The Science Of Music – Why Do Songs In A Minor Key Sound Sad?

Dr Vicky Williamson is a lecturer in Music Psychology at Goldsmiths University. You can read her previous post in the Science Of Music series here

Most of the time, when all else is held constant, music in a major key is judged as happy while minor key music is heard as sad. I say most of the time because it’s not true across the board. Minor music can be happy even if people do not understand the lyrics, such as in Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’. Or try keeping a smile on your face when you hear to ‘Dinner At Eight’ by Rufus Wainwright or ‘I Know It’s Over’ by The Smiths, both of which are in major keys.

There are many examples of minor-happy and major-sad pairings in the musical catalogue, but it’s fair to say that these examples are the exceptions rather than the rule. Want proof? Check out this version of R.E.M.’s famously gloomy ‘Losing My Religion’, digitally shifted to a major key. Notice how it triggers a totally different emotional effect.

What is going on here? How does such a seemingly subtle musical change create such a dramatic effect? Why do we automatically assume that songs in a major key are happy and minor key, sad?


It seems to be mostly the result of cultural conditioning. When we listen to tunes we rely heavily on our memory for the body of music we’ve heard all our life. Constantly touching base with our musical memory back catalogue helps to generate expectations of what might come next in a tune, which is an important source of enjoyment in musical listening. The downside of this over reliance on memory is that our musical reactions are frequently led by stereotypes.

In the western musical tradition major music is played at times of celebration (Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’ or ‘Happy Birthday’), jubilation (Brian May’s ‘National Anthem’ on top of Buckingham Palace) and general fun times (‘Celebration’ by Kool And The Gang) whereas minor music is used to mark mourning (Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’), heartache (‘Back To Black’ by Amy Winehouse) and despair (‘Hurt’ by Johnny Cash or ‘Gloomy Sunday’ by Billie Holiday).

We are exposed to this repeated pairing of sound and emotional meaning from the time our ears are functioning (around the fifth – sixth month in the womb) so it is no wonder that we leap to emotional assumptions based on experience.

Interestingly however, it seems that the western pop music genre may be moving away from the overwhelming use of major keys to make us happy. Music psychologist Glen Schellenberg has shown that over the past decade people tended to prefer music in a minor key although there is no evidence that we are getting more miserable. The relationship between major/minor music and our emotions may be about to get more complex.

Cultural exposure will always vary, but there may be something deeper in music that triggers our overwhelming responses to major and minor sounds. Hints at a universal response to music come from a study of the Mafa tribe in Northern Cameroon. At the time they were studied by Tomas Fritz the tribe members had no exposure to western music cultural traditions. Could they recognise happy vs. sad in our music? Yes they could, but their performance was much poorer than Western music listeners.


The group difference between Mafa and Western listeners in this study speaks to the power of cultural influence and accumulated listening experiences on our emotional reaction to music. Then again, the Mafa did reliably sense something in the music that allowed them to distinguish happy from sad. What major/minor emotional triggers are common to us all?

Let’s look at the nuts and bolts of sound. Tempo is obviously important. A simple minor chord (with three notes, also known as a ‘triad’) also uses a middle note that is closer to the tonic as compared to a major triad. Take for example the C triad chord (C, E, and G); in the minor version the middle note is E flat (closer to C) whereas in the major version we hear natural E (further away from C). The tonic (C) is the strongest note and draws more of our attention, so minor chords like this trigger more sensory dissonance, a kind of tension that stems from the clashing of closely spaced frequencies.

The Mafa tribe people may also be reacting to sound and emotion associations that originate from the way that we speak. Scientists have shown that the sound spectra – the profile of sound ingredients – that make up happy speech are more similar to happy music than sad music and vice versa.

The science behind the speech-music link may be new but the idea is an ancient one. Aristotle suspected that the emotional impact of music was at least partly down to the way that it mimicked our own vocalisations when we squeal for joy or cry out in anger.

Many components make up happy and sad music, including differing tempos, timbres and rhythms, but major-minor tonality is a key clue from which we extract an emotional message. This on–the-spot evaluation is drawn from our reaction to the acoustic structure of major and minor chords but is mostly down to learned associations, both ancient and modern.

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