Why are minor chords sad and major chords happy?

Whenever a collection of notes is played or sung together, this is described as a ‘chord’ and even the simplest combination will convey some kind of recognizable emotion. Why and how this occurs has long been a matter of intrigue and debate for musicians, psychologists, physicists and even mathematicians.

A simple ‘major’ chord is made from the first, third and fifth notes of a major scale. This is reliably identified by Western adults and children as a happy chord. Then by simply lowering the middle note by a semitone – one white or black key to the left on a piano – this is turned into a ‘minor’ chord, which is typically heard as sad.

This phenomenon seems to be mirrored in natural language, with research showing that sad speech tends to use notes from minor chords, and happy speech major chords. Neuroscientists have also shown that major and minor chords provoke their own distinct pattern of activity in the brain’s emotion centres.

Some have argued that there is a physical basis for this.

Back in the 19th Century, German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz showed that minor chords create more complex sound waves, which are less harmonious and less comfortable to process.

But if this is an inherently biological phenomenon, then we would expect these perceptions to be universal across all cultures and while it is common, it is not always the case. For example, the Khowar and Kalash tribes native to northwestern Pakistan showed the exact opposite pattern to Western listeners, linking minor chords with positive emotions and major chords with negative emotions.

So while there may be some mathematical and physical reasons that humans started to use chords in this way, the research suggests that our tendency to hear emotions in chords is at least partly learned from very early and prolonged exposure to the associations that consistently occur in the music of our culture, and even in everyday speech.

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Asked by: Paul Farnham-Smith, Folkestone

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