Music and Emotion

Everybody knows that music can evoke particular emotions in the listener; we can all think of particular tracks that make us feel happy, sad, romantic, or excited. It can also evoke powerful memories – as evidenced by every couple who’s ever said, “Listen, it’s our song!”

How exactly music creates these effects is something that researchers have studied extensively, and although emotion is essentially a subjective experience – meaning it’s not always easy to get concrete evidence – we are able to understand various aspects.

The ability to assign emotional states to music is found in children as young as four or five years old, with this ability improving as the child develops. Certain studies have shown that music can not only convey emotions to the listener, but also elicit them – actually creating a real emotional response.

So, what exactly is it about a particular tune that evokes emotions? Structurally, there are various features which affect the emotional quality of a song. One of the most noticeable is the key; a song in a major key will tend to sound happy and positive, whereas one in a minor key will tend to sound sadder. This is aptly demonstrated by changing the key of popular tunes from major to minor and vice versa.

Tempo is another significant feature; you’ll note in the video above, the “sad” version of Pharrell Williams’ Happy was also significantly slower than usual. Harmonies can also have a strong effect, with complementary harmonies creating a satisfying and positive sound while clashing harmonies evoke more unpleasant feelings.

The lyrics, somewhat surprisingly, often don’t make much of an impact – if you stop to listen to the words of certain happy sounding songs you may be shocked to discover the subject matter. Examples include:

  • Hey Ya! by Outkast: Lyrics include “If what they say is “Nothing is forever” then what makes…love the exception?”
  • Mmm-Bop by Hanson: Lyrics include “You have so many relationships in this life, only one or two will last, you go through all this pain and strife then you turn your back and they’re gone so fast”
  • Pumped Up Kicks by Foster the People: Lyrics include “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, You better run, better run, faster than my bullet.”

Naturally, this emotional effect is not just found in pop music; it’s common to all kinds of music, and in some areas it’s used more consciously than in others.

Composers working on soundtracks for films, television shows and even video games will intentionally use the structures that convey emotions in order to ensure that they are creating or choosing music for the best possible effect. This is often complementary to the action, so that you’ll hear positive music when happy events occur on the screen, exciting music during an action scene and sad music to heighten the emotional impact of sombre moments. It can also be used in juxtaposition, creating an unsettling dissonance between the audio and the visual to unnerve the viewer – the famous “Singing in the Rain” scene from A Clockwork Orange being a prime example of this.

Commercially, music is used in advertisements to evoke emotions and create an emotional connection between the viewer and the product. For example, adverts for charity campaigns will often use minor key music to highlight the suffering of those they wish to help, whilst adverts selling products will often use major key music to highlight the positive effect that product is intended to have upon the purchaser.

Understanding the emotional effect that music can have on the listener can help you to make better music; whether it’s a pop song, soundtrack music or even a commercial jingle.

Here at Soho Sonic, we’re dedicated to helping you make the best recordings possible; for more information about our fully-equipped recording studio in London or to make a booking, get in touch with us today on 020 7193 4467.