Are we born with the response telling us that the chord tones or melody has a sad or happy quality? Or is it learned by our culture?

The minor scale and chords have a serious or sadness to them while the major scale and chords are brighter or happier. That is usually the interpretation in the western world.

I wanted to know of any research that has been done to investigate this.

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    I want to say that our culture tells us what are reactions should be, but I cannot expand that into an answer; for the sadness of the minor chords, take a look here: Why do minor keys sound “sad”? Mar 5, 2015 at 18:55
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a psychology question.
    – Dave
    Mar 5, 2015 at 19:11
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    it's both. our brains are wired from birth (most likely) or at least very early on for either the 12 tones or multiples/subsets thereof. there's a whole lot of research that's been done. But I have no references for ya - that's on you. It's kind of the main question of music theory - Why/how is music the way it is? Why/how does it sound good? Mar 5, 2015 at 21:16
  • @Dave I don't think this is off topic; we've had similar questions Mar 5, 2015 at 22:32
  • @Shevliaskovic (r lo) I consider it right at (but over) the edge, and probably better addressed by psychology. /How/ do we come to associate sound patterns with emotions? is a (developmental) psychology question. /Which/ sound patterns are associated with different emotions? is a question that can be answered in terms of ethno-musicology. (The similar questions that I'm aware of fall in the latter category).
    – Dave
    Mar 5, 2015 at 23:31

2 Answers 2


Well, I'm not aware that any "bright and happy" Country & Western songs have ever been written, and they all seem to be harmonized with nothing beyond three major chords :)

More seriously, the history of European/western music is very well documented for the last 1000 years, and within that time frame - insignificantly short in the context of biological evolution - there have been huge cultural shifts in the "meaning" of musical constructs. Go back 1000 years, and both major and minor thirds were considered to be discords that were hardly ever used in any musical context.

You might also consider western/European ethnic instruments. For example the Highland bagpipes have a range of just 9 notes approximating to a major scale (the tuning of the scale is actually unique to that instrument, but the important point here is that there are no "chromatic" notes at all in the traditional playing style) and they were (and still are) used to play lively dance music, laments for dead heroes, and everything in between.

Outside of western and European music, the ground rules are completely different. Consider Indian "classical" music, or even Bollywood film scores, for example.


I'm reminded of the Biblical story of IIRC David's medallion. Where King David commissions an object which will make him happy when he is sad and make him sad when he is happy. The result was a medallion, with the same message inscribed upon both sides: This too shall pass.

Music (properly executed) does indeed contain within it a certain emotional content. I'm reminded of the immortal words of Jack Black: "What about the power to move you?"

But music clearly has a different effect upon different people (with the possible exception of special forms like hymns). It can even have a different effect upon the same person at different times. Yeah, love this song. Yep, still catchy. You know, I've heard this song a lot lately. This song, again??

One possible explanation for this is the Brahminical idea of The Wheel of Samsara. That there are 6 distinct moods that each person traverses in the same order, but at different speeds. But, as one commentator feared, this is definitely the territory of psychology and not music, per se.

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