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How is Music Related to Emotions?

Fans at a concert feeling emotions from the music

When asked why people listen to music, one of the most frequently heard answers is the way it makes them feel. It’s a similar story for composers, audio producers and songwriters: They started writing songs as a means of expressing feelings that they were otherwise incapable of sharing. Music conveys emotions that human beings are unique in their ability to tap into. Through it, we can better understand ourselves and each other.

If we can better understand emotion and how it plays into music, we as a society can learn how to be better; and audio producers everywhere can use this knowledge to better inform their work, to create pieces of music that truly move people in the deepest possible way.

What is Emotion?

If you’ve ever thought to yourself that your feelings for a loved one are complicated, you’re not alone. Even scientists haven’t come to an official consensus as to what emotion is, so it remains undefined. One way of describing emotion is as a biological state associated with behavior, feelings, and thoughts. It helps us to define what’s pleasurable and what’s not, an instinctive way to avoid things that are bad and seek out what helps us thrive.

If it weren’t for emotion, music would just be another sound rather than an integral aspect of our culture. It might have started as an evolutionary trait simply meant to keep us alive long enough to reproduce, but it’s now the human quality that allows us to create and appreciate music, like no other creature on Earth.

Happy, Sad, and Everything Else: The Many Moods of Music

Once you start exploring music theory and realize how deep the rabbit hole goes, it’s easy to see how there’s variety in the way music can make us feel. The first thing that most people associate with emotion when they hear a song or excerpt from a film score, is the pitch tonality. This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. True, the types of chords played are a key element informing the audience of underlying emotion, but there’s so much more to this sound.

Dynamics and tempo can either add a sense of urgency or calm. If you’ve ever watched an epic fight scene or nail-biting car chase sequence with all the sounds and music cut out, you know just how drastically different the experience is. A prime example of this is the trailer for Tom Cruise’s Mummy movie. It was accidentally released featuring a plane crash sequence that had a stripped-bare soundscape: Only the occasional burst of wind and guttural yell from the actors could be heard, with the score and other sound effects completely left out. Just like that, what was supposed to be an intense and gripping scene turned into a confusing and ridiculous mess.

A well-placed crescendo can subtly tell the audience that things are ramping up and they should expect something big to happen at any moment. Whether that’s a killer revealing themselves or a romantic kiss finally happening, these gradual changes in the speed and volume of the score make the editor’s and director’s lives much easier. In many cases, if you try to imagine the most iconic romance scenes without their accompanying swelling orchestral themes, they might come across as a little bit awkward.

As far as tonality goes, in Western music, major chords almost always mean joy, success, and happiness, things going right in the movie, for the character in the song, or for the theme of the lyrics in general. Minor chords will commonly portray agony, sorrow, or despair. However, in both cases, they can be manipulated to add different flavors to that overall happy or sad feeling. Playing a minor chord with an upbeat tempo can suggest a melancholy yet hopeful vibe; major chords can be played aggressively to give an angsty, amped-up feel. The possible variations are endless when you have a full understanding of articulation, style, tempo, and technique at your disposal.

Beyond the basic major and minor triads, there are infinite combinations of overlapping tones that can elicit specific emotional responses. The minor second, for instance, two notes that are a half step apart, sounds almost unbearably dissonant; that’s why they’re a staple in horror movies, often played with sharp, abrupt, staccato, think of the shower scene in Psycho. On the other hand, the same notes played softly and built up slowly might be used to perfectly represent the tragedy that a character just went through.

Instrumentation is also key in bringing on a certain feeling. Traditional cultural instruments provide a unique voice that can quickly capture the audience’s or a listener’s heart, or the perfectly placed percussion is great for maintaining the intensity and momentum. Composers, audio producers and songwriters of all backgrounds have plenty to work with and even more to think about when focusing on the emotional side of their craft.

Emotion in Music: Where Does It Come From?

It’s tempting to believe that minor chords automatically sound sad while the major ones have an intrinsic happy quality to them. A quick examination of music from across different cultures shatters this notion. Irish folk music features upbeat jigs in minor keys, and Indian music follows a completely different set of modes that often sound minor in tonality to a Westerner’s ears but are representing emotions that are far from sadness or despair.

Music psychologists now know that the emotions we feel when listening to a piece of music, while certainly coming from deep within a person’s psyche, are largely informed by the culture in which the listener was brought up.

It’s hard to say what music would sound like to a person who had never been exposed to it before. It might be so foreign and overwhelming that they wouldn’t even begin to make meaning of it, let alone assign emotions to the different tonalities. This theoretically uncultured person might experience surprise at any abrupt rhythm or dynamic changes, uneasiness whenever there’s dissonance, and general comfort when all the notes are in harmony with each other. In this way, both minor and major chords might sound happy to this time-displaced person.

Music in Film: The Emotional Soundtrack

It would be impossible to imagine a modern film without a musical score. While the different styles might vary as wildly as the genres of the films themselves, they still serve the same underlying purpose: to inform or enhance the viewer’s emotional connection to what’s happening on the screen, usually without the viewer even noticing it. This takes subtlety and an acute understanding of the story and the emotions of every character on a scene-by-scene basis.

Even the sound effects in movies can have a huge influence on the overall feeling that’s elicited. Sudden noises might add to the tension, while a calming natural soundscape might provide an ambiance to prime the audience for something more cerebral.

The sounds that are used will vary from genre to genre based on the feelings that they’re meant to inspire. Horror and action movies often make liberal use of abrupt or driving sounds, comedies will use sound to keep things light and happy, and romances will literally try to set the mood with both their score and sound effects. Whatever is happening on the screen almost always has complex layers of sound associated with it, and those are emphasized or exaggerated so the film’s vibes match up with the overall theme; the score then complements both of these as the icing on the cake.

When More is Less

Part of being an audio producer, particularly for film or TV, is knowing when to hold back and let the emotions play out naturally. With the exception of soap operas and other categories of shows and movies that are traditionally melodramatic, the audience doesn’t need to be spoon-fed every single feeling.

If the actors, director, sound designer and everyone else involved in the production are all doing their jobs, a large percentage of the emotions should come directly from the performance itself. Overdoing a score can be a major disservice to everyone else who worked hard on their contributions to the project.

Final Thoughts

As an audio producer, you can bring joy to your audience. Whether it is a musical score or a pop hit, you have the power to elicit positive emotion in your audience. With great power, comes great responsibility.

Audio Production Program

Ready to get into audio production and start creating emotional music? The Audio Production and Engineering Program  at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

At the end of the audio production and engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.