Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Is minor-key music sad for everyone?

[I wrote a recent Muse for Nature News on an interesting study of the emotional qualities of major and minor keys. Here it is (pre-edited). I should say that I could do no more here than hint at the problems I had with the Bowling et al. paper. It is very stimulating – I’d not seen a claim of this sort made before – but ultimately I find it unconvincing. Their procedure is pretty hard to follow, but I think I’ve got it right in the end. I find it very odd that they are apparently digging out some ‘implied fundamental’ for all the tonic intervals they consider, more or less regardless of whether there is any evidence that such a thing is heard (in the absence of the tonic actually being simultaneously played!). And as I say, the formant ratios for both types of speech are dominated by major intervals, but simply less so for ‘subdued’ speech – that’s to say, this speech doesn’t seem to have a ‘minor’ feel to it (if such a thing is meaningful anyway), but just less strongly major. So the issue is very much open. But in any event, empirical evidence surely shows us that music using modes close to the Western diatonic minor needn’t be sad at all in other cultures.]


Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnell famously declared that D minor is “the saddest of keys”. But is music in a minor key inevitably sad?

Why does Handel’s Water Music and the Beatles’ ‘There Comes The Sun’ sound happy, while Albinoni’s Adagio and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ sound sad? The first two are in major keys, the second two in minor keys. But are the emotional associations of major and minor intrinsic to the notes themselves, or culturally imposed? Many music psychologists suspect the latter, but a new study suggests there’s something fundamentally similar about major and minor keys and the properties of typically happy and sad speech, respectively.

Neuroscientists Daniel Bowling and colleagues at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, say in a paper in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America that the sound spectra – the profiles of different acoustic frequencies – in major-key music are close to those in excited speech, while the spectra of minor-key music are more similar to subdued speech [1]. They compared the frequency ratios of the most prominent acoustic peaks in speech (called formants) with those in Western classical music and Finnish folk songs.

The acoustic characteristics of happy, excited speech, which is relatively fast and loud, are common in most cultures, while sadness elicits slower, quieter vocalizations. We have a natural tendency to project such physiognomic associations onto non-sentient objects: a drooping willow is seen as ‘weeping’. There’s good reason to believe that music mimics some of these universal emotional behaviours, supplying a universal vocabulary that permits listeners sometimes to deduce the intended emotion in unfamiliar music. For example, Western listeners were able to judge fairly reliably whether pieces of Kyrghistani, Hindustani and Navajo Native American music were meant to be joyous or sad [2,3], while the Mafa people of Cameroon who had never heard Western music could guess more often than chance whether extracts were intended to be happy, sad or ‘fearful’ [4]. Here it seems that tempo was the main clue.

Of course, it’s simplistic to suppose that all music is ‘happy’ or ‘sad’, or that all ‘happy’ music is equally and identically ‘happy’, as opposed to joyous, blissful, contented and so forth. But these crude universal indicators of emotion do seem to work across borders.

Is mode (major/minor) another of them? The idea that the minor key, and in particular the musical interval between the first and third note of the scale (a so-called minor third) is intrinsically more anguished than the major (where the major third seems naturally ‘bright’ and optimistic) is so deeply ingrained in Western listeners that many have deemed this to be a ‘natural’ principle of music. This notion was influentially argued by musicologist Deryck Cooke in his 1959 book The Language of Music.

Cooke pointed out that musicians throughout the ages have used minor keys for vocal music with an explicitly sad content, and major keys for happy lyrics. But he failed to acknowledge that this might simply be conventional rather than innate. And when faced with the fact that some cultures, such as Spanish and Slavic, use minor keys for happy music, he offered the patronizing suggestion that such rustic people were inured to a hard life and didn’t expect to be happy.

No such chauvinism afflicts the latest work of Bowling and colleagues. But their conclusions are still open to question. For one thing, they don’t establish that people actually hear in music the characteristic spectral signatures that they identify. Also, they assume that the ratios of frequencies sounded simultaneously in speech (what in music are called harmonic intervals) can be compared with the ratios of frequencies sounded sequentially in music (melodic intervals). And most troublingly, major-type frequency ratios dominate the spectra of both excited and subdued speech, but merely less so in the latter case.

In any event, this work still faces the problem that some cultures (including Europe before the Renaissance, not to mention the ancient Greeks) don’t link minor keys to sadness. Western listeners sometimes misjudge the emotional quality of Javanese music that uses a scale with similarities to the minor mode yet is deemed ‘happy’ by the musicians. So even if a fundamental ‘sadness’ is present in the minor mode, it seems likely to be weak and easily over-written by acculturation. It’s possible even in the Western idiom to write ‘happy’ minor-key music (for example, van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’) or ‘sad’ major-key music (Billie Holiday’s ‘No Good Man’).

So let’s not conclude too soon that minor keys give everyone the blues.

References

1. Bowling, D. L., Gill, K., Choi, J. D., Prinz, J. & Purves, D. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 127, 491-503 (2010).
2. Balkwill, L. L. & Thompson, W. F. Music Perception 17, 43-64 (1999).
3. Juslin, P. N. & Kaukka, P. Psychological Bulletin 129, 770-814 (2003).
4. Fritz, T. et al., Curr. Biol. 19, 1-4 (2009).

24 comments:

William said...

Also, they assume that the ratios of frequencies sounded simultaneously in speech (what in music are called harmonic intervals) can be compared with the ratios of frequencies sounded sequentially in music (melodic intervals).

I wonder what problems you have with this assumption? I can't see why that bit of minor-key-dissonance would act differently whether sequentially or simultaneously, except that it might take a little longer to establish it sequentially. I'm sure you have good reasons, though, so I'm curious.

(I immediately thought of this study where 9 month olds were played both sad and happy music to see if they would react differently. Unfortunately, they did not control for much, as the happier songs were up-tempo and the sadder songs were down-tempo.

http://news.byu.edu/archive08-Oct-babymusic.aspx )

JimmyGiro said...

"And when faced with the fact that some cultures, such as Spanish and Slavic, use minor keys for happy music, he offered the patronizing suggestion that such rustic people were inured to a hard life and didn’t expect to be happy."

You say Cooke's view is chauvinistic, yet you dismiss the very point of some cults and cultures that choose to be nihilistic as a mode of virtue.

Feminists are quite 'happy' to sit through a performance of the "Vagina Monologues"; and various other puritanical religions will make virtue out of misery. Is it not inevitable that music makers compose for their audiences prejudices?

The problem is that you are measuring the correlation of musical key and emotion, via the rubber ruler of 'happiness'.

Imagine writing music, poetry, or science, for a sadist and a masochist. You would still have your inherent modes of musical intonation, as would your respective clients, but the product must reflect on whose culture pays the piper.

天氣晴 said...

wonderful ..................................................

Julia said...

William-
Sensory dissonance is a phenomenon that stems from beating of closely spaced frequencies - clearly that only works if they are simultaneous (or at least that they overlap significantly).

Jim-
It's hard to know whether you're being facetious or not (do you find people often say that to you?). But I guess the real point is that the kinds of minor-key music I mean here are described by the cultures concerned as being happy. (People who like to sit through the Vagina Monologues presumably also say that they like it, not that they've chosen to be miserable). We might like to think 'Oh they're just saying that - surely they're miserable really'. But can it be meaningful to deny that someone is happy if they say they are? Sure, people repress stuff, but a whole culture in denial about whether its music makes it feel better...?

pricto said...
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pricto said...
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pricto said...
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pricto said...

Who doesn´t like spicy food here? Why in Mexico and India food tends to be so spicy? Some types of french cheese are intolerable for most westerners... Why did Rossini was also a wonderful cook? The functional aspect of music is crucial in evaluating the psychological responses of listeners.
As a composer I´ve faced the trouble of having to deal with the particularities of diferent social groups, and it seems inevitable for me not to agree with Jim in this matter.
It's very improbable that the laws of physics will change for us, the hamonic series will always have more and stronger major intervals than minor intervals. Our only harmonic ruler is this natural phenomenon, an invisible crystaline mold.
Organic life is very different from minerals, basically because is constantly mutating. Some of its transformations are in accordance with obvious natural laws and others are quite against these laws, but the ruler is there even if it does´t match with life´s idiosincratic nature.

Is music a comunication channel between energy and matter?

Maybe this is a better question...

Minor key music is based on a scale that combines minor and major intervals, has a perfect fifth (which sounds more major than minor, in comparison with it´s inversion the perfect fourth; also in early medieval music these intervals were considered major and minor respectively) and a major second, here traditional music theory is misleading. The traditional minor key should be considered a mixed scale with a majority of minor intervals.

But what is major and minor when for westerners the true measuring system is an equal division of the interval of an octave? This is traditionally called "Equal Temperament", and it throws us into a void of misunderstanding unless we adapt our whole perception to it, becoming slaves of this artificial ruler (which is much more rational than the harmonic series).
This is all non-sense I´ll better stop here... so bye!!

pricto said...
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pricto said...

oh... I almost forgot, I´m venezuelan/spanish and been living in Spain for eight years now, and let me tell you, flamenco minor music is not very happy even for spaniards. The spanish gypsy musical subculture really enjoys to cry and be sad at their parties. The type of music that a cultural group creates and uses reflects their general psychological profile as a whole.
Nowadays there are subcultures of everything here in Spain, like in most western countries there are groups of people for any type of music. Gypsy music is not the majority, ugly transcultural pop is.

And... there is a degree of dissonance between the notes of the equal tempered system and the harmonic series, of these intervals only the octave is congruent. So it may be valid to consider minor intervals as more dissonant than major ones in relation to the harmonic series or our natural/happy unconscious ruler.

William said...

Julia,

Thanks! That is very obvious now that I think about it. For some reason I was thinking in terms of major vs minor triad instead of major vs minor scale. Whoops!

Philip Ball said...

pricto-
You've raised a lot of interesting points, to which I can only respond (in the time available) - my book The Music Instinct is for you! I'd be glad to hear what you make if it.

William/Jim: sorry, I responded to your comments while inadvertently logged in as my wife Julia. She'd never be as rude as that, Jim, naturally.

pricto said...

I was just meandering around the web looking for information related to general affective qualities of intervals and suddenly bumped into this blog. After giving a fast read I felt inspired to write some fast lines which I had to correct after reading them myself... I still see them and get the feeling that if I had more time I´d express myself more accurately, but I don´t know if it´s the right place.
Anyway, the thing is that apart from being a musical composer I´m also very fond at theorizing, but not just for it´s own sake... my motivation is oriented at discovering new ways of perceiving music through the creation of different paradigms that could explain music and it´s functions (apart from also acquiring more ideas for composition). Now I´m particularly interested in the relation between psychology and music, and the possible paradigms that could be created by their fusion. I have already made what I think are some very interesting paradigms, mixing music with mathematics and physics. But now my aim is at psychology and alchemy... In my creative search I have found many useful ways to expand my musical vocabulary and a more rational system of musical composition (at least for me). Do you think your book could prove useful for my purposes? if the answer is affirmative then, where can I get it? Is it possible to read a review or some of your writings on the web?
I´d be pleased to share my points of view.

JimmyGiro said...

"William/Jim: sorry, I responded to your comments while inadvertently logged in as my wife Julia. She'd never be as rude as that, Jim, naturally."

I always thought you were a big girl; shall we call you Julip or Philia?

:))

mattoldham said...

Hi there, thank you for posting this interesting blog! The title of my dissertation is "Happy & Sad - Do these descriptions describe Major & minor tonality accurately?". And it is very hard to find research on this subject. Can i ask all the followers and the author of this blog, at what era in history did the connotations 'happy & sad' become attached to Major & minor modes? I assume it may have been around 16th century, when the Renaissance created more 'depth' in music theory? But that is a guess, does anyone know when for sure this may have been? Thank you all!

Philip Ball said...

mattoldham,
Sorry, I've only just noticed your comment. This is probably too late now to register, but you should check out this paper:
Huron, D. & Veltman, J. (2006).
"A cognitive approach to Medieval mode: Evidence for an historical antecedent to the major/minor system." Empirical Musicology Review, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 33-55.
It doesn't really go into the happy/sad associations of major/minor, but explores when and how the major/minor modes themselves emerged from the many modes in use during the Middle Ages. The text is available online at Huron's site:
http://musicog.ohio-state.edu/Huron/CV/publications.html
Hope it helps!

Iridescent Spirit said...

All songs in minor keys make me feel sad. They seem to have an emotional effect. I avoid them completely.

S Claus said...

"They compared the frequency ratios of the most prominent acoustic peaks in speech (called formants) with those in Western classical music and Finnish folk songs."

Wow, I did not know Finnish folk songs were known for THAT ASPECT even outside of Finland:-P

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willimek said...

If you want to answer the question, why minor sounds sad, there is a problem, that some minor chords don't sound sad. The solution of this problem is the Strebetendenz-Theory. It says, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can just convey processes of will, but the listener fills the operations of will with emotions. Similarly, when you watch a dramatic film in television, the film 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 anymore...". If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will "I don't want anymore..." 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, you would distinguish, if someone would say the words "I don't want anymore..." the first time softly and the second time loudly.

This processes of will in the music were unknown until the Strebetendenz-Theory discovered them. And therefore many researches in psychology of music failed. If you want more information about the emotions of other chords and get the answer, why music touches us emotionally, you can download the essay "Vibrating Molecules and the Secret of their Feelings" for free. You can get it on the link:
Http://www.willimekmusic.homepage.t-online.de/Striving/Striving.doc

Enjoy reading

Bernd Willimek

willimek said...

In addition to my last post, I am announcing that the English translation of our work "Musik und Emotionen - Studien zur Strebetendenz-Theorie" is now published:
Music and Emotions - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration
You can get it free at the link:
http://www.willimekmusic.de/music-and-emotions.pdf
Bernd Willimek

willimek said...

In addition to my last post, I am announcing that the English translation of our work "Musik und Emotionen - Studien zur Strebetendenz-Theorie" is now published:
Music and Emotions - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration
You can get it free at the link:
http://www.willimekmusic.de/music-and-emotions.pdf
Bernd Willimek

willimek said...

In addition to my last post, I am announcing that the English translation of our work "Musik und Emotionen - Studien zur Strebetendenz-Theorie" is now published:
Music and Emotions - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration
You can get it free at the link:
http://www.willimekmusic.de/music-and-emotions.pdf
Bernd Willimek

willimek said...

Why do Minor Chords Sound Sad?

The Theory of Musical Equilibration states that in contrast to previous hypotheses, music does not directly describe emotions: instead, it evokes processes of will which the listener identifies with.

A major chord is something we generally identify with the message, “I want to!” The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, "No more." If someone were to say the words "no more" slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.

The Theory of Musical Equilibration applies this principle as it constructs a system which outlines and explains the emotional nature of musical harmonies. For more information you can google Theory of Musical Equilibration.

Bernd Willimek