I wonder if there were any deep analyses of this topic. It might be hard to explain what I mean. Here are my subjective observations with some thoughts:

  1. Starting with the keys: the key placement of a melody is important, and this is due to the fact of how we perceive it - it resembles a voice. Difference even in a third (like between D minor and F sharp minor) is huge, a third is the distance between adjacent vocal ranges like bass and bariton, so the lower version of the same melody will sound more "wilted" or "somber", higher will sound more "brightly", like "glowing". Of course I have a lot of personal associations with every key, and it's very subtle but despite this crucial to the overall vibe of the music.
  2. Melodic intonations: e.g. going up a fifth from I (I-V) conveys certain emotion or vibe, or probably semantics (also enhanced towards more active or lyrical direction depending on the rhythm and manner of the performance), going from V to I conveys a completely different emotion. This emotional message changes if you change the first note. I-IV will not sound as active emotionally as I-V, it's different, so is I-VI - more lyrical. The same happens if you go as an example from IV down to II in minor or from III up to V in major - a totally different emotion, or from VII down to I (not 2nd upwards, but 7th downards) - everything has a unique immanent vibe. Then there're like sequences - intonations of multiple notes. All this multiplication of different notes, intervals, directions, alterations, rhythm, context, etc. and then making whole phrases of these intonations and finished melodies makes it possible to create a myriad of different music ideas with unique emotions and vibes, or "words" like we make words from sounds in our language, then sentences and eventually full messages.
  3. Harmony: changing harmony like changing the emotional perception. I mean from the tonic going to the subdominant group always feels like (emotionally, or in relation to the feeling/vibe) going up, to the dominant group - like going down. E.g. in minor t-III feels like a slight fog clearing or when you finally see a ray of sunlight through thick clouds. t-VI feels much brighter, it's subjective of course - but the key is that it conveys a different emotion or vibe. t-VII might sound like you're starting telling a story - doesn't matter how I try to verbalise it - the point is that it has a unique warm vibe. And so on, in major T-vi sound like something towards a bit lyrical, meanwhile T-VIb sounds "amazing" and unusual, T-VI sounds very, very bright with shine (btw with feeling that you changed the vector of your story completely, it's so that bright). And so on for other harmonic relations, not necessary with I (e.g. V-IV istead of frequent V-I). And then multiply that by possible 7, 9 chords, chords with alterations, pedal point, holding a sound, placing etc.. And then all this makes a line, with a unique "inner story" told through the emotions or vibe.

I mean what I want to find is treating melody and harmony like a language we speak, focusing on semantics, but not delving too deep into the theory per se (i.e. learning as much new technical or deep theoretical stuff - improving our sound or "letter" diversity or the beauty of distinct words even if it's pure nonsense, or just grammar like in classical harmony). So, treating it like a language from the point of a storyteller, not a linguist or a merchant in a bookshop.

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    The field you want to look at is Musical Semiotics. A video intro: Part 1 & Part 2. An overview of the discipline in this paper. A book A Theory of Musical Semiotics by Eero Tarasti. This is a HUGE question and the answer would necessarily be tied to a historical period, such as the Baroque period's theory of affect, which is a subfield of its own. Commented May 7 at 22:02
  • I think translation and scaling of frequencies does not change the song very much. This sounds culturally dependent.
    – Emil
    Commented May 8 at 5:08
  • I recall one of my theory textbooks saying that the Neapolitan (bII) chord sounds darker than the tonic, regardless of the key, and even if the tonic chord is minor.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented May 8 at 6:46
  • @Dekkadeci Yeah, maybe, because it's contains the important alteration from the phrygian scale. To me it sounds serious, tense, anyway - the point is that it has this unique vibe which is hard do describe using words. Commented May 8 at 9:06
  • @Emil wrong key can change the vibe or even ruin it. Imagine if you hear a tenor, and then you hear a bariton. Making the key lower change the vibe because many musical instruments has their ideal in human voice - the most perfect musical instrument (that can be applied to piano and violin, cello, etc.). So when the key is changed, it's like the voice level changed which instantly changes the character of how it sounds. If you speak making your voice lower, it will sound in one way, if you change it even a 3rd up - you'll hear that it sounds different, conveys a different connotation (or vibe) Commented May 8 at 9:12

1 Answer 1



Music-semiotics is a term that can be used to search libraries: https://search.worldcat.org/search?q=su%3AMusic%20Semiotics

...feels like a slight fog clearing or when you finally see a ray of sunlight through thick clouds.

FWIW, specific narratives like that usually can't be conveyed just from music. Sometimes such specific narratives can be achieved, but in a more symbolic way, for example in the middle of a work quoting The Star Spangled Banner, Grieg's Morning Mood, or Brahms' Cradle Song can convey patriotism, sunrise, and sleep. But that relies on the listener's cultural associations for the music. Also, notice how lyrics and titles direct the listen toward certain extra-musical meanings.

Musical semiotics seems to work with a lot of relative "emotional" descriptions like "departures and returns" or "darkening/lightening", or lists of interchangeable emotions and descriptions like "running water/gentle breezes/pastoral". It does not convey specific emotions like "embarrassment" or "disgust", etc.

  • Of course I meant figuratively. t-III is not that "clearing" literally, it doesn't matter how I try to verbalise it - the point is that it has a unique vibe, which you feel whenever you hear this. I'm talking not about the idea perfect verbalisation, but of the emotion conveyed itself. Commented May 8 at 14:54
  • @GeorgeGlebov. Which is it? You wrote "...makes it possible to create a myriad of different music ideas with unique emotions..." Are those emotions unique or generalities? I don't mean to put too fine a point on it, but musical semiotics seems to waver on that issue. Commented May 8 at 18:23
  • I was trying not to describe it (it wasn't the main goal, I'm sure it's impossible anyway), but to show that it has a unique vibe even if it's virtually impossible to describe using words, the matter is not in that sentence. I could be anything else, but the point is that it sounds in a certain way causing certain emotion in certain cultural context we are in. So the idea is: treating it like a language of emotions/feelings/vibes, and in our cultural context of course this language will look like that, in other cultural context - same elements will mean different emotions/vibes. Commented May 9 at 9:54
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    like different languages might have similar words (consisting of certain letters), but they mean totally different things. So, in music, in our cultural context this is "one language", for the people from another group - it's "foreign language". But the point is "can we treat musical elements not like a linguist/philologist (like in music theory), but like a storyteller/writer/just a speaker of that 'language'"? Basically, learning not how the language itself works, but how stories are told using that language. Commented May 9 at 9:59

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