mode) in determining whether music sounds “happy” or “sad”. Dalla Bella, Peretz, Rousseau & Gosselin showed that children are capable of judging the emotional content of music from the age of 5 using tempo as the sole determinant. Older children (from 6 to 8 years old) use mode as well as tempo, just like adults. Recent studies show that even newborn babies have the ability to discriminate between happy and sad songs. These findings suggest that infants are born with the ability to perceive music. However, it’s really hard to tell if this ability is really innate or learned during the last months of pregnancy, during which the infant can perceive certain stimuli from the external environment.

More info:

Scherer, K., R. & Zentner, M., R. (2001). Emotional Effects of Music: Production Rules.in P. N. Juslin & J. A. Sloboda (ed.). Music and emotion: theory and research. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 362-393.

Khalfa, S., Roy, M., Rainville, P., Dalla Bella, S. & Peretz, I. (2008). Role of tempo entrainment in psychophysiological differentiation of happy and sad music?.  International Journal of Psychophysiology, 68, 17–26

Dalla Bella, S., Peretz, I., Rousseau, L. & Gosselin, N. (2001) A developmental study of the affective value of tempo and mode in music. Cognition, vol. 80, pp. B1-B10

Sugimoto, T. & Hashiya, K. , 2006-06-19 “The Recognition of Affective Values of the Music in Infants: Infants Motoric Response to Music” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the XVth Biennial International Conference on Infant Studies, Westin Miyako, Kyoto, Japan

Krumhansl, C., L. (1997). An Exploratory Study of Musical Emotions andPsychophysiology. Can. J. Psychol. 51 (4), 336–352.

Peretz, I., Gagnon, L. & Bouchard, B. (1998) Music and emotion: perceptual determinants, immediacy and isolation after brain damage. Cognition, vol. 68, pp. 111-141

Categories: music psychology
  1. 21/12/2013 at 11:06

    Why do Minor Keys Sound Sad?
    If you want to answer the question, why minor chords sound sad, there is the problem, that some minor chords don’t sound sad. The solution is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can just convey processes of will, but the music listener fills this processes of will with emotions. Similar, when you watch a dramatic movie in television, the movie cannot transmit emotions directly, but processes of will. The spectator perceives the processes of will dyed with emotions – identifying with the protagonist. When you listen music you identify too, but with an anonymous will now.
    If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    This operations of will in the music were unknown until the Theory of Musical Equilibration discovered them. And therefore many previous researches in psychology of music failed. If you want more information about music and emotions and get the answer, why music touches us emotionally, you can download the essay “Music and Emotions – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration” for free. You can get it on the link:
    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:
    Enjoy reading
    Bernd Willimek

  1. 13/02/2010 at 00:39
  2. 26/02/2012 at 20:07

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