Emotions of Music


Music seems almost inescapable in our lives, serenading us wherever we go, bringing joy and relaxation to our lives, inspiring us to dance, to meditate, to sing, as it accompanies us in various activities. Rarely do we pay attention to how music accomplishes all of these wonderful things. What is in those melodies, harmonies and rhythms that affects us in so many ways? We may not know the answers, yet all those clever composers and songwriters certainly did. In this revealing Active Minds hour, we'll uncover a few of the hidden elements that bring us closer to a deeper understanding of the music we cherish. But do we really need to know how music unlocks our emotions? Let's find out.


A tear-jerker teen ballad from the '60s sung by a boy missing his girlfriend has the same musical formula as a Mozart piano concerto seamlessly, tenderly mixing sorrow and joy. Both understand one of music's most enduring subtleties that dates back to the 1600s: the concept of blending major and minor keys. We've listened to music all our lives and have learned, by listening, to hear the difference between the two. Chopin's famous Funeral March is in a minor key. The inspiring “Hey Jude” by the Beatles is in a major key. If we switched them, we would instantly hear the difference (trust me on that one). Amazingly, what determines a major or minor key is so slight that it might seem impossible to differentiate – except that even an untrained ear will know one from another with ease. A look back in history reveals that audiences in the 17th and 18th centuries preferred music in a major (i.e. happy) key, while disapproving any lengthy time spent hearing minor-key melodies, which reminded of such topics as death, sickness, mortality, Judgment Day, war, etc. Let's keep things light, they demanded of composers, who duly complied. Look at Mozart's output: 41 symphonies, only two in minor keys; 27 piano concertos, only two in minor keys. Ah, but did he manage to spend time in the dark world of introspection, anger, loneliness, mourning, self-pity and other hidden human emotions in his music? Absolutely. Because he somehow anticipated that the dawning of the 19th Century would signal something new: the birth of the Romantic Era, the glory days of serious music in a minor key: Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and, most of all, Beehoven. The Master's Fifth Symphony begins with those famous four notes that emphatically state “Minor-Key Start!” Sadness was in. But the minor-major musical contrast is only one of many hidden musical elements revealed and admired through a closer look. The familiar ending to so many sacred pieces heard in churches and cathedrals through the centuries: “Aaaaa —men.” A simple word sung with rich harmonies through two chords. Ever notice how some notes are held through both syllables and some notes change? There is just a touch of tension as that first syllable is held, and a wonderful release of tension as the second one arrives (signaling when it's time for worshipers to head for home). Here is where composers show their mastery of harmony and their ability to play with listeners' emotions by introducing incomplete sounds and then rewarding them with complete ones. What a relief! It's another of music's subtle contrasts: harmony and dissonance. Like major and minor keys, both co-exist side-by-side and are handled nimbly by composers and songwriters, experts on how to play with listeners' emotions like master puppeteers.

Discussion Questions

  • What is tonality in music and when did it become important?
  • Most national anthems are in major keys, but Israel's “Hatikvah” is not. Why is that?
  • What is a plagal cadence? What is a perfect cadence?
  • Has a piece of music, classical or popular, ever brought you to tears?
  • How do you react to contemporary music that sounds dissonant to your ears?
  • Do you prefer to awaken to bright music in the morning, or restful sounds – or silence?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Emil Gutheil, Music and Your Emotions. Liveright. 1970. 132 pages. From Wagner to "Turkey in the Straw," a half-dozen noted psychologists analyze and quantify the effects that music can have on our emotional state.
    Click here to order
  • Arthur Bradley, A Language of Emotion: What Music Does and How it Works. Authorhouse. 2009. 292 pages. Here is a highly readable, yet authoritative look inside the workings of music in a series of essays examinig its clockwork mechanisms without removing the magic of its impact on our senses.
    Click here to order