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How Chords Portray Emotion (with chord and emotions chart)

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

Chord Relationships, or “CRs” for short, are a somewhat obscure but supremely helpful concept to learn (in my own opinion). They are especially helpful and prevalent among

film composers. At the core of this concept is the assumption that audiences have come to associate certain chord combinations with specific emotions. For example, a Major chord and a minor chord separated by a major third interval is a super common CR for sad scenes. This CR has a uniquely sad sound to it and can build upon the tragedy of just about any scene.

Since we’re dealing with emotions here, I should point out that none of the CRs we’ll be covering are written in stone. Each of these can carry a whole bunch of different associations and can be used in all different types of scenarios, but with that being said, the descriptions I provide should certainly come in handy if you ever find yourself facing writer’s block. So w

with that, let’s get started.

First, let’s cover some quick music theory. It will be important to know how to read musical intervals if you are to get any use out of these too

ls. I’ve mentioned before that the semi-tone is the smallest denominator in western music. It’s the distance between two keys on the piano; black or white. Two semitones make a whole tone.

With this in mind, we can name each of the musical intervals based on the number of semi-tones they each have. We’ll keep things simple and only cover the basic intervals found within a single octave

It’s important to know your intervals because we’ll be using them to define our CRs. There are three parts to each CR:

1) the starting chord type

2) the interval between chords

3) the ending chord type.

When I refer to “chord type” I mean either a Major Triad (M) or a Minor Triad (m). There are many other types of chords that you can work with, but CR’s typically stick to just these two.

So for the CR “M IV+ m”, which is commonly used for an outer space kind of feeling, we would read it “A Major Triad and a Minor Triad separated by a Tritone”

Now when defining the interval in a CR, you’ll be referencing the root note of your chords. In other words, you’re referencing the notes that each chord is named after: so a “C” in “C Major” and an “A” in “A minor”.

So let’s say you wanted to use the sad sound mentioned earlier. You would use the CR “M III m”. You pick your first chord, which has to be a major triad. Let’s say you go with the C Major. “C” is the root note of your chord, so you need to find the minor triad that is a III away from C Major. One option is E, so you pick the E minor chord. Now by moving from C Major to E minor, you’ve created that sad sound you’re looking for!

So long as you’re moving from one chord to the next, it doesn’t matter how you write the chords. You can have your chords in 1st or 2nd inversion, or any other configuration, the sound of the CR will still be there. However, if you change the order of the chords, this DOES have an impact by changing the specific CR you’re working with.

So if you reverse the last CR and go from E minor to C Major you’re no longer working with an “M III m” CR. Now you’ve created an “m vi M” CR. This CR has a very different feel and is commonly used for a feeling of resolution. Sometimes two CRs like this have a similar emotional feel to them, and in this case, I like to refer to them as “twins”. In the Charts below, you’ll be able to find out which CRs are related, and what emotions they help convey. The first chart organizes each CR by Chord Type, and the second chart organizes each CR by the type of emotional feel they contain.

As I mentioned earlier, the emotional nature of these CRs makes them subjective to each person. So if you find any that feel different to you than they did for me, make sure to take note and reference your own list for the music you write.

Chord Relationships and Emotion
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2 comentários

Jeff McAdam
Jeff McAdam
31 de dez. de 2022

This is a great breakdown. You're missing parallel minor / parallel major relationships, though (ie "M I m" and "m I M"). Curious how you would categorize those. To my ear, they have a sort of opposing feel to them - going from major to minor has a sort of loss or despair, while going the other way feels hopeful.


Sean Gilbert
Sean Gilbert
15 de abr. de 2022

I find it so fascinating that I organized my understand of non-diatonic chords the same way. While modal interchange is a cool idea, or just having non-diatonics as just passing tones work. Its so lame, especially considering how useless they are in describing or creating hollywood harmony. Just labeling the two sides and the chord root movement is just too darn effective

I suppose the hard part now is generalizing this for all other sorts of sonorities beyond major and minor. Gets to be rather crazy when you consider the vast number of triad shapes like sus and aug/dim. Not to mention extensions...

Seems like a great challenge to find a working system that generalizes all this stuff beyond rote…

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