How Chords and Key Impact Emotion in Music

Oct 11, 2023

Think back to those early elementary school music classes. If you try hard enough, you might remember the teacher talking about the difference between major and minor chords. On a basic level, major chords usually mean happy, while minor chords usually mean sad.

And on an emotional level, that’s true. Generally speaking, major chords tend to sound bright, while minor chords sound darker.

And as a 9-year-old, that explanation was good enough. But, now that’s you’re a little older, it’s time to take a deeper dive into a slightly more technical explanation.

What Makes a Song Major or Minor?

The big difference between a major and minor chord all comes down to one easy change: the 3rd in a scale.

  • A major chord contains the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degree of the major scale.
  • A minor chord contains the 1st, flattened 3rd, and 5th degrees of the major scale of that note.

This simple formula can be applied to figure out the notes in any major or minor scale.

When you boil it down, music is simply all about patterns. Once you are able to recognize these patterns and follow their “rules” you can figure out most things on your own. Practice then makes it second nature to transition between major and minor chords, while learning the correct positioning for them.

Choosing the Key

Although we can emphasize am emotion with the major and minor modes, each key also has its own personality. Let’s take a look at two well-known songs: Hey Jude by The Beatles, and the Piano Sonata N.14 by Beethoven. Both songs are instantly recognizable and have transcended both the cultures and times they were written in.

On one side, you have Hey Jude, a song that evokes optimism and hope. It then gets even more obvious when the lyrics start. Paul McCartney wrote this song to cheer up John Lennon’s son after his parents’ divorce. The song is in the key of F major.

On the other side, there is Sonata N.14, which has no lyrics, making Beethoven’s intent with the piece a little less clear. But, given the story behind the song, we might be able to guess. The tale is that the song was triggered by unrequited love. If true, you can certainly feel the sad and melancholic feeling of the tune. This piece is in C# minor.

Clearly, in both Hey Jude and Sonata N.14, there is a connection between the intention of the composer, and the emotion the audience feels. This is thanks to the many choices the composer made, including finding the most appropriate key. So, how do they make that choice?

Check out this short description of the emotional personality that goes with each of the different keys:

  • C: Innocence, happiness with a spiritual feeling.
  • Cm: Innocence, sadness, heartbroken and evokes yearning.
  • C#m: Passionate and deep, evoking sorrow, grief, despair, and self-punishment.
  • Db: Depressive masked by an air of happiness. Evokes feelings of grief and despair.
  • D: Triumphant and victorious. Feels like war marches or holiday songs.
  • Dm: serious and melancholic. Brings on feelings of concerns and contemplation.
  • D#m: Deep and anxious, evoking feelings of distress, terror, darkness, and hesitation.
  • Eb: This key brings on feelings of cruelty, but also devoted love, openness, and intimacy.
  • E: Dissatisfaction and a ready-to-fight feeling – but also joy and delight.
  • Em: Restless love, grief, and mournfulness.
  • F: Optimism and the will to explode.
  • Fm: Dark and funereal, evoking feelings of the deepest depression, death, loss, and misery.
  • F#: Conquest, relief, triumph, victory, and clarity.
  • F#m: Resentment, discontentment, and lamentation, but with a touch of hope.
  • G: Happy, but with serious overtones, idyllic, and poetic. This evokes calm, satisfaction, tenderness, gratitude and peace.
  • Gm: Feelings of discontent, uneasiness, failure, concern, and struggling.
  • Ab: Death, eternity, judgment, darkness.
  • Abm: related to wailing, suffocation, lamentation, struggle, and negativity.
  • A: Brings feelings of joy, reciprocated love, satisfaction, optimistic, trust, and spirituality.
  • Am: Sad, but with tenderness.
  • Bb: Joyful and cheerful, with feelings of love, consciousness, hope, optimism, and peace.
  • Bbm: Feels like the night, darkness, blasphemy, death, and destiny.
  • B: Feelings of strength, wildness, passion, jealousy, fury, negativity, and the will to fight.
  • Bm: Solitude, melancholy, patience, calm, submission, and acceptance.

This is, of course, nowhere near an exhaustive list, and you should listen to different keys to make your own list.

Choosing the right key, like tempo and dynamics, is vital to creating the emotion you want for a song.

Songs with Major and Minor Chords

Now that we’ve got the basic theory behind major and minor chords and keys, it’s important to see how they feel in real life. Here’s a handful of songs that use both the major and minor chords in their composition. You might be surprised by some of the combinations. Listen to these songs and try to see how major and minor chords, when used along side each other in the same song, can create new and interesting moods.

Shout – The Isley Brothers

This 1959 hit combines R&B, gospel, pop, and blues to create a truly unique, raucous, and instant classic. And even though the song exudes positive energy, you’re still going to find a minor chord. As a matter of fact, half the song contains a minor chord. “Shout” contains only two chords: Am and C.

Once you’ve got the proper placement for the chords memorized, you can start playing around with making A the major and C the minor to find out how that inversion changes the sound of the song.

California Girls – The Beach Boys

When it comes to the Beach Boys, how can you not think of sun, surf, and good times? And yet, when you dig beneath the surface of this particular summer-time favourite, you’ll see it’s nearly 50% minor chords: A, G, D, E, Bm, F, Am, and Gm. You’ll also find a key element to the Beach Boy’s massive success on “California Girls”: the combination of Brian Wilson’s incredible musical vision and Mike Love’s focus on commercial viability. The result is a deceptively complex song with enough great hooks to remain popular and relevant today, decades later.

These are just a couple of examples of how major and minor chords can create mood and emotion, both expected and unexpected. Just remember, if you’re curious about why a song is making you feel a certain way, it could all come down to that third note!

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