In occidental music there are minor and majors chords, differing only by half a tone of one note.

Usually major chords feel more vibrant and energetic, while minor chords sound more melancholic. Usually sad songs are composed around minor chords, and since they are identified as sad by a major part of audiences, I was wondering where this consensus comes from.

Is it a property of most human brains to perceive certain sounds as "sad", in the same way we associate red with energy and violence and green with calm (the reason why surgery blocks are mostly green and blue colored)?

Is it educational, an association we came to do after hearing many sad songs that used minor chords by some habit or tradition?

Does such an association not exist in other cultures?

I was wondering if there were authors that worked on the way sounds elicit emotional responses.

  • 2
    Isn't this a psychology question? See Parncutt, The emotional connotations of major versus minor tonality:"The association between major/minor tonality and positive/negative emotional valence is psychologically robust, but without a single accepted explanation. I compare six partially related theories."
    – Conifold
    Sep 10, 2021 at 4:10
  • One philosopher you may want to investigate is Henri Bergson though I’m not sure he wrote anything on your exact topic. Example proposed study robertbuxtonpianist.com/writing/…
    – Gordon
    Sep 10, 2021 at 8:17
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    @Conifold: I'd say, as colour perception is a major topic in philosophy, it's not unreasonable to also include this.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 10, 2021 at 15:55
  • @Rusi-packing-up in my language major would be "do re mi fa sol la si" and the minor "la si do re mi fa sol", so i dont think it is a very universal observation.
    – armand
    Sep 11, 2021 at 6:56

1 Answer 1


In medieval & renaissance religious music, ie what got recorded, use of certain intervals was banned, like the flattened fifth nicknamed 'the devil's tritone'. It was considered discordant, sinister. But, it's widely used now, & we don't have the same association.

We think of notes in relation to vibration of plucked strings, but it's interesting to see the effect on a surface as visualised with a cymascope. There are constructive & destructive interferences, for sure.

Detailed schemes have been made of the moods of different keys, but there are many exceptions, & many songs that change key using notes that overlap (ie between associated major/minor keys). This paper summarises some of the main early theories, consonance, &c: The Affective Character of the Major and Minor Modes in Music. You may also find this preprint interesting: Harmony Explained: Progress Towards A Scientific Theory of Music; The Major Scale, The Standard Chord Dictionary, and The Difference of Feeling Between The Major and Minor Triads Explained from the First Principles of Physics and Computation; The Theory of Helmholtz Shown To Be Incomplete and The Theory of Terhardt and Some Others Considered.

A lot about music is cultural, learned, associative. The experience of listening to Balinese gamelan orchestras, with no introduction, no framing, is a good way to see this. Balinese players raised with this music, surely experience it differently.

That's not to say there are no intrinsic or deeper factors. This paper is interesting: Shaking Takete and Flowing Maluma. Non-Sense Words Are Associated with Motion Patterns. More generally we can look at the link between synaesthesia & onomatopeia.

It is nearly unique to humans to spontaneously dance when hearing music. There has been a long interplay between music and language, with some theories singing together rather than words drove our ability to vocalise. And tonal languages seem to have continued to push genes for better pitch discrimination. It is notable that few people have perfect pitch, we need a reference tone or to hear several tones, to get the key. When we hit whole tones, and perfect intervals, you might say we resonate with each other.

Sacred Harp singing is an interesting glimpse into choirs without an audience, and the social impact of singing together. Perhaps the deepest reason for an emotional connection, is music linking us to our prelinguistic selves, and connecting through song.

  • I wonder if the fact of "spontaneously" dancing to music isn't a learned behavior.
    – armand
    Sep 10, 2021 at 6:29
  • @armand: 'Spontaneity and diversity of movement to music are not uniquely human' sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982219306049
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 10, 2021 at 15:53
  • Feedback on a downvote is always appreciated.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 10, 2021 at 15:57
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    "yet it occurs in parrots, perhaps because they (like humans, and unlike monkeys) are vocal learners" interesting. We convey emotions through voice tones, and it's part of the social ability that makes us so strong as a species. So maybe the identification of certain tones with melancholy is a hardwired evolutionary trait like interpreting facial expressions...
    – armand
    Sep 10, 2021 at 23:04
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    Re changing to related keys: You don't even need to go to a related key, you can just go up a semitone (which is nearly on the opposite side of the circle of fifths, and makes almost no sense from a "traditional" music theory perspective) and it'll still sound reasonable anyway because it's "just" one semitone.
    – Kevin
    Sep 11, 2021 at 0:09

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