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Chords and Emotions in the Brain

Updated: Nov 17, 2023


For a long time, music has been associated with an almost magical ability to portray and evoke emotions. The simple addition of background music can enrich nearly any emotional experience. This is why music has become an indispensable part of films, video games, theater, and more! Let’s learn more about chords, music, and emotions in the brain in the following sections!



Despite the near-universal understanding that music and emotions go hand-in-hand, the theory and knowledge of how music portrays emotions seem to be a topic shrouded in mystery and often dismissed as unknowable. Many online forums would have you believe that the relationship between music and emotions can’t be understood or manipulated, that it's instead an innate gift that only a select few can be born with.


This is, of course, nonsense! Learning about chords and emotions in the brain with music is actually much simpler than it sounds, and it’s certainly no clandestine secret.


The first step to understanding chords and emotions in the brain is to understand how we, as human beings, experience emotions in the first place.



Chords and Emotions in the Brain - Psychology & Music


Emotions can be an incredibly complex and difficult topic to study, and there’s no surprise that there are many different competing and (at times) contradicting models/theories concerning how and why we experience and express emotions.


However, the most useful model for understanding the interplay of chords and emotions in the brain is an old psychometric tool called the Circumplex Model of Affect (CMA).


The Circumplex Model of Affect

The CMA is a psychological model that was first proposed in 1980 by Dr. James A. Russell. It claims that all emotions can be described along two different spectrums; their arousal level and valence. In other words, it claims that emotions can be described as a combination of how intensely they are experienced (arousal) and how positive/negative they are (valence).


While this model is currently a bit controversial in its application for research and therapy, it is the perfect tool for helping us understand how music portrays emotions. After all two of the most impactful traits of music are how dark/bright it sounds, and how much energy it contains!


For example, let’s take a look at how the CMA would describe an emotion like “Sadness”.

The CMA would describe sadness as being “Unpleasant + Low energy”



It should come as no surprise that most sad music can also be described as being “Dark + Low Energy” (In this case, we substituted the terms “pleasant + Unpleasant” for “Bright + Dark” respectively).


Just think of examples from your favorite emotional films like Schindler’s List (Williams), Interstellar (Zimmer), and Everest (Marianelli).


Likewise, emotions like happiness and excitement are described by the CMA as being “Pleasant + High Energy”, and most happy music can also be described as being “Bright + High Energy”


So basically, the reason music can evoke and portray emotions in an audience is because it can convey the cornerstone elements of an emotional experience (Valence + Energy). This is the basic tenant of chords and emotion in the brain!



Understanding Emotional Valence


In the CMA the word “valence” simply refers to how pleasant or unpleasant a particular emotional experience is understood to be. For example, sadness and anger can both be described as being “unpleasant” while happiness and excitement could be described as being “pleasant”. Some emotions, like nostalgia, could even be understood as containing elements of both!


When it comes to portraying valence with music, it’s more appropriate to use terms like “dark” or “bright” when describing emotions, since pre-existing associations with the words “pleasant” and “unpleasant” can cause problems with understanding their intended meaning in this context.



Controlling Valence

Controlling valence in music is one of the very first skills that most young composers learn when first exploring the relationship between emotions and music. One of the most cliche examples of this is the common strategy that minor keys sound “dark” and major keys sound “bright”. There’s a reason why this strategy is so cliche, and that’s because it’s effective! While there are certainly other strategies you can use to manipulate emotional valence, these two fundamental ideas are a fantastic starting point!


Most dark emotions can be faithfully portrayed by using minor chords and harmony in your music. Likewise, brighter emotions can be evoked by using major chords and harmony. More ambiguous emotions, like nostalgia, can find a suitable home with extended chords like major and minor 7ths. You can find these sorts of relationships in nearly any piece of film music written in the last 100 years. (for more on using chords to portray specific emotions, check out my other blog post here).



Understanding Emotional Energy


In the CMA the word “Arousal” refers to the intensity of an emotional experience, but a more practical way to understand this would be to split “intensity” into two different categories: Size & Energy.


For emotions, the size can be understood as how overwhelming/all-consuming an emotional experience is. For music, we can take this a bit more literally as the actual size/impact of your sound. Doubling down on the size of your instrumentation, or the volume of your dynamics are both excellent strategies for making your music sound bigger and more “overwhelming”. Doing the opposite can help make it sound more intimate.


For emotions, we can think of energy as how physically expressive an emotion is. When we’re excited, we clap our hands, laugh, dance, etc. When we’re sad, we draw into ourselves, slump in our chairs, crawl back into bed, etc.


Portraying emotional energy with music involves creating an appropriate amount of movement. You can achieve this by controlling things like your tempo, average note length, number of layers, etc.


When combined, the size and amount of movement in your music become your most powerful tools for controlling the nuance and detail of the emotions you’re trying to portray.



Chords and Emotions in the Brain - Portraying Emotions With Music


The innate ability to embody the three cornerstone elements of an emotional experience (valence, size, & energy) is what makes music so well-equipped for evoking and enhancing emotions in an audience! This is how chords and emotions in the brain fit together!


Chords and Emotions in the Brain - A Summary

The simplest way you can take advantage of these elements to portray emotions with your own music is to start by describing your target emotion(s) in the first place. Start with your valence. Is this a pleasant emotion? An unpleasant one? Something in between?


Next address the size of the emotion. Would you consider it an overwhelming experience like tragedy? Or something more intimate like the beginnings of new love?


Finally, figure out how physically expressive the emotional experience is. Does the emotion compel you to move/express yourself with a shout of joy or perhaps a wail of despair? Or is it more internalized like disappointment or smug confidence?


Every emotion is unique, and the more time you spend trying to describe it along these three parameters, the more information you’ll have to work with when writing your music.


From there, it’s a simple matter of trying to match each of the three elements with your music. Every composer is different, so the specific strategies you use to create the necessary movement and size will come down to your own style and experience.


I encourage you to start by creating a short list of strategies you think are appropriate for each element. What do you think are the best traits for “large” music? What about intimate music? What elements do you think are needed to constitute high energy? Low energy?


Taking the time to explore different options will help you grow as a composer and gain more salient control over which emotions you’re portraying with your music. Soon, you will command the relationship between chords and emotions in the brain!


To study these topics even more in-depth check out my online class or e-book on portraying emotions with music!



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