Dr Vicky Williamson is a lecturer in Music Psychology at Goldsmiths University. You have the right to read her previous post in the scientific research Of Music series here

Most the the time, as soon as all rather is held constant, music in a major key is judged as happy if minor vital music is heard together sad. Ns say most of the time since it’s no true across the board. Minor music can be happy even if world do not recognize the lyrics, such together in van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’. Or try keeping a laugh on your confront when friend hear to ‘Dinner in ~ Eight’ by Rufus Wainwright or ‘I recognize It’s Over’ by The Smiths, both of which space in significant keys.There are many examples of minor-happy and major-sad pairings in the music catalogue, yet it’s fair to say the these examples are the exceptions fairly than the rule. Want proof? check out this version of R.E.M.’s famously gloomy ‘Losing mine Religion’, digitally change to a significant key. Notice how it triggers a totally different emotionally effect.




You are watching: Fast songs are always in major keys

What is going on here? just how does together a seemingly ethereal musical adjust create together a dramatic effect? Why carry out we automatically assume that songs in a major key are happy and also minor key, sad?


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It appears to be mainly the an outcome of cultural conditioning. Once we hear to tunes us rely greatly on our storage for the body of music we’ve heard every our life. Constantly emotional base with our music memory back catalogue helps to generate expectations of what could come next in a tune, which is vital source of enjoyment in musical listening. The fence of this end reliance on memory is the our music reactions are frequently led through stereotypes.


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In the western music tradition major music is play at times of celebration (Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’ or ‘Happy Birthday’), jubilation (Brian May’s ‘National Anthem’ on optimal of Buckingham Palace) and also general funny times (‘Celebration’ by Kool and also The Gang) whereas minor music is supplied to note mourning (Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’), heartache (‘Back to Black’ by Amy Winehouse) and despair (‘Hurt’ by Johnny Cash or ‘Gloomy Sunday’ by billie Holiday).

We space exposed to this repetitive pairing the sound and also emotional definition from the moment our ears are functioning (around the fifth – sixth month in the womb) so that is no wonder that we leap come emotional presumptions based on experience.


Interestingly however, it seems that the western pop music genre may be relocating away native the overwhelming use of major keys come make us happy. Music psychologist glen Schellenberg has presented that end the past decade world tended to favor music in a minor vital although there is no evidence that we are getting more miserable. The relationship between major/minor music and our emotions might be about to get much more complex.

Cultural exposure will always vary, however there may be something depth in music the triggers our overwhelming responses to major and boy sounds. Clues at a universal solution to music come from a study of the Mafa people in northern Cameroon. At the moment they were studied by Tomas Fritz the people members had no exposure to west music social traditions. Can they recognise happy vs. Sad in our music? yes they could, but their performance was lot poorer than Western music listeners.


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The group difference in between Mafa and also Western listeners in this examine speaks to the strength of cultural influence and collected listening experiences on our emotional reaction to music. Climate again, the Mafa did reliably sense something in the music that permitted them to distinguish happy native sad. What major/minor emotional triggers are common to united state all?




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Let’s look in ~ the nuts and also bolts of sound. Tempo is obviously important. A simple minor chord (with three notes, additionally known as a ‘triad’) likewise uses a middle note that is closer come the tonic as contrasted to a significant triad. Take for instance the C triad chord (C, E, and also G); in the minor variation the center note is E level (closer to C) whereas in the significant version we hear organic E (further far from C). The tonic (C) is the strongest note and draws an ext of our attention, therefore minor chords favor this trigger an ext sensory dissonance, a sort of stress that stems native the clashing of very closely spaced frequencies.

The Mafa tribe civilization may likewise be reacting to sound and emotion associations that originate from the way that us speak. Scientists have shown that the sound spectra – the profile of sound ingredients – that consist of happy decided are an ext similar to happy music than sad music and vice versa.

The scientific research behind the speech-music connect may be brand-new but the idea is an old one. Aristotle suspected that the emotional affect of music to be at the very least partly down to the way that it mimicked our very own vocalisations as soon as we squeal for happiness or cry out in anger.

Many components make up happy and sad music, including differing tempos, timbres and also rhythms, however major-minor tonality is a key clue from which us extract an emotional message. This on–the-spot testimonial is attracted from our reaction to the acoustic structure of significant and minor chords however is mainly down come learned associations, both ancient and modern.