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Music & Emotions (Series): Positivity

By Alyssa

A lot of people agree: Music can be really, really calming, uplifting, encouraging.—But how? Is it something about the words? The instrumentation? How about the chords themselves? It makes sense to try and figure it out. (Who knows—If you like (or are thinking about) composing, maybe this will give you hints at how to evoke your desired emotions.) In this study, samples containing a progression of two chords (extracted from a variety of song genres) were played on the piano; peers responded by saying how the progressions made them feel. This study aims to find associations with certain feelings and the actual changes between chords 1 and 2. (In the last study, Music & Emotions (Series): Unease, uneasy feelings increased with the number of halfsteps (minor seconds) between notes in chords 1 and 2.) So, let’s look to the experiment testing for the gently positive feelings.

If you want to try it yourself, follow along by number with the video provided below. Note how each progression, each a few seconds long, makes you feel.

The chord progression samples are as follows. (The Roman numerals, relative to the first chord when practical, are provided.)

(Listen to samples 1-10. If you need more time to think, pause it before the next sample appears onscreen.)

Ready for the big revelation? The chords played were:

  1. Bb-G6 (I-VI6)

  2. Eb-G6/4 (I-III6/4)

  3. B-Bb (VI-V)

  4. Eb-Bb (IV-I)

  5. bm-A (ii-I)

  6. C-F (V-I)

  7. am-F (vi-IV)

  8. Bbsus-Bb (V4-3-V)

  9. A-B-C# (VI-VII-I)

  10. em-D (vi-V)

Make sure you know how YOU responded to each one before seeing how others did.—So, how did they? Let’s see: (Each description separated by “;” is one person’s answer unless otherwise indicated, and “...” shows a shift in responses, if any. Beneath each box shows the general emotion evoked—the “average”, if you will.)



  1. Bb-G6 (I-VI6)

Nostalgia (x3); happy (x5); relaxed/calm (x3); awaiting/longing (x2)

=Sentimental

2. Eb-G6/4 (I-III6/4)

Excited/hopeful (x3); transition (x2) • happy (x2)...in love; turmoil/tense

=Excited for something new and fun

3. B-Bb (VI-V)

Sunset; assured; “see you later”; something exciting about to happen;...pure anger

=Assured that something good will come again


4. Eb-Bb (IV-I)

Rewarded; peaceful, spring/good vibes/happy memories; gentle closure; bittersweet; somber but hopeful, hopeful, happy/joyful;...sad/gloomy

=Peaceful

5. bm-A (ii-I)

Sorrowful; “success, but at what cost?”; sad; falling down stairs gracefully; sitting down to talk, maybe for the last time in a while; beginning something heavy and difficult; cool and dark; slightly uncertain but comforted;...really uplifting

=Gently pained

6. C-F (V-I)

Continuing, moving up; spring/happy memories; happy; intensely building up to something; confident in new beginnings; a bright, strong closure;...total darkness

=Strongly momentous in a good direction

7. am-F (vi-IV)

Captivated; hopeful; going on an adventure; falling suddenly (but into a bed of feathers); happy;...ominous/suspicious; scared

=Unsure about the future

8. Bbsus-Bb (V4-3-V)

Calm; peaceful/relaxed/pleasant; something ended; something’s about to end happily; in a movie; awesome!

=A happy ending

9. A-B-C# (VI-VII-I)

End of a level; triumphant; victorious; “happy!” (x2); curiosity/expectancy; something good just happened

=Victorious







10. em-D (vi-V)

A fantasy (x2); joyful anticipation; a turnpoint; pleased;...sad; frustrated crying because “I couldn’t kill a cockroach”

=Longing; something is just out of reach

So, there you have it. How did your feelings compare with others’? Did you notice any similarities?

From the data gathered, most progressions had something of a consensus among the respondents (who had no contact with each other during the experiment); the answers were similar enough to draw an average feeling for each response box. Now it’s back to the original objective: To discover the reason why people respond similarly to certain chord progressions. What is it about those chords? Let’s find out.

To start, I put all the average feelings on a scale from least to most positive “energy” and divided them into 3 groups (based on similarities) to evaluate more easily. So, what gives a 2-chord progression that “positive energy”? Let’s look at the facets of each: from the qualities of the chords themselves to the behaviors of individual notes. And let’s start from the top down by group.

In Group 1, The progression evoking feelings of victory (9), strong momentum in a good direction (6), and excitement for something new (2) are similar in that they’re all Major triads going to Major triads; the victory one, Major to Major to Major (so like a triple Major). Second, with victory and strong momentum, the notes are doing the exact same thing: In victory, they all move up by a Major 2nd (between chords 1&2, 2&3) so really it’s just three ascending Major scales stacked on each other; in momentum, they all move down a perfect 5th. Could parallel Major motion be the key to evoking wildly intense emotions such as triumph and good momentum? Perhaps. For excitement, though, it’s a bit different; the 5th and the root of the triad simply move apart by a minor second each way; perhaps the small stepwise motion creates that sense of slight unsteadiness in the status quo, possibility, anticipation that something is about to happen. Here is a picture for elaboration:



Contrastingly, in Group 2—where feelings of happy endings (8), assuredness (3), peace (4) and sentimentality (1) are evoked—there is a bit of a different story with the first one. Though they are all Major to Major triads (with 8 the only exception; a sus to a Major), feelings of happy endings (8) does not experience that outer-note instability but rather the root and 5th remain idle; the only one which moves is the third, wedged in the middle, by a minor second downward. This slight motion indicates a comfortable conclusion. Second (pun intended), the feelings of assuredness (3) are evoked when not just one note resolves down a minor second, but all three chord members, creating a really big sense of resolution and expectancy that something good will come again. Third, peaceful feelings (4) are evoked when all three chord members in unison leap up a perfect 5th (again with that parallel motion), although instead of evoking a sense of momentum like with sample 6, the leap up evokes a peace. (I think it’s because, when played on repeat, 6, going down, up, down, imitates the motion of feet hitting the ground; 4, on the other hand, since it goes down then up, feels more like a conclusion; when you kick up your feet after the end of something, a journey perhaps.) And lastly, sentimental feelings (1) were evoked when the 5th and the root moved similarly but not parallelly: the 5th moved up a M2; the root, a m2. I think the sentimental feels come about because, since the root doesn’t quite move as far as the 5th, there is a sense of wishing, just grasping for something to be complete or something good—that just won’t happen. It’s that feeling of “not quite.” So, it could be assumed that the motion of individual notes actually imitates the feeling it attempts to evoke: ie happy endings, assuredness, peace, and sentimentality. (And here is the clarification image to make this easier to visualize:)



And that brings us to the less happy progressions in Group 3, evoking feelings longing (10), gentle pain (5), and unsureness (7), which unsurprisingly also share a few characteristics: Firstly, they are all minor triads (m) going to Major triads (M); no other progressions tested are this way. Longing and gentle pain, from chord 1 to 2, all experience two descending Major seconds in the outer notes (root and fifth) with a descending minor second in the third, sandwiched in the middle. Lowest of all, the progression evoking unsureness about the future contains instead two descending Major thirds in the outer voices; in the third, a descending minor third. Again, no other tested chords have these qualities. Interesting. Could it be that, when a triad experiences descending minor 2nds in the outer notes and a Major 2nd in the inner—or descending Major 3rds in the outer notes and a minor 3rd in the inner—that sadder feelings are in fact evoked? (Here is a picture for elaboration.)



So, the question remains—Do the positive (or sadder) feelings evoked by certain progressions have to do with the words of their songs, the instrumentation, or the chords themselves? Based on the experiment conducted, it is reasonable to say that, because participants unanimously responded to chords with certain aspects, the chords themselves (specifically the notes composing them) are indeed to thank, with parallel leaps between Major chords evoking excitement, parallel steps evoking peace, and similar steps between minor to Major chords evoking sadder feelings. Music, tied closely to psychology, is truly a science—a science one to be understood with further experimentation.


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