The Mechanics Of Music And Emotion

photo (c) 2014 Steve Case

Last week, I mentioned movie soundtracks as great examples of music leading a person emotionally through the movie. Every emotional change in the film will most likely be telegraphed by the musical underscore.

How does that happen? What are the principles involved in making your music sound happy, or anxious, or excited, or angry?

It starts, I believe, with a pretty mechanical approach.

Lyrics can communicate any sort of message from facts to feelings. As long as your audience speaks the same language, your message will (hopefully) get across.

But musically, we are communicating on the level of emotion. Not something we often think about, we simply accept it as we experience it.

Music and emotions are both states of tension. By “tension”, I don’t mean “tense”. You can think of musical and emotion tension as energy or as conflict, both are appropriate. You may enjoy the tension, you may not. The tension will propel you forward through a piece of music. It causes you to want to hear the next musical thing. Or the lack of tension may cause you to want to stay where you are and soak in it.

The more we define music and emotions in this way, the greater control we’ll have over the responses we get to our own songs, and the more clearly we’ll understand our own responses to music we love and hate.

Common Ground

Let’s unpack some characteristics of tension we’ll use as the common ground between music and emotion.

We can, in my simplistic, armchair psychologist view, apply three sets of criteria to any emotion. These are all entirely subjective, but I do think there are normative assumptions we can make, some well-worn paths that most of us would agree on.

1) We each have a general sense if an emotion is positive or negative. We base this on whether we like feeling that way or not. Feeling happy, for instance, most people would say is a positive emotion, while feeling sad is negative.

This is not any sort of judgment as to whether an emotion is good or bad. Emotions just are. How we handle them may be beneficial or not, but the emotion itself is simply to be recognized as a fact, not a behavior.

2) If emotions are states of tension, we should be able to determine its level of tension on a spectrum from low to high.  Anxious might be considered a very tense emotion, while bored is very low.

3) Each emotion can be identified as to its relative complexity. Feeling content is a pretty simple emotion, feeling frustrated is a bit more complex, and feeling depressed might be even farther out on the complexity spectrum.

And if you tweak this diagnostic system further, you may decide that some complex emotions are combinations of simpler ones. For example, nostalgic might be considered a compound emotion, its components being melancholy, happiness, frustration, etc.

How Do We Do It?

How do we take each of these categories and musically reflect them?

Here are the mechanisms. They will seem oversimplified at first, and they indeed are. But this is where we start.

     Positive/Negative = Major/Minor

When we hear major structures, we typically have a positive emotional response, while minor structures elicit a negative response. Simply put, major = happy, minor = sad.

     Level of Tension = use of Pitch, Volume, Duration, Timbre

As pitch rises, tension increases; as volume increases, tension increases; as durations shorten, tension increases; as timbres brighten or become more harsh, tension increases. The reverse is also true for each.

Compare these two scenarios:
How you would speak when trying to put an infant to sleep – low pitch in your voice, soft volume, long syllables, soothing texture.
How would you speak when trying to get your obnoxious little brother out of your room, or you find an unwelcome guest rifling through your belongings? Now your voice significantly rises in pitch, you are shouting, your words are one syllable, and you have as much edge in your voice as you can muster.

     Simple/Complex = number of tonal relationships

Simple emotions require simple sounding structures (triads, pentatonic modes), while complex emotions require more (embellished chords and diatonic or chromatic scales)

An Experiment

Make a chart with 4 columns to reflect a dozen emotions you can think of, listing them down the left-most column. In the second column, determine whether you consider that emotion to be positive or negative, 3rd column for level of tension (low, moderate or high for now), 4th column for simple or complex.

Here is my example, feel free to use whatever emotions come to your mind. Again, this is entirely subjective, and your choices do not have to agree with mine. Yet the principle remains valid. I’ve gotten you started with a few examples, add as many of your own as you would like. You might try anxious, bored, content, depressed, frustrated, anticipating, nostalgic, despondent, etc.

Emotion chart


The next step is to put your analysis into practice. Being careful to stay within the parameters listed above, try to play some familiar songs in new ways that reflect these emotions. Take, for example, a song like Mary Had A Little Lamb or Take Me Out To The Ball Game, and make it sound happy, then sad. What would you change to make it sound anxious, or bored? Some will seem easier than others due to your familiarity with the way the song has always been done. See how much you can change the emotion, identifying how your changes make you feel about it.

Even if you don’t play an instrument, you can listen critically to as many songs as possible, identifying the emotion(s) behind each. Be careful not to confuse how you feel about the lyrics with the musical content. And listening across genres can give you many clues as to how other musicians handle (or don’t) the emotional flow in their songs.

And if you are a composer, this is a great place to start as you conceptualize your song. How do you want the listener to feel when they hear your music?

happy Mike

Next week, I’ll let you see how I fill the chart in. Try it for yourself, and see if you agree with my process. To get really good at this will take time and lots of deliberate work with it. But the more I analyze and compose, the more solid these principles become to me.

Have you been successful in crafting your music to communicate the emotion you want to? Let me know how these ideas work for you! You can leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected].

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© 2014 Steve Case