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    Music and Emotions: Why do minor chords sound sad?

    Dear members of the SMT. We want to inform you about the "Theory of Musical Equilibration (die Strebetendenz-Theorie)" and discuss the topic.

    The Theory of Musical Equilibration states that in contrast to previous hypotheses, music does not directly describe emotions: instead, it evokes processes of will which the listener identifies with.

    A major chord is something we generally identify with the message, “I want to!”. The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, "No more." If someone were to say the words "no more" slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.

    The Theory of Musical Equilibration applies this principle as it constructs a system which outlines and explains the emotional nature of musical harmonies, for example why a diminished chord is well-suited as the score for film scenes involving fear, or how an augmented chord can convey amazement and astonishment. You can get more information on the link Journal of Psychology & Psychotherapy or on the link Music and Emotions .

    Daniela Willimek, pianist, Karlsruhe University of Music, Germany

    Bernd Willimek, musictheorist


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    • 9 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • I just read your book "Music and Emotions" (linked in your email above) from beginning to end. I haven't yet absorbed all of the content. But I can say right now that I find your work to be fascinating and convincing; and I think your method/approach can be extended much farther. You really have the beginning of a music theory that pays close attention to  *the experience of music*  rather than just compositional technique.

      I think your theory can be tightened up and simplified somewhat by taking into account the following observation:  In musical experience, most reactions/feelings that are described as "emotions", are not really emotions in the conventional sense. I.e., (to utilize one of your observations), when listening to a passage involving a minor sixth, and experiencing "threat, danger, fear, feelings of anxiety", this is not the same kind of experience as "I am walking out of a store, I find the store surrounding by many heavily-armed police; and I experience threat, danger, fear, feelings of anxiety".

      So how to verbalize the feeling of (e.g.)  "fear" when hearing a musical passage? I would describe it as follows. The passage evokes a variety of primitive responses. One of these responses is sort of a weak, primitive response that has some aspects of "real fear", but not all. (Let me know if you would like me to elaborate on this example).

      If you take my above observation into account and keep it in mind when reading your book, it does not damage what you have done, but I think it makes you accomplishments somewhat simpler and clearer. I would say that you have introduced a very good vocabulary of some important, common primitive reactions to music; and you have correlated these with specific musical/compositonal devices.

      Good work! Thank you!



      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • Hello Isaac Malitz,

      Thank you for your comment. I think you said some important points about our work.  When listening to a passage involving a minor sixth, and experiencing "threat, danger, fear, feelings of anxiety", this is not the same kind of experience as "I am walking out of a store, I find the store surrounding by many heavily-armed police; and I experience threat, danger, fear, feelings of anxiety".

      To understand the experience of fear in music we compare music with movies. If you experience fear watching movies it is more similar like the experience of fear in music. In both examples you feel but you know that it’s not your own feeling. You identify with the feeling of someone else. You know you can dissociate from the feeling if you want. But there are some differences between movies and music. In movies you identify with a person you can see and hear speaking. In movies there is action you can observe. Therefore in movies you can explain your feeling logically. But listening music you have no action and no persons. You identify with a feeling without subject. You identify with an absolute feeling.  I think that is the main difference to feelings of everyday life. Bernd Willimek

    • I'm not trying to make an oversimplification here, but perhaps the reason minor chords sound sad is the same reason a dissonant interval sounds dissonant.  Or why a consonant interval sounds consonant - proximinty of frequencies and the way human beings differentiate the response to the distribution of those sonic impressions.   

    • I've made the following simple observation. I think the basis of expressional difference occurs along the chain of fifths.

      Minor second = 5 "sad points"

      Minor sixth = 4 sad points

      Minor third = 3 sad points

      Minor seventh = 2 sad points

      Perfect fourth = 1 sad point

      Prime / octave = neutral

      Perfect fifth = neutral (or 1 "happy point", not sure)

      Major second = 1 happy point (or 2 depending on how we score the perfect fifth, etc)

      Major sixth = 2 happy points

      Major third = 3 happy points

      Major seventh = 4 happy points

      Augmented fourth = 5 happy points

      The interval expression occurs relative to the reference points in the music. The chord root, the tonic, the chord that came before, etc.

      I think this is the (simplified) basis.

      Then there comes a second layer of musical expression which can work with the basic tonal / intervallic building blocks described above, like loudness, timbre, etc. and give it further emotional context.

      It seems to me the theory of equilibration describes more the effects of the "second layer" I wrote above? With "layer 1" making the actual "words" (which already have a strong "emotional expression") and "layer 2" how they're being spoken further shaping the emotional expression.

    • Sorry, I had not read the pdf yet and got the wrong idea about the theory of equilibration based on the posts here and the review. After reading it I see it's not mainly describing "level 2" as I wrote above. But the rest of my message stands. It seems to me that assigning the basic emotional tendencies of notes along the chain of fifths (and some added model of dissonance / consonance if you wish to include the effect of tension and resolution) would describe emotional expression of music with more detail and ease? I don't see what would be wrong with such a description, where it would fail or why it would not be desireable, but it seems to me that the authors do? Am I still missing something?
      Btw, I am a complete novice to theories and studies that link music to emotion. This is why I'm almost shocked to read such a theory :) I've always thought it was about the intervals and their innate emotional association that can be further shaped and combined and simply accepted the fact that our brain empathizes and connects emotions with this (perhaps speach etc based evolution I thought)

    • Regarding Bernd Willimek's comments on fear in music, fear in movies above: I think a sharper characterization is possible for the kind of "fear" ordinarily experienced in music . I'll use the term "mu-fear"  for that ; I'll use the term "real-fear" for the kind of full-fledged fear that one can experience in life (e.g. a big dog growling at me with teeth baring).

      The following is a quick, imperfect attempt to characterize the similarities and differences re mu-fear and real-fear. My main point is that there are similarities and differences, and these can be articulated.

      Real-Fear typically has these characteristics:

         [a] Grabs my attention, almost all of my attention.

         [b] Evokes physical reactions - sweat, faster heartbeat, faster breathing, ...

         [c] Evokes primitive, instinctual thoughts which may or may not be acted upon

                  (Fight, flight, scream ...)

         [d] After the threat has passed, the effects are slow to dissipate

         [e] In many cases, there are rich psychoanalytic associations which can be very long lasting

                   (Rage, anxiety, childhood memories, ...)

      Mu-Fear is typically as follows:

         [a] Grabs some of my attention, but not all

         [b] Very mild physical reactions

         [c] Probably evokes some primitive responsives, but very mild and subtle

         [d] Fear reaction is brief, often momentary

         [e] Pyschoanalytic effect minimal

         [f] Notwithstanding the above, it is natural for the listener to use the word "fear"

                 in an attempt to verbalize the experience.

      Regarding [f]: (as per Marvin Minsky "Society of Mind") I would say that part of what mu-fear is about is that it triggers a signal or alert in the listener something like "mild warning: possible danger". Humans receive many signals/alerts (when listening to music, while driving, in the dog park, ...) most of these are "false alarms". But the signal/alert itself is "real" as far as it goes.

      So, what is mu-fear and how does it relate to real-fear? The short answer is that mu-fear is a primitive, light reaction (or family of reactions) which has a certain amount of overlap with real-fear, but not a lot. However, as per [f], a listener finds it natural to use the word "fear" as a label for the reaction.




      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • Hello.

      thank you all for your interesting and important comments. We will look for possibilities to integrate them in our work. Last week we presented the "Theory of Musical Equilibration" at the "Croatioan Days of Music Theory" in Zagreb. Here is th link to the conference http://hdgt.hr/

      Bernd Willimekk

    • Hello,

      I want to inform you that we presented the "Theory of Musical Equilibration" at the winter conference of the "Israel Musocological Society" in Tel Aviv this week. Here is the link to the conference: http://media.wix.com/ugd/510480_4e3aa5de255a4868b0a86de92b7fd15e.pdf

      Bernd Willimek

    • Hello,

      Prof. Dr. Richard Parncutt invited us to presented the "Theory of Musical Equilibration" at the Centre for Systematic Musicology, University of Graz, 24 May 2016. Here is the link to the conference:


      Bernd Willimek