Happiness and Sadness in Music – part 1

Marshall Chasin
September 26, 2017

Happiness or sadness; joy or depression; creative or non-creative; good or bad- these are all emotions or states of mind that music can invoke.  But the study of emotional and music is far from simple.  And the study of emotion and music is more than a life’s worth of study.  Researchers such as Dr. Frank Russo, and Dr. Charles Lim have, and are, spending their work lives doing just that.

Courtesy of LinkedIn.com

It’s easy to be simplistic when it comes to the study of emotion and music.   One of the first things that anyone learns in music theory is the difference between major keys and minor keys.  Given the very same number of flats and sharps (e.g. C major and A minor) one piece is happy and the other is considered sad.  To further complicate matters, some types of minor keys are even sadder than others.   And still more key confusion can happen where the melodic minor has different notes whether an ascending or a descending scale is played- minor keys are known for their lack of predictability (at least on the surface) whereas major scales are quite predictable.

Even for those who have not studied music theory or even have ever learned to play an instrument, try this experiment.  Sit down with a friend’s piano, or walk into a piano retailer and play the eight white notes starting with middle C (the very center of the piano keyboard…. The white note just blow the two black keys).  This is the C major scale.  Next count down two white key notes to A and then play the eight white notes up from there.  This is the A minor scale.  Both are made up of only white notes but the C major scale is considered by many to be happy but the A minor scale is considered to be sadder.

Courtesy of www.yourstory.com

Music theorists have studies these relationships for centuries but other than identifying various scales and subscales within keys, little has actually been accomplished to explain the emotions that are elicited.

Recently- actually it isn’t really the recent because the article was published in 2016 with the experiments being performed in 2015, Dr. Charles Lim has studied the neurological activity some of the parts of the brain that may be implicated in emotion.  In the brain creativity and emotion is not just located in location A or location B.  Creativity and emotion can be represented neurologically by an activation in one location, coupled with a de-activation in another.  The human brain appears to function with the accelerator pedal being pushed to the floor in one part and the hand-break engaged in another.

In part 2 of this blog series Dr. Limb’s article will be reviewed.

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