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Hitting the Books: How music chords hack your brain to elicit emotion

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Johnny Cash’s Hurt hits way different in A Major, as much so as Ring of Fire in G Minor. The dissonance in tone between the chords is, ahem, a minor one: simply the third note lowered to a flat. But that change can fundamentally alter how a song sounds, and what feelings that song conveys. In their new book Every Brain Needs Music: The Neuroscience of Making and Listening to Music, Dr. Larry S Sherman, professor of neuroscience at the Oregon Health and Science University, and Dr. Dennis Plies, a music professor at Warner Pacific University, explore the fascinating interplay between our brains, our instruments, our audiences, and the music they make together. 

White backbround with a red illustrated, stylized head filled with musical items with black and red title lettering above and below.

Columbia University Press

Excerpted from Every Brain Needs Music: The Neuroscience of Making and Listening to Music by Larry S. Sherman and Dennis Plies published by Columbia University Press. Copyright (c) 2023 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.


The Minor Fall and The Major Lift: Sorting Out Minor and Major Chords

Another function within areas of the secondary auditory cortex involves how we perceive different chords. For example, part of the auditory cortex (the superior temporal sulcus) appears to help distinguish major from minor chords.

Remarkably, from there, major and minor chords are processed by different areas of the brain outside the auditory cortex, where they are assigned emotional meaning. For example, in Western music, minor keys are perceived as “serious” or “sad” and major keys are perceived as “bright” or “happy.” This is a remarkable response when you think about it: two or three notes played together for a brief period of time, without any other music, can make us think “that is a sad sound” or “that is a happy sound.” People around the world have this response, although the tones that illicit these emotions differ from one culture to another. In a study of how the brain reacts to consonant chords (notes that sound “good” together, like middle C and the E and G above middle C, as in the opening chord of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”), subjects were played consonant or dissonant chords (notes that sound “bad”together) in the minor and major keys, and their brains were analyzed using a method called positron emission tomography (PET). This method of measuring brain activity is different from the fMRI studies we discussed earlier. PET scanning, like fMRI, can be used to monitor blood flow in the brain as a measure of brain activity, but it uses tracer molecules that are injected into the subjects’ bloodstreams. Although the approach is different, many of the caveats we mentioned for fMRI studies also apply to PET studies. Nonetheless, these authors reported that minor chords activated an area of the brain involved in reward and emotion processing (the right striatum), while major chords induced significant activity in an area important for integrating and making sense of sensory information from various parts of the brain (the left middle temporal gyrus). These findings suggest the locations of pathways in the brain that contribute to a sense of happiness or sadness in response to certain stimuli, like music.

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Don’t Worry, Be Happy (or Sad): How Composers Manipulate our Emotions

Although major and minor chords by themselves can elicit “happy” or “sad” emotions, our emotional response to music that combines major and minor chords with certain tempos, lyrics, and melodies is more complex. For example, the emotional link to simple chords can have a significant and dynamic impact on the sentiments in lyrics. In some of his talks on the neuroscience of music, Larry, working with singer, pianist, and songwriter Naomi LaViolette, demonstrates this point using Leonard Cohen’s widely known and beloved song “Hallelujah.” Larry introduces the song as an example of how music can influence the meaning of lyrics, and then he plays an upbeat ragtime, with mostly major chords, while Naomi sings Cohen’s lyrics. The audience laughs, but it also finds that the lyrics have far less emotional impact than when sung to the original slow-paced music with several minor chords.

Songwriters take advantage of this effect all the time to highlight their lyrics’ emotional meaning. A study of guitar tablatures (a form of writing down music for guitar) examined the relationship between major and minor chords paired with lyrics and what is called emotional valence: In psychology, emotions considered to have a negative valence include anger and fear, while emotions with positive valence include joy. The study found that major chords are associated with higher-valence lyrics, which is consistent with previous studies showing that major chords evoke more positive emotional responses than minor chords. Thus, in Western music, pairing sad words or phrases with minor chords, and happy words or phrases with major chords, is an effective way to manipulate an audience’s feelings. Doing the opposite can, at the very least, muddle the meaning of the words but can also bring complexity and beauty to the message in the music.

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Manipulative composers appear to have been around for a long time. Music was an important part of ancient Greek culture. Although today we read works such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, these texts were meant to be sung with instrumental accompaniment. Surviving texts from many works include detailed information about the notes, scales, effects, and instruments to be used, and the meter of each piece can be deduced from the poetry (for example, the dactylic hexameter of Homer and other epic poetry). Armand D’Angour, a professor of classics at Oxford University, has recently recreated the sounds of ancient Greek music using original texts, music notation, and replicated instruments such as the aulos, which consists of two double-reed pipes played simultaneously by a single performer. Professor D’Angour has organized concerts based on some of these texts, reviving music that has not been heard for over 2,500 years. His work reveals that the music then, like now, uses major and minor tones and changes in meter to highlight the lyrics’ emotional intent. Simple changes in tones elicited emotional responses in the brains of ancient Greeks just as they do today, indicating that our recognition of the emotional value of these tones has been part of how our brains respond to music deep into antiquity.

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