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What gives a piece of music its personality and feeling?

What makes a happy song a happy one? What are the elements that give this particular property to a music piece? Can a computer understand what is the feeling a song transmits?

This question is also valid for the rest of the human emotional states (i.e. sad, angry).

From talking to musicians, I found some theories but they don't quite resonate with me. I have heard that the type of emotion a song gives is determined by the key (D minor etc.) in which the song has been written. For example, the D minor key should represent a sad-ish song.

I am not much of a musician but from what I understood the key is the indication of the last note in the song. For me this is not so logical. How can a song's type be determined by a single note? It could be a convention but I don't believe this.

Another idea is that you could see if a song is more aggressive than others but there should be at least a couple of other properties because aggressive songs can be sad, happy, angry, etc.

What are your thoughts on this issue? What other methods to you know or might have thought of for determining the feeling of a song?

Can a computer understand our music?

  • I don't know the word gama, but it looks like you mean to say "tonic pitch" "root," or "key".
    – NReilingh
    Sep 3 '11 at 17:35
  • A minor note: Songs written in a particular key very often end on the tonic note or chord of the key, but not always. And the key determines much more than just the last note.
    – user28
    Sep 3 '11 at 18:02

Very interesting question.

For a computer to understand whether song is happy or sad, you must define "happy" and "sad" first. This alone seems almost impossible, since every human has his own understanding of happiness, sadness and all other emotions.

You can define "sad songs" as the "songs which induce a sad mood in the listener". In this case, how can you know what effect the song will make on every individual human? For example, you can write a very happy song with major tonality and lyrics about summer and children, and an old man will cry while listening to it, because he remembered that his son died last summer.

As for the theory: many people think that major = happy and minor = sad. This is, generally, because of the relation to major and minor chords, which have a very different mood to them. Major thirds, which are the basis for major chords, sound happy and bright; and minor thirds, which are the basis for minor chords, sound dark and sad. This is the impression people usually get when they listen to the interval or chord alone. When chords line up to make up a song, the mood of the song is produced not from individual chords, but by tension and release made by chord sequences.

You cannot tell that a song with minor tonality will be accepted as "sad" or in major as "happy", because tonality does not matter; A minor and C major have all the same notes. It is tension/release and the listener's interpretation.

I don't think that computers will be able to understand music in any imaginable future.


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