What makes a piece of music seem happy or sad? Whether it has been composed in a major or minor key is a significant factor. It’s part of what distinguishes the cheeriness of Walking on Sunshine from the pensiveness of Ain’t No Sunshine, for example.
But the perception of major keys as happy and minor keys as sad is not universal, according to Australian research that suggests the effect may result from the influence of western culture.
“We’re all very much aware of how music has got this incredible capacity to move us both physically and emotionally,” said Dr Andrew Milne, of Western Sydney University.
“One of the ways that composers or performers communicate … is through the use of either major chords and major scales – which are very strongly associated with creating a happy mood – and minor scales and minor chords – which are associated with a more melancholy feeling,” he said. “We know that western people are highly attuned to this particular musical feature.”
In a study published in the journal Plos One, Milne and his colleagues have investigated whether the phenomenon also occurs in people without prior exposure to western music and its typical emotional associations.
They played major and minor chords and melodies for people living in five remote communities in Papua New Guinea, as well as a musicians and non-musicians based in Sydney.
“A major chord and a minor chord are actually very similar,” Milne said. “They’ve both got three notes, but in the minor chord, one of those notes is a semitone lower” – the smallest musical interval possible on a piano.
Participants were tasked with choosing which of two chord progressions, or which of two melodies, sounded happier.
The study participants in PNG had differing levels of exposure to western music – one group had only “sporadic experience” of western-like music for at least seven years prior to the study.
In this group alone, there was no association between major chords and perceived happiness, the researchers found. “They’re just as likely to choose the minor chord or scale as being happier than the major,” Milne said.
In contrast, the emotional effect was strongest in Sydney musicians, a finding Milne described as “absolutely decisive – it’s almost a 100% probability that if they hear something in major they will say that that’s happier than something that’s in minor”.
A piece of music in a minor key is lower in average pitch than that in a major key, which had previously been suggested as a reason for differences in emotional perception. “Across non-human animal species, we typically find higher-pitched sounds related more to submission and contentment, and lower-pitched sounds related to aggression and dominance,” Milne said.
The study’s results are in keeping with research in other parts of the world. A study published last year noted similar findings among Khowar and Kalash tribes in Pakistan with minimal exposure to western music.
“We’re beginning to get converging evidence that really this is a cultural phenomenon, not a universal phenomenon,” Milne said.
The researchers hypothesise that two cultural mechanisms might explain the link between certain musical features and perceived happiness.
The first is familiarity – a phenomenon known in psychology as the mere-exposure effect, in which we tend to have a preference for things we are exposed to more frequently. “In western music, although both major and minor chords are quite common, major chords are still more common than minor chords,” Milne said.
A second hypothesis is associative conditioning – that repeated pairings of happy events with music in major keys, and sombre events with minor keys, have reinforced those emotional links over time. Take, for example, the repeated use of Wagner’s Bridal Chorus (composed in B flat major) at weddings, or Chopin’s Marche Funèbre (B flat minor) at funerals.
Dr Amanda Krause at James Cook University, who was not involved in the study, said one of the major reasons people listen to music is to regulate their moods and emotions.
Responses to music are affected by the music itself – tempo, key, lyrics – as well as the individual and the context in which they are listening. “Those three all interrelate and work together to impact how we respond to what we hear,” she said.