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Are Chords and Emotions Related?

Nearly every composer alive feels drawn to music because of its ability to make us feel something. Listening to our favorite pieces makes us feel alive, and leaves us with an insatiable desire to create music that inspires similar experiences for others. Drawn by the need to write music, one of the first questions a young composer will try to answer is the age-old “How are chords and emotions related?”

It seems like such an intuitive idea but, unfortunately, many websites and online forums will respond to these questions with less than helpful answers. So as a trained therapist turned professional composer I thought I’d try to shed some light on this topic by discussing just how music portrays emotions.

Chords play a crucial role in portraying emotions with music. They tend to be one of the strongest tools that a composer has for manipulating something called the valence, or general “mood”, of an emotion.

Each of these moods can be organized into five fundamental categories;  Dark, Very Dark, Neutral, Bright, and Very Bright. The types of chords and harmony that you use while writing a new piece of music will have more impact than any other strategy on which of these five categories your music falls into. 

Are Chords and Emotions Related - What is Musical Valence?

The secret to portraying emotions with your music is to control three elements in your writing; valence, size, and energy. Valence refers to how dark or bright an emotion is, size refers to how overwhelming or all-consuming an emotion is, and energy refers to how energizing or physically expressive an emotion is. 

Of the three, chords have the strongest impact on Valence, so that’s the topic we’ll focus on during this blog post. If you’d like to learn more about the other two, check out my blog post on portraying emotions with music. 

Emotional valence comes from an old psychometric tool called the Circumplex Model of Affect. This model states that all emotions can be described as lying somewhere along a spectrum ranging from very dark to very bright. For example, you could describe joy as being a “very bright emotion” while despair would fall much closer to the “very dark” end of the spectrum. Ambiguous emotions like Nostalgia fall somewhere closer to the middle. 

Using the Tool

The first step to using chords to portray any emotion is to figure out where on this spectrum your target emotion belongs in the first place. One simple litmus test is to ask yourself “Would I want my loved ones to experience this emotion?” If the answer is yes, then chances are your target emotion belongs somewhere along the brighter end of the spectrum. If the answer is “no” then you’re probably dealing with something along the opposite end of the spectrum. See how that works? 

Don’t get caught overthinking things. Valence is only one-third of the equation for emotions and music, so there’s no need to get too nuanced with your answers. In general, your gut instinct on where a target emotion should lie will be more than good enough to get started. 

Once you know what kind of valence your emotion contains, the next step is to simply use the kinds of chords most effective for portraying your desired valence!

Are Chords and Emotions Related - Using Chords to Portray Dark Emotions

Using chords to set the mood for your target emotion is pretty straightforward. If you want to work with dark emotions, there’s no better place to start than with minor key harmony!

Minor triads often get described as sounding “sad” but this can be a bit misleading. It’s much more accurate to describe them as sounding “dark” since they feel just as equally at home when portraying other dark emotions like anger, anxiety, and fear. The secret to portraying the differences between these emotions is to get the size and energy of your music right, but in theory, they can all work just as well with the same basic types of chord progressions. 

Without worrying too much about music theory, the key to writing chord progressions with minor chords is to create a pattern with your chords. (If you DO want to learn more about the music theory behind chord progressions, check out my blog post on functional harmony here)

Sentence Structure

One simple pattern you can use is something called sentence structure. In this pattern you start with two chords that you like. Since we’re trying to create a dark valence, we can stick to just minor chords for now, but you’re welcome to explore different options!

Our first two chords are A- and D-

The next step is to repeat the same two chords again, but this time you can add a little bit of variation if you’d like. Typically this will mean either working with chord inversions or simply changing one of the notes in your second chord to make a completely different chord, with two common tones. In this example, I changed the D natural in D- to a C, which transforms the second chord into F major, so now our chord progression goes A- | D- | A- | F

Step Number three is to come up with two completely new chords that you like. If you understand  bit of music theory, you can try to remain within your given key, but if not it’s a simple matter for finding two more chords that you think sound good when added to your chord progression. For our example I’m going to add D- and E-

Finally, we end the whole thing with a simple cadence, again if you’re not too familiar with music theory, this means simply finding a nice pair of chords that you think help end the whole thing. For our example, I’ll use E and A-, which gives us a full chord progression of 

A- | D- | A- | F | D- | E- | E | A-

A simple chord progression like this, that uses mostly minor chords will help set the stage nicely for nearly any dark emotion you’re trying to portray. 

(Very dark emotions tend to work with more complicated harmony, such as set theory or tritone chords, so we won’t worry about addressing them for now. However if you’re interested in exploring these strategies and more, check out my online class or e-book on portraying emotions with music!)

Are Chords and Emotions Related - Using Chords to Portray Bright Emotions

You can probably guess where this is going, but if you’re looking to portray a bright emotion look no further than major chords and major key harmony! 

Major triads are the quintessential “bright” sound in music. They fit right at home in any music portraying joy, love, happiness, and more. Once again, the secret to nailing the differences between these emotions will be to set up the right size and energy for each one, but the first step is to set the stage with an appropriate mood. 

Just like writing chord progressions in a minor key, major key chord progressions simply rely on a recognizable pattern to sound effective. Sentence structure is always an excellent choice, but another option is to use something called Period structure. 

Period structure is very similar in concept, just written out in a different order. You start out with two chords that you like, for example C and F. 

Next you add two different chords that you think work really well, like E- and G. 

Step number three is to repeat the original two chords before finally ending the whole thing with a Cadence

A simple chord progression like this is really all you need to help set the stage for nearly any bright emotion you could want to portray. Things don’t start to get tricky until you start venturing into more ambiguous territories. 

Are Chords and Emotions Related - Using Chords to Portray Ambiguous Emotions.

Dark and Bright emotions are simple enough, but working with more ambiguous emotions like nostalgia or melancholy can be tricky. There are lots of different strategies that you can use, each one with it’s own personality and effect, but one of the simplest is to simply work with 7th chords instead of triads. 

7th chords are built with 4 notes instead of 3 and as a consequence nearly always involve some combination of notes that can be found in both major and minor triads. For example let’s take a closer look at an A-7 chord. 

A-7 contains the notes, A, C, E, & G. 

The bottom three notes can all be combined to create an A- triad, while the top three can all be used to create a C triad. When played together, we get conflicting signals, which result in a slightly dark, but mostly ambiguous quality. The same thing can be found in a major 7th chord like Cmaj7

The bottom three notes create a C major triad, but he top three create an E- triad. The combination of all four being played at the same time results in a mostly ambiguous sound that contains a slightly brighter quality. 

What's the Secret?

The secret to using these chords effectively is to start by figuring out whether your target emotion tends to be slightly darker or slightly brighter. (Almost no emotion will ever be truly “neutral” in nature). If you need a slightly brighter sound, then start out with a chord progression emphasizing major triads and then turn them into 7th chords. For example, if we were to convert our chord progression from earlier we’d get the following: 

Cmaj7 | Fmaj7| E-7| G7| Cmaj7| Fmaj7| G7| Cmaj7 

While still bright, this progression definitely sounds more nuanced and ambiguous than the original. 

If you want a slightly darker valence, then you can transform a minor chord progression into 7ths to help make the mood a bit more neutral. 

A-7| D-7| A-7| Fmaj7| D-7| E-7| E7| A-7

Are Chords and Emotions Related - Summary

So just to summarize everything we’ve covered in this article: 

Music can portray emotions by controlling for three distinct elements. Valence, Size, and Energy. Chords play an invaluable role in this process by being one of the strongest tools available for setting the appropriate valence.

To get the appropriate valence for your emotion, you should start by figuring out how you would describe your target emotion on a scale of “very dark” to “very bright”. Once you’ve found out how to categorize your emotion, it’s a simple matter of using the appropriate type of harmony to help portray the appropriate valence! 

Darker emotions make use of lots of minor triads and dissonant harmonies to effectively set the mood for your music. 

Brighter emotions make use of plenty of major triads and consonant harmonies to set the appropriate mood. 

Finally, working with more ambiguous chords will require a bit more creativity, but one of the simplest and most effective tools is to simply use 7th chords to help neutralize the valence of simple triads. 

I hope this article was helpful! If you’re interested in learning more about portraying emotions with music, don’t forget to read my other blog posts and check out my online-class / e-book exploring all the different strategies available for bringing emotions to life with your music!

-Stephen Berkemeier, MSW (the Tabletop Composer)

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