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I studied some different books on Music Theory and all were too much scientific and definitely very helpful to some point.

Now that I have started writing some songs, I feel I need to know more about emotions and feelings behind chords.

  1. There must have been some research or studies done about emotions and feelings that chords give us. As an example the feeling I get by hearing C, Cm, Cm6, C7, etc. is totally different and in my mind they're only feelings and I can't share my feelings and speak to somebody about how I feel about different chords. Is there any books or resources that can help me?
  2. Is the feeling you get by hearing a single chords different regarding the type of music? For example, can a C major chord convey a happy feeling and sad feeling in two different songs?
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4 Answers 4

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Context is important -- what else happens around the chord.

Let's just take the C major chord for starters. Listen to these examples:

  1. The first two measures of Mozart's sonata "for beginners" in C major. A nice, pleasant chord. Happy music.

  2. The opening of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. This has a much more energetic and heroic sound.

  3. The opening of the fourth movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony just after the transition from the previous movement. A feeling of triumph and accomplishment, and a lot of that feeling is because of what was happening just before.

  4. The point in Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck where Wozzeck gives his wife the money he earned from the doctor. The whole opera is atonal, except at this one point Wozzeck is accompanied by a very plain C major chord.

  5. Exactly midway through Bartok's "Bluebeard's Castle" when Judith opens door number five. I won't even describe it. Listen to the whole thing starting from the beginning. You'll know when it happens.

Can a song that uses only the notes C, E and G and ends on C be a sad song? Can it make grown men cry? I don't know. Go to the cemetery on Memorial Day and listen to the bugler play "Taps", and you tell me.

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Victor Zuckerkandl, Sound And Symbol

Sound and Symbol is part of Princeton's "Bollingen series". Bollingen is the name of the estate of Carl Jung; hence the whole series represents the "Jungian side" of the sciences.

Sound and Symbol is a "symbolist" approach to musical philosophy. It draws from the Spanish symbolists (who split from the Cubists who split from the Dadaists who spilt from the Fauvists who split from the Expressionists who split from the Impressionists, IIRC). He draws from the metaphysics of Kant and the pragmatics of Henri Bergson. The thesis is that since you are part of the universe, the pulse of the universe vibrates within you. You already know how rhythm and pitch function in music because you have the entire apparatus already in your cells. (As Plato might suggest, you have but to "remember" it.) You have but to "realize" what you know (inately) and draw attention to some of the finer details of what each aspect really means.

Every tone has a direction that it wants to go (in due time) in order to continue a suspension, depart further from "home", or resolve to a simpler ratio. This process mirrors the movement of electrons among the orbits as an atom gives and receives photonic energy. Both systems are based on the notion of the Octave.

The scale represents a pitch-framework, a One-Dimensional space of integers (whole numbers). With phrasing, additional voices, and dynamics, you can suggest additional spatial dimensions. This is mother earth.

The rhythms represent, of course, dimensions of time. Sequence, Repetition, Termination. This is father time. Also the three weird sisters: Spinning, Weaving, and Cutting the threads of the Minkowski world-lines).

There are pitches and rhythms constantly resounding within the tissues of your own body. The pulse of the blood, the rush of transmitters at the synapse and the oscillations and circuits of the electrical discharges in the neurons.

The suggestion here is that tones and feeling-tones have a similar genetic makeup.

There are of course extremes to which this kind of thinking can be taken (eg. this ebook ), but Zuckerkandl is safely on "this side" of the line. If the power of music truly was as "subjective" as the other answerers are suggesting, it wouldn't be possible to communicate at all (without telling everyone how to feel (shaking the steak in front of Pavlov's dog)). The fact that music has the power to convey emotional content makes a universal basis (an "objective" significance) somwhere between appealing and necessary.

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The feelings and emotions associated with chords are completely subjective, influenced by a combination of nature and nurture. This is why I might go into raptures over a piece of music that leaves you cold, and vice versa.

Absolute pitch

In This is Spinal Tap, the character Nigel Tufnel says that for him D minor is "the saddest of all keys, I find". Most musicians, I sense, consider that ridiculous, because if you transpose a tune up or down, it seems to be the same tune and therefore no happier or sadder than before.

Yet, some people have perfect pitch, and if they can identify an absolute pitch, it follows that some of them will ascribe different emotions to different pitches. It also follows that the rest of us may to the same to some extent, in a less precise manner.

What's more, very few instruments have completely even intonation -- not even a piano -- so the first step of a D minor scale is a very slightly different interval to the first step of an E minor scale; this may have some almost imperceptible effect on the sensations triggered by the music, for the very sensitive listener.

Relative pitch

However, I firmly believe that relative pitch is a much greater emotional trigger. Think not of the chord, but the chord change.

So for example, The Beatles' Something, played in C major, moves from an F to a D7 for the second line, in a moment that for me is very uplifting. If you transpose it up 5 semitones to A, that chord change becomes D -> B7, but it is no less uplifting.

So it is not the D7 or the B7 that themselves are imbued with emotion: it is those chords compared with the notes that came before -- and of course, in combination with the instrumentation and lyrics that go alongside them.

Key changes

A very common tactic employed by arrangers is the key change. This is where, towards the end of the song, often at the start of a repeat of the chorus, everything shifts up by a tone. The effect is one of exhilaration; it feels like a more joyous key than the one they were singing in just now. Yet the effect fades after a few bars.

Some arrangements have multiple key changes, so as to get that "lift" effect again and again.

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The absolute pitch example is true, but only when using equal temperament. If you instead choose a meantone tuning you'll get quite a different sound and feeling as you tranpose a tune. – ohmi Dec 24 '11 at 5:30

Pursuant to Mark Lutton's excellent answer, I'd like to make the point that Chords don't give us feelings, we give chords feelings.

The feeling you get after hearing a chord is not inherent in that chord--the only thing inherent in any chord is the physics of the harmonic series. (There is something to be said for consonance vs. dissonance within the context of the harmonic series, but that's a very different topic that has been expanded upon in other questions.)

When you hear a chord, your brain automatically associates it with all of the other contexts you've ever heard that chord in. This means that the feeling you get from hearing a chord is almost entirely socially constructed and relative to your sociocultural upbringing.

Now, this doesn't make these feelings useless; in fact, Stefon Harris is working on a musicianship textbook that attempts to teach theory and aural skills almost exclusively through this function of associating feelings with chord structures--and even down to the level of scale degrees. This is all from within the context of modern jazz, however.

Now, assuming I'm understanding your first question correctly:

There may well be studies out there that show what the current popular feeling associations are for a set of chords, but I believe that having this available to you will not help you write better music. If you want to write music that conveys a particular feeling, then you just figure out which note, or chord, or scale, or harmonic landscape matches that feeling most closely in your own mind. This technique is predicated on you writing music for consumption in the culture and context you are familiar with.

Now, in theory, such a resource could be useful to someone writing music for consumption in a culture they are not familiar with. I would personally find that very disingenuous; almost like cheating, in a way. Composers do like to write music outside of their own culture, but they usually do this by exposing themselves to that culture and learning how it works largely through intuitive immersion. (See also: The Beatles' trip to India, Darius Milhaud's time in Brazil.)

This is also true for composers and different styles. Simply put: if you want to write music outside of your own cultural and stylistic reference, you should do yourself the service of immersing yourself in that style and learning how it ticks for yourself. YouTube is great for this--thousands of different styles of music at your fingertips, with a built-in recommendation system to keep you pushing your limits.

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+1 for boled text only, great answer. – Silver Light Dec 23 '11 at 16:12
+1 as well. as someone who went to art school, not music school: if someone sits there with a list and says "green means jealosy" and "triangles make you feel grounded" they are BULLSHITTING YOU find another teacher. – horatio Dec 23 '11 at 16:28
"the feeling you get from hearing a chord is almost entirely socially constructed and relative to your sociocultural upbringing" This is only a hypothesis or doctrine, not an iron-clad truth. We can easily cast doubt on it by interviewing children which are just barely old enough to speak to identify various chord sounds as "happy" or "sad". – Kaz Feb 6 '13 at 21:21
@Kaz Children old enough to speak have already undergone two years of sociocultural immersion. This is a topic heavily researched and studied by ethnomusicologists. I'm happy to entertain doubt, and I myself am not an ethnomusicologist, but know that there's a complete field of study devoted to this kind of thing. :) – NReilingh Feb 6 '13 at 21:32
The problem that children old enough to speak have already undergone as much as two years of sociocultural immersion does not bode well for either side of the argument. Here is another problem: people from the same society are nevertheless diverse. Liberals, conservatives, hedonists, stoics, god believers, atheists, mystics, realists, pessimist, optimists ... yet a minor triad is melancholy. – Kaz Feb 6 '13 at 22:29

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