Music can make us feel different emotions, can channel our emotions, can help and encourage us to feel, and can really have a hold on us emotionally. There are a lot of elements that determine how music affects us—basically every event in our lives affects how we experience music.
Different cultures perceive music differently. For example: if you did not grow up on Hollywood soundtracks, epic action music will not work the same way as it does on those who did. The best example of how music affects people and cultures differently is that some will not recognize the connection between a major chord as happy and a minor chord as sad. Additionally, the music’s context also affects the listener—funny music in a movie scene that’s supposed to be sad would create a lack of empathy and sound disjointed. Another example would be happy music at a funeral.
What most affects our emotions is the rhythm and pitch of the music, but other factors contribute as well. Here are the different ingredients for the recipes of various emotions.
Tonality and Scale
This is etched into us, especially in Western culture: a major chord is interpreted as happy, while a minor chord is interpreted as sad. A minor chord differs from a major one by using a minor third interval instead of a major third interval. The minor third is further up the harmonic sequence and therefore sounds remote from the original note, which makes the minor chord sound darker and less natural. Additionally, dissonant music that contains frequencies that conflict with one another rather than harmonize with each other will create a feeling of discomfort and will be difficult to listen to.
There’s also a cultural context at work here. Those who have not been exposed to Asian music with quarter tones (Arabic or Indian music for example) will find it harder to listen to those types of sound. The use of different harmonies also has an emotional impact:
Complementing harmonies create feelings of happiness, relaxation, and serenity.
Clashing harmonies create feelings of excitement, anger, or sorrow.
(Example: XMaj7 is a happy chord, while XmMaj7 is a scary chord. Note that only one note is different between them!)
Our brains interpret melody as a type of speech, so if it behaves more similarly to human speech, it will sound more pleasant to us. The more a melody keeps with the tonality of its scale—with a relatively normal range to the human voice and without large interval jumps—the more pleasant it is to the ear. However, extreme ranges and large, strange intervals could be less pleasant. Duration also affects the sounds themselves. If they are relatively short in length, such as words and syllables, then the melody will be interpreted as more pleasant. Sad people tend to talk in a monotone, and sad music seems to move in small intervals within a narrow range. In contrast, happy people talk using a greater tonal range, and happy music follows this pattern by using larger intervals over a wider range.
Low-pitch sounds can physically shake our bodies and create tension. In addition, low notes are seen as big and are perceived as threatening. Sounds that are too high-pitch can break glasses and be very annoying. By breaking down the pitch scale, we can hear:
High = light, happy, carefree, and funny (but not including a too high pitched sound that goes beyond regular talking and singing capabilities).
Low = dark, sad, ominous, and serious.
Using a widened range for the melody can create a sense of depth at different levels. A small range using a single instrument can create a sense of loneliness.
The tempo of music has a direct effect on heart rate because the heart’s rhythm aims to sync with the music and is therefore influenced by it. The tempo of a piece of music roughly equates with the heartbeat associated with the corresponding physical state or emotion that the music suggests. A fast pace triggers enthusiasm, joy, and anger compared to a slow pace that can cause feelings of relaxation or depression.
Some examples of speed include:
– 60 BPM is often relaxing, introspective, or even depressive.
– 80–100 BPM is moderately alert and interesting.
– 100+ BPM is increasingly lively, exciting, or agitating.
– 120–160 BPM is common in some high-energy situations.
This is the reason why we say that something is “upbeat” when it’s happy and positive, or “downbeat” when it’s sad or depressing.
Smooth and consistent rhythms = happiness and peace.
Rough and irregular rhythms = amusement and uneasiness.
Varied rhythms = joy.
Indicative of the intensity, power, and anger of a piece. A sudden change in volume means a surprise. Dynamic music communicates better with us than the a piece with a static volume, which comes off as less emotional.
In conclusion, here are two recipes for music to add to your cookbook!