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Music to Our Ears

A recent study explored emotional responses to music across cultures.

Key points

  • It is a common belief that major musical chords naturally elicit positive emotional responses and minor musical chords elicit negative responses.
  • A recent study at Durham University in the UK compared emotional responses to major and minor chords between Western and non-Western listeners.
  • The major-positive minor-negative affective distinction familiar in Western music turns out to be culturally dependent.
Steve Johnson/Pexels
Source: Steve Johnson/Pexels

In her poem “To Hear an Oriole Sing,” Emily Dickinson speculates on whether the beauty of an oriole’s song is intrinsically “of the bird,” or merely a conventional response that differs from listener to listener. Coming down on the side of convention, she observes, “The Fashion of the Ear / Attireth that it hear / In Dun or fair,” concluding that the question of whether the sounds emanating from the bird’s throat are music or mere noise is nothing more than a matter of “Fashion” based on one’s prior experience and personal taste.

Musicians and music theorists have asked much the same question about human music for just about as long as music has been around. What exactly makes music “music”? Is there an intrinsic quality in certain combinations of sound waves that naturally produces pleasure when they strike our ear, or are we merely conditioned to respond positively as a result of repetition and familiarity? Or, as Emily Dickinson asks about the bird's song, is the pleasure that we feel in response to music merely a “Fashion of the Ear”?

Happy Chords and Sad Chords

A team of researchers at Durham University in the UK has been attempting to answer that question by conducting cross-cultural studies involving listeners from different musical traditions. In their most recent study, they take on the question of our emotional response to major and minor musical chords. It is a staple of music instruction to characterize major chords as “happy” and “bright,” and minor chords as “sad” and “dark,” with songs composed in a major scale making us feel happy and songs composed in a minor scale making us feel sad.

YouTube abounds with videos purporting to demonstrate this auditory Jekyll-and-Hyde principle by taking happy, upbeat songs composed in a major scale and transposing them to a minor scale, with strikingly gloomy results. So seemingly universal are our emotional responses to major and minor chords that the distinction has frequently been described as “natural,” originating perhaps in “universal vocal characteristics of different affective states.”

While not disputing that major and minor chords are regularly perceived as happy and sad respectively, the researchers do question how “natural” or “universal” this phenomenon is. Pointing out that discussion of the “major-positive minor-negative affective distinction,” whether on informal YouTube videos or in formal scholarly research, has been largely confined to the Western music tradition, they sought to find out how people unfamiliar with Western music perceive affect in musical chords, as compared to the perceptions of Western listeners. To test the hypothesis that our emotional response to major and minor chords is conventional rather than natural, they conducted a cross-cultural study involving participants from the Kkowar and Kalash tribes native to Northwest Pakistan (representing the non-Western musical tradition), and participants from the UK (representing the Western musical tradition).

Emotional Responses to Music in Western and Non-Western Listeners

Nineteen Khow participants and twenty Kalash participants, all of whom were unfamiliar with Western music, and forty participants from the UK were presented with four chord types (major, minor, and augmented triads, and a chromatic cluster chord) in two timbres (piano and sitar) with two types of delivery (vertical chords and arpeggios). After an initial assessment stage to ensure consistency of valence ratings, stimuli were presented to the participants in four blocks based on structural design (arpeggio or chord) and timbre (piano or sitar).

In each of the four blocks, participants were presented with randomized pairs of chords and asked to indicate their preference for one over the other. In the paired comparison task, response to delivery (arpeggio or chord) did not differ significantly from one culture to the other, nor was there a significant difference in response to the piano versus the sitar. In the response to major and minor chords. However, there was a significant difference between that of the Western (UK) participants and that of the non-Western (Kalash and Khow) participants.

As was expected, UK participants gave the major chord a higher valance rating than the minor chord. With the non-Western listeners, however, the results were reversed. The Kalash and Khow participants showed a clear preference for the minor chord over the major, with the minor chord being preferred in 34.8 percent and 37.5 percent of the pairings respectively, with the major chord being preferred only 16.2 percent and 11.6 percent of the time.

A comparison of musical conventions in the two cultures sheds light on the results of the study. In Western popular music, major triads are roughly four times more common than minor triads. The music of Northwest Pakistan, on the other hand, strongly favors minor over major thirds at a ratio of 85 percent to 10 percent, with 5 percent being neutral chords. Viewed against the backdrop of the two cultures' musical traditions, the results of the study suggest that the major-positive minor-negative affective distinction common among Western listeners is, indeed, merely a cultural convention influenced by familiarity, and not in fact a “natural” phenomenon.

A Possible Exception

While the study strongly suggests that emotional reactions to major and minor chords are culturally dependent, another finding of the study involving consonance and dissonance left open the possibility of a universal response to acoustic roughness (described by Hermann von Helmholtz as “the percept experienced when two sounds close in frequency are heard simultaneously”).

Analyzing responses to consonant chords (major and minor triads) and dissonant chords (augmented triad and chromatic cluster), the researchers found that Western and non-Western participants alike preferred “non-rough (minor and augmented triads) over rough (chromatic cluster) sonorities,” suggesting that the chromatic cluster chord “arguably contains such a high amount of roughness that the aversion to it may well be universal.” Considering that the amplitude modulations underpinning auditory roughness are found in “natural auditory alarms” such as human screams and baby cries (Taffou et al.), perhaps such a universal aversion is not surprising.

What we dislike in music, then, may be universal, but those elements that make for “music to our ears” turn out to be culturally dependent, based on the musical conventions to which we are accustomed. Or, as Emily Dickinson concludes, “The ‘Tune is in the Tree—' / The Skeptic—showeth me— / ‘No Sir! In Thee!’”


Lahdelma, Imre, et al. “Sweetness Is in the Ear of the Beholder: Chord Preference across United Kingdom and Pakistani Listeners.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 1502, no. 1, Oct. 2021, pp. 72–84. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/nyas.14655

Taffou, Marine, et al. “Auditory Roughness Elicits Defense Reactions.” Scientific Reports, vol. 11, no. 1, Jan. 2021, pp. 1–11. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1038/s41598-020-79767-0.

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