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How Do You Portray Emotions with Music?

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

By far, the single most important role of a film or videogame composer is to enhance the emotional experience of their audience. Whether writing a character theme or scoring an action sequence, the success of your score will depend on whether or not you get your audience to feel the right emotions! Despite this, there seem to be very few resources out there that actually teach you how to portray emotions in the first place. The popular belief seems to be that you either have a knack for it or you don't. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be true, and learning how to portray emotions with music can be a relatively simple process!


The secret to portraying emotions with music is to learn how to describe the emotion in the first place. You want to start by figuring out the general intensity (energy level) and valence (how positive/negative it is) of your target emotion. This is important because if you can figure out how to describe your emotion with these two categories, you can use the same description for your music! For example, if you can describe sadness as being dark & low energy then all you need to do to portray this emotion effectively is figure out how to write music that is also dark & low energy. If you can master the skill of describing emotions like this and translating your descriptions into music, then you'll have everything you need to control the emotions in your music. We’ll learn how to do both of these things in the rest of this blog post!


How to Describe Emotions

Back in the 80’s a Psychologist named James Russell proposed a new model for describing emotions called the Circumplex Model of Affect. We won’t worry about diving too deeply into the history of this tool, but the main idea was that all emotions can be described as a combination of valence and arousal. In other words, they can be described as a combination of how negative/positive they are and how intensely they are experienced.


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


So basically, if you know how to use the CMA to describe an emotion, then you can use that same description to write music that will portray the emotion!


After all, if we know how to describe sadness as being overall negative and low energy, then it’s a simple matter of finding a way to write music that also sounds dark and low energy.


Using the CMA is a bit like using a Compass. From East to West you have a sliding scale of highly positive to highly negative. From North to South, you have a sliding scale of massive energy to no energy.


circumplex model of affect

Another way to look at this graph is to visualize it as having four basic emotional descriptors:

  1. Emotions with overall high energy and a negative valence

  2. Emotions with overall low energy and a negative valence

  3. Emotions with overall high energy and a positive valence

  4. Emotions with overall low energy and positive valence.



energy map

If we were to give each category a basic emotion to represent them, we would find the four most fundamental emotional experiences of music: Happiness, Sadness, Calm, and Anger.


emotions energy map

The reason why we refer to these emotions as being "fundamental" is because every other emotion you may try to portray can (theoretically) be variations of these four basic emotions. For example, if you take “anger” and lower its energy you get “annoyed”. If you take “Sad” and increase the energy, you get “tragic”. Sometimes these transitions can even be gradual. For example, here's a piece that I wrote that starts off as "sad" but gradually increases the energy to become more tragic.




emotion map



Portraying the Four Fundamental Emotions with Music

Learning all the nuances to properly use this model for composing music takes time and effort, but there are fortunately a few shortcuts we can work with. A few simple templates are all that we need to help get started. Then you can simply modify the templates as necessary to portray more nuanced and interesting emotions!


(however, if you’re interested in a deep dive, check out my online course on portraying emotions with music).


Template 1: Happiness

Happiness is the quintessential Bright & High Energy emotion. So it makes sense that portraying it musically will typically require Bright & High Energy music.


The strongest musical tools available for manipulating the valence of your music will always be your harmony and instrumentation. To create a bright sound you can focus on using major key harmony and brighter instruments (e.g., High Strings, High woodwinds, Piano, Trumpets, Horns, etc.).


Manipulating the energy is where things get a little trickier to standardize. Nearly everything you do in music can impact the overall energy of your sound. However, the two broadest strategies can be described as manipulating the “size” of your music and the amount of “movement” it contains.


Manipulating the size of your music has a similar impact to manipulating how overwhelming you want your emotion to feel. Are you working with the simple type of happiness that comes from receiving a compliment on your new haircut? Then you probably don't need your music to sound too large. However, if you're trying to portray the euphoria of winning the mega-millions lottery, then you'll want to pull out all the stops!


Using size to manipulate your overall energy is pretty simple. Any time you do something to increase the size of your music (e.g., add additional instruments, layers, octaves, etc.) you’ll increase the energy. Likewise, strategies that reduce the size will help reduce the energy.


Manipulating the amount of movement in your music is similar to manipulating energizing/draining you want your emotion to feel. Another way to think of it, is to consider how your target emotion typically manifests physically. Do you jump up and celebrate? or do you slump back to bed and want to hide from the world? The more energy that your energy gives/takes from you, the more/less movement you want to include in your music.


Again, using movement to manipulate your overall energy is pretty simple. Any time you do something to increase the amount of movement in your music (e.g.,. Speed up the tempo, switch to shorter notes, add more chords per measure, etc.) you’ll increase the energy. Likewise, strategies that reduce the amount of movement in your music will reduce the energy.


With so many different options available, you’ll understand why learning how to be deliberate about these types of changes can have the biggest impact on the overall personality and effect of your music!


However, to keep things simple for now, we’ll focus on just a few strategies to help create a moderately high energy level for your Happy sounding music.


Template for Happy Music:

Valence = Bright

  • Focus on using Major-Key Harmony

  • Focus on using Brighter instruments for your foreground material (e.g., melody)


Energy = High

  • Tempo = 110-130 bpm

  • Melody = mostly quarter notes & 8th notes

  • Harmonic Rhythm = 1-2 Chords per measure

  • Texture = melody + rhythmic chords.


Template 2: Sadness

Sadness is our quintessential Dark & Low Energy emotion. So it shouldn’t really surprise anyone (especially since I’ve used this example twice already) that the best way to portray it musically is to use Dark & Low Energy music.


Once again, our strongest tools for creating a Dark Valence in music will be harmony and instrumentation. Focus on using minor key harmony and darker instruments (e.g,. Mid-low strings, low woodwinds, piano, low brass, etc.). If you do this, then it should be more than enough to help set the initial vibe for your music!


Energy-wise we can use the same strategies we just learned to help create a simple template for sad music.


Template for Sad Music:

Valence = Dark

  • Focus on using Minor-Key Harmony

  • Focus on using Darker Instruments for your foreground material (e.g,. melody)


Energy = Low

  • Tempo = 60-80 bpm

  • Melody = mostly quarter notes and half notes

  • Harmonic Rhythm = 1 or fewer chords per measure

  • Texture = Melody + sustained chords.


Templates for Anger and Calm

The anger and calm quadrants are essentially a mix of the previous two. Since anger works with Dark Valence & High Energy and calm music works with Bright Valence & Low Energy it’s a simple matter of applying the appropriate strategies to create our templates.


Template for Angry Music:

Valence = Dark

  • Focus on using Minor-Key Harmony

  • Focus on using Darker Instruments for your foreground material (e.g,. melody)


Energy = High

  • Tempo = 110-130 bpm

  • Melody = mostly quarter notes & 8th notes

  • Harmonic Rhythm = 1-2 Chords per measure

  • Texture = melody + rhythmic chords.


Template for Calm Music:

Valence = Bright

  • Focus on using Major-Key Harmony

  • Focus on using Brighter instruments for your foreground material (e.g.,. melody)


Energy = Low

  • Tempo = 60-80 bpm

  • Melody = mostly quarter notes and half notes

  • Harmonic Rhythm = 1 or fewer chords per measure

  • Texture = Melody + sustained chords.


Portraying Other Emotions with Music

Once you’ve got the hang of the four fundamental emotions you can use them as a basis for nearly any other emotion you could need to portray musically!


As you study the story/scene that you’re trying to score, spend some time exploring which emotions you’ll need to portray. Think about which of the four quadrants these emotions will need to inhabit. As a general tip here, don’t get hung up on the general names of “Anger” or “Happiness”. Instead, focus on their basic descriptions. Is your emotion, as a whole, Dark or bright? Is it high energy or low energy?


In these situations, you can figure out where your emotions fall on the spectrum by answering two simple questions:


"Would I want my loved one(s) to experience this emotion? "


If so then it’s probably a bright emotion. If not, then it’s probably Dark.



"How is this emotion expressed physically?"


When people are happy, they tend to laugh, smile, move around, celebrate, dance, etc. These are all “high energy” expressions of emotion.


When people are sad, they tend to get quiet, want to stay in bed, slumped over, etc. These are all “low energy” expressions of emotion.


These are, obviously, incredibly broad and simplified examples, but we’re just trying to understand the basics for now. If you’re interested in getting more specific, you can check out the class that I mentioned earlier.


Once you understand the basic description of your emotion you can think about ways you may need to modify the fundamental templates. Sometimes the basic template for Sadness just doesn’t fit the bill for the emotion you want to portray. Sometimes you need something similar but with a slightly darker/brighter valence or higher/lower energy.


Modifying Valence

To make your music sound even darker, you can focus on strategies that introduce more dissonance to your music (e.g., Set theory, using closed voicings in the low register, using minor 2nd chord, etc.)


To make your music sound brighter you can try emphasizing more open qualities in your music (e.g., remove the 3rds from your harmony, emphasize the upper registers in your music, etc.).


To blur the lines between dark and bright music, you can try using more ambiguous harmony like 7ths and extended chords.


Modifying Energy

To modify the energy of your template, you can simply consider the two broad categories we discussed earlier. Does your music need a larger/smaller size, an increase/decrease in movement, or maybe even a combination of both?


The type of impact you’re going for will depend on the general emotion you’re trying to portray and the context of the scene you’re writing for.



Closing Thoughts

Portraying emotions can be a difficult skill to master if it doesn’t come naturally to you. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible! The tools we’ve covered in this post are pretty simple but they can help get you started! At the core of this whole approach is the general idea that the best way to portray an emotion with music is to take the time to study and describe it first.


This goes for everything you can try to portray musically. Want to write a character theme? Start by understanding your character first. What to create a sound palette for a specific world/setting? Start by understanding your world first!


The more intimately you understand the things you’re trying to portray musically, the easier it will be to find something about it that inspires your music.


I hope you found this helpful! If you have any questions, feel free to email me at tabletopcomposer@gmail.com


All the best,


Stephen

tabletop composer, MSW



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