"Minor chords = sad": Just a Western thing?
September 6, 2009 5:23 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone with good academic-library-fu point me toward an article that argues for cultural differences between how certain keys or chords are interpreted affectively? Specifically, I'm looking for a source for the claim that perceiving minor chords as sad is specifically a Western thing, and that non-Westerners don't perceive minor chords as sad and/or they perceive other types of chords as sad (or whatever).

I know this topic has come up on the green before, but I couldn't find an answer for this particular question (i.e. I don't really care why minor chords sound sad).
posted by Dr. Send to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I recently read something about the emotional content of different Arabic maqams, but I can't remember where. (I'll post again if I remember.) The Wikipedia article on maqams, which looks like it discusses at least one study of Arabs' vs. others' perceptions of emotions associated with particular maqams:

Touma, Habib Hassan (1996). The Music of the Arabs, p.38, 203, trans. Laurie Schwartz. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. ISBN 0931340888

Also, Sephardic Jews supposedly use different maqams for religious music with different emotional themes.
posted by k. at 5:38 PM on September 6, 2009

I meant to say the article cited that book.
posted by k. at 5:41 PM on September 6, 2009

Westerners don't always interpret minor chords as "sad". I was just thinking about the first movement of Saint Saens Third Symphony, which is in minor, but it doesn't come across as sad, nor was it intended to be.

Much of classical music is in minor without being interpreted as sad. Composers have simply concluded that the minor is more interesting and versatile than the major. (For me, the thing that sets Mozart apart is how often and how successfully he relied on the major.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:05 PM on September 6, 2009

I just saw this yesterday! It was a PBS documentary called The Music Instinct: Science and Song (available on netflix instant streaming if you are so inclined) and they did bring that up. Not in a lot of detail, but they mentioned Middle Eastern music specifically as using minor chords that were not perceived as sad.

However in the same video they went to an obscure village in Cameroon, where people had never ever heard Western music before EVER, and had them listen on headphones to particular western music while asking them to point out which emotion the music was expressing (they used pictures of people expressing happiness, sadness and fear) and every single individual they tested chose exactly the appropriate face for each piece (well, appropriate in a Western sense. )
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:21 PM on September 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are a few references in this comment and a few further down in this thread.
posted by porpoise at 7:39 PM on September 6, 2009

To begin with, the idea of a "key" or a "chord" is itself culturally specific. Western tonality is about 400 years old, and while it has had global dissemination and is widely understood as a musical system globally, there are other tonal and modal systems, musics in which vertical sonorities are not significant, etc. Hindustani music (roughly put) uses a system of "moods" associated with particular "ragas" -- modal frameworks that do not have "chords" or "keys" as such. Arabic music does a similar thing with maqamat (also a modal system), albeit the assignment of particular affects to particular modes is much looser. Same for Persian radif, Javanese slendro, and many other Asian modal systems. Even the association of "minor=sad" is not universal within the history of western tonality, at all.

There is, in other words, no naturalistic basis for any association of a particular emotion or mood with any particular tonal/modal sign. Crude variables -- volume, timbral stridency, etc., and some properties of the human voice -- do appear to signify universally to some extent. But by the time you're measuring intervals and assessing the meaning of chords, you're well into culturally relativistic territory here. Virtually any introduction to ethnomusicology will take you through this basic territory. John Blacking's 1972 classic "How Musical Is Man?" is a good start. Alan Lomax's classic essay "Sound Structure And Social Structure" is an influential statement. Bruno Nettl's venerable "The Study of Ethnomusicology" is also still worth reading.

But this all starts in the 1885, with Alexander Ellis' very famous monograph "On The Musical Scales of Various Nations," one of the most influential essays in the history of modern music scholarship. Since then, the premise that the "same" sound "means' "different" things in different cultures has been the founding premise of ethnomusicology, so nearly any work in the field either sets out to demonstrate this or (in rare cases) to show the limits of relativism.

There are some universal/naturalistic theories of tonality. Fred Lerdahl's work on tonal pitch space is an example, but it proceeds from Western examples and in my opinion still remains a cognitive theory of harmonic music. Carol Krumhansl (Cornell) has been working on cross-cultural cognition issues for a while -- any of her recent papers explores this. Eileen Koskoff (Eastman) and Diana Raffman (MIT, I think?) have also written on the subject. I also like philosopher Kathleen Higgins' excellent "The Music of Our Lives" (1994, Temple Press, unf. out of print) for a philosophical overview of the universal/culture-specific distinction.

Yes, we all have the same cognitive and aural equipment, and there is undoubtedly a naturalistic basis for our perception of consonance and dissonance, up to a point (although that point may be "the octave," which is pretty useless for theoretical purposes).

All of this is complicated by the global hegemony of western music and cuture. Many Indian musicians have talked, for example, about how they think "bi-musically," (the term is crazy Mantle Hood's) much as speakers of two languages thing bilingually. The affective grammar of western music has penetrated many of the world's musical systems, sometimes partially.

This is a really rich subject, the core question in many ways behind any contemporary philosophy of musical "meaning."
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:57 AM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

(Another way of saying this, briefly, is that there are NO minor keys or chords in non-tonal musical systems, even if there are intervals we would call "minor" thirds and sixths.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:19 AM on September 7, 2009

Thanks, everyone. No best answers, because there's a lot to follow up on, but a lot of this stuff looks promising.
posted by Dr. Send at 11:57 AM on September 7, 2009

Wow. Lots of good stuff from Fourcheese. Don't really have much to add. This is an incredibly rich subject that incorporates cognitive science, music theory, ethnomusicology, anthropology and philosophy. There's no real consensus regarding anything in this field, but there is a lot of interesting literature. Honestly, if you go to your local academic music library, they most likely have an entire sections devoted only to music, philosophy and perception. You're really getting at the whole notion of 'musical meaning,' insofar as there is such a thing.

A lot off the discussion with regards to your specific question, however, boils down to the issue of how metaphor is used in describing music (i.e. sad/happy, high/low, etc...). A good philosophical place to start with this might be Roger Scruton's Aesthetics of Music.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:14 PM on September 7, 2009

Lutoslawski, thanks. One reason I recommend Higgins' book is that it takes you crisply through a history of philosophical musical aesthetics -- you get capsule summaries of Meyer, Langer, Goodman, etc.

I would say there is broad consensus, maybe surprisingly, about the respective domains of different sciences here. A few cognitive scientists are trying to operationalize "culture" as a variable (Krumhansl, especially) but with -- in my view -- the kind of limited success (requiring massive over-specification of variables) that proves the determining force of culture as such (although the faculty for culture, of course, has a neurobiological basis -- just like language, and just like music).

The thing is that the *differences* between human musical systems are far too conscious and cultivated (and significant) to be reduced to a neurobiological substrate. It goes beyond metaphorics and language. It goes to the very question of what "meaning" is in relation to "representation." Music without text is non-referential; it cannot be used to make testable statements about the external world. It is therefore (pace many scholars) impossible (lacking semantics) to determine if it has a "syntax" and certainly whether that syntax is universal in origin (indeed, it is impossible to say for certain whether "music" is the same "thing" conceptually or perceptually across cultures, whereas we can be sure of that for natural language). Personally, as a linguist who studies music, I believe there is a neurobiological substrate for "music" (I prefer "musicality") in humans, but that it is far less deterministic of the expressive, communicative, or affective properties of musical performance (or perception, or cognition) than is true, mutatis mutandis, for language. It most assuredly -- and here I think there is consensus -- belies even the possibility that specific similar tonal configurations correlate to specific and similar affects across all or even most human musical systems.

And whatever you do, don't get your information from PBS documentaries. People want to believe in the universality of music so much that much popular science caters to that desire. Playing Beethoven for people in Cameroon proves nothing. Cameroonians, no matter how rural their village, have heard modern Western harmonic music (as has almost everyone on earth) extensively for a century. There are genetic (not in the biological sense, but in the sense of historically causal) relationships between traditional African musics and modern Western musics; "Western" music now has a substantial African influence, and vice versa. And no modern people are a stand in for a blank-slate pre-modern/pre-Western-contact primitive other. Finally, Beethoven's music (like all music, and this is a universal property of "music") is highly redundant in terms of information structure. To put it simply, when you hear a minor chord as "sad," dozens of other elements of the musical structure are reinforcing that interpretation; minor tonality only makes sense as "marked" in relation to major tonality anyway, and in Western music it is less common and clearly aligned with specific affective meanings ("sad" being an inadequate gloss). Orchestration, dynamics, song text, and many other elements of performance practice correlate with these same affective meanings.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:02 PM on September 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

Oh, I'll recommend one more essay that blew my mind (and changed my view of a lot of these issues) when I first read it: Steven Feld, 1984, "Communication, music, and speech about music." (Yearbook for Traditional Music).
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:05 PM on September 7, 2009

Fourcheesemac, have you seen the documentary? They went to great lengths to stress these particular people had never ever heard western music-I suppose they went way way out in the country. So were they lying-if so I'm extremely disappointed (although to be honest I was honestly surprised anyone could exist without at least a wee bit of exposure to Western music....)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:15 PM on September 7, 2009

You mean "The Music Instinct"?

It's interesting, but it's bullshit.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:59 AM on September 8, 2009

I have often wondered about this, within Western culture itself. Is "scary" music really scary, or do we just think that because we've been taught so, from watching movies and TV? I am one for whom major-scale music never sounds as serious as I like music to be. So really, to me, minor chords and scales may sound sad, but more precisely, sound serious.

I think I narrow on the question of scariness, simply because it seems more precise, and more easy to isolate with films.
posted by Goofyy at 8:04 AM on September 10, 2009

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