How does music have different moods? What exactly makes a combination of notes sound “happy” or “sad”?

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How does music have different moods? What exactly makes a combination of notes sound “happy” or “sad”?

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Interestingly it isn’t any physical phenomenon. It’s cultural. Major has been in Western Music always associated with grand and happy. Minor is poignant or intense. It was solidified in the Romantic era.

Ever since, most of today’s western music has been based on the same musical scales.

In general, certain combinations of notes create a mood when they fit together, just like colors. While it’s hard to explain our brain’s reaction to those note wavelengths, generally major chords sound happy, minor chords sound sad or somber, augmented chords sound intense, and diminished chords sound mysterious.

When notes are spaced out in the right order, they sound pleasant. If they are less spaced or too spaced, they vibrate against each other and create a feeling of tension.

Just wanted to tell you that when my kid was 18 months old she participated in a study at Carnegie Mellon University about this exact topic. They played some “happy” and “sad” music to babies, toddlers, and kids to attempt to learn at what age the children could distinguish between the different moods of music.

I haven’t heard the results of the study but you could Google thaw university and your question to see!

Music is written in a certain scale, that determines which notes are mostly used.
Combinations of these notes form chords, which all have a certain sound and feel to it. Generally major chords sound happy, minor chords sound unhappy.

By playing chords in a certain order, it sounds like there is a certain flow in the music. It can sound resolved or unresolved, which brings a certain feeling. (Think of it like talking where the pitch of your voice changes and will go up if you ask a question and down at the end of a normal sentence.)

So there are a couple of ways to answer this, depending on what you’re looking for. If you want to know why the thing that sounds happy sounds happy, that’s just cultural. There are certain chords that we use in happy songs (starting with all the nursery rhymes), so we’ve trained ourselves to associate that with happy. Different parts of the world, or indeed history, have different associations. If we go back to medieval chants, these sound quite haunting to our modern ears. But at that time, that was the sound of worship music. Okay, it probably wouldn’t have evoked the same feelings that gospel music does now, but it would certainly have sounded ‘nicer’ than it does today.

But what makes up our standard “happy” sound? From here on, I’m assuming a musical heritage that traces back to 18th century western Europe. (Basically all western stuff including rock, pop, classical, jazz, whatever.)

Picture a piano, or better yet look at a picture! There are white notes and black notes. The low notes are left and the high ones right. There’s a pattern where the black notes are grouped in 2s and 3s. The way the piano works, each pair of notes next to each other are the same step apart to our ears, called an *interval*. We give the notes names. The white notes are named from A to G, then it repeats. The black notes are named after the white ones. The black note just higher than a C is a C# (C-sharp) and the black note just lowed than a D is called a Db (D-flat). Actually, these two notes are the same! C is the note just to the left of a pair of black notes. Now, if we play a C and an E (to the right of the pair of black notes), we’re playing an interval called a major 3rd, having stepped up 4 keys from the C. On the other hand, if we play C and Eb, the black note below the E, this is called a *minor* 3rd (major=big, minor=small).

But we can also stack intervals. Say we play a C and E, then add in a G (two white notes higher again), this is what we call a major chord, specifically C major. If you count the intervals, we’re playing a major 3rd with a minor 3rd on top. We’ve trained ourselves to feel this is the “happy” chord. Now, keep the C and G, but lower the E to Eb. Now it’s a minor 3rd with a major 3rd on top. This is what we call C minor, and we associate this with “sad”. Music based around major chords feels happy, and music based around minor ones feels sad.

Okay, can we push this further for extra credit? Of course! What happens if we stack a minor 3rd on a minor 3rd, say C, Eb, Gb. Well this is what we call a diminished chord (diminished=shrunk). And it sounds spooky. It’s not just sad, it’s evil.

What about the other way? If we shrink major to minor to diminished, it goes happy to sad to evil. Surely if we play an *augmented* (stretched) chord like putting a major 3rd on a major 3rd (C,E,G#) it’s going to be super happy? Well yes and no. It’s happy like a clown grinning at you in an ice-cream van. Everything about it *should* be happy, but it just ends up being really creepy and wrong!

NOW you’re asking the right questions. Everyone is responding “it’s cultural” which is mostly true, but effectively worthless. You’re not going to be changing your culture anytime soon, and neither are any listeners, and it doesn’t really explain how to leverage that information. I think the answer you are looking for is *intervals*. People form associations based on the *difference* between notes, or more technically, the ratio between note frequencies. If you can build a dictionary of sounds based on their emotional feel it’s extremely helpful for playing by ear. This method extends to scales, modes, chord composition and chord progression too. And you don’t have to memorize any notes! Just the relationships between numbered intervals! This reveals something interesting about music that most musicians miss, I think.