Why Can We Feel Music?
Take a moment to clear your head. Think about the last song you listened to. How did it make you feel? Think about what type of music you listen to often. Is it happy music? Is it sad music? Or, is it sinister? Many people listen to different music, and many people listen to music differently. Music enthusiasts may listen to lots of music carefully and enjoy every single element. The casual listener may only listen to music with a basic view and enjoy it for what it is. But either way, people listen because it makes them feel a certain way.
Music has the ability to put us in another dimension if we let it. The sound waves enter the ears, which sends signals to our brain, which then tells us how to react. But, these zones also affect people’s emotional states as well as cognitive abilities.
One big reason we can feel music as we hear it is because each note has a different frequency. These frequencies go to the brain and our brain reacts. Now, when multiple keys are played, whether it’s at the same time or in the form of a melody, the group of frequencies create a feeling or emotion. And this is when scales and key signatures come into play. Each key has a certain group of notes that can be played, giving each key a different feel. We also have the Major and Minor scales. Usually, the Major scale sounds happy, while the Minor scale sounds dark. For example, most kid nursery rhymes are in a Major scale. Mary Had Little Lamb is in the key of C Major. Happy songs for kids keep them innocent, happy, and fresh.
Now, in the mainstream pop world, let’s think of an example for adults. Ariana Grande. Her new 2020 hit “Positions” in the key of C Major and promotes happiness. In this song, she describes how she would do many things to keep her man happy. The emotional feeling of the song is happiness. LedgerNote.com describes C Major as, “Completely pure. Simplicity and naivety. The key of children. Free of burden, full of imagination. Powerful resolve. Earnestness. Can feel religious.” In opposition, Ariana’s 2019 hit “7 Rings” in the key of Db Minor, which is also the same as C# Minor. Immediately the aura of the song is different. This song is basically her bragging about being able to get whatever she wants. WMich.edu describes C# Minor as “…sighs of disappointed friendship and love lie in its radius.” While the lyrics are not described as this, although some could think bragging about material possessions does mean one is too snobby to be a good friend, the instrumentation definitely has this feeling. But this is one example of the scales and emotions having a nice relation.
But do songs in a specific ever not feel how the key was intended for it to feel? One artist in particular whose music we can compare is The Weeknd. His new 2019 hit, Blinding Lights is the key of Db Major. Db Major is described as “Rapture in sadness. A grimacing key of choking back tears. It is capable of a laugh or smile to pacify those around, but the truth is in despair. Fullness of tone, sonority, and euphony.” When you hear the song it doesn’t seem like there’s any type of pain. But it’s when you actually listen and dissect the lyrics. Genius.com says “The track finds Abel in a constant state of distraction that he only gets relief from when in the presence of a significant other.” Depending who is asked, this song feels to be a happy song as he’s trying hard for love, or could be a song of destruction as he continues to rely on the need of a female. But remove the lyrics and the song definitely seems like a very happy tune. This 80s inspired song has no signs of making people feel sad or angry, unless you have a bad memory or don’t like the song. But for a twist, on The Weeknd’s same album, his song After Hours in the key of F Minor. This song has a darker, ambient feel. Ledgernote.com describes F Minor’s feeling as, “Deepest depression, lament over death and loss, groans of misery, ready to expire. Harrowing. Melancholic.” If we played these songs back to back, we could quickly point out the difference of the emotional feelings. But one of The Weeknd’s older songs “The Party & The After Party” is also in F Minor. But, this song sounds a little more happy and brighter than “After Hours.” If these two songs are in the same exact key, why do they sound different?
Now we can see the misconception of a key having a specific feeling. Now let’s get into the real cause of the emotional feeling from music. There’s multiple reasons for this.
One reason relates to the instruments used. Different instruments give off a certain type of sound, or have a certain timbre. Brighter sounds like those from bells and high octaves on a piano tend to make things seem happier and safer. Darker sounds like those from a bass or low octave on a piano tend to keep things powerful and edgy. Another reason, which is more on the sound engineering side, is the perception of the instrument. By this, I mean the way the instrument is manipulated to give depth or character. I could have a bell, but if I process it to take away the higher frequencies, it would sound darker.
But also, if I add delay (echo) and reverb (space), it would make the bell seem ambient and distant. The sense of space could make something feel different, maybe ery in some instincts. Think of walking through the forest and you hear a bell in the distance. Depending on the circumstances, like if you seek refuge, you could be glad to hear something that shows a sign of hope. But maybe, it is night time and you plan on being alone, the sound could startle you and cause panic. I say this to show that the other instruments and their characteristics also affect how we perceive another instrument to fit the song.
The third reasoning is the tempo and rhythm of the song. Slow songs tend to drag, causing more suspense or a more mellow feel. Fast songs tend to bring action. Think of action movies, they tend to keep people on their toes and entertained. But, another key is the rhythm. Usually, “off-beats” tend to add bounce, which could make people want to move and dance.
But the most important reasoning for a happy or dark sound is the tension with the keys. This is an important cause as every Major key has a Minor relative key, which means a Major key would have the same notes as a Minor key. The only difference is that the center of the scales are focused on different spots. The way to figure out the relative key of the Major key is to drop down three notes. An example would be F Major turning into D Minor. These keys have the same exact notes, but the center focus is different. In the D Minor key, the next two in key notes are E and F, which are right next to each other and cause tension. The next two notes in F Major are G and A, which have a note gap in between. This is the reason some say Major scales could seem happier, because the focus of the scale has less tension. On musical instruments, the closer the notes are to each other, the more tension there will be. SchoolOfComposition.com says, “Musical tension is a sense of unrest, instability, excitement or anticipation, an impression that more is coming and a curiosity for what’s next.” The more or less tension there is, depending on the notes chosen in the specific scale, some songs will be happier, scarier, adventurous, or even more depressing.
In conclusion, many factors cause the emotional connection between music and human responses, not just the specific key scale itself. The frequency change of each note and putting them in a group changes the feeling of the sounds. But other factors like the type of sound and the distance and timing of sounds, also affect the emotional ride.
E, M. (2019, January 20). What is Tension and Release in Music? (and how do you create it?). Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://www.schoolofcomposition.com/what-is-tension-and-release-in-music/
H., J. (2020, September 17). Musical Key Characteristics & Emotions. Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://ledgernote.com/blog/interesting/musical-key-characteristics-emotions/
(n.d.). Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://www.wmich.edu/mus-theo/courses/keys.html
The Weeknd – Blinding Lights. (2019, November 29). Retrieved December 03, 2020, from https://genius.com/The-weeknd-blinding-lights-lyrics