Why does Handel's Water Music and The Beatles' 'Here Comes The Sun' sound happy, while Albinoni's Adagio and 'Eleanor Rigby' sound sad?

Some might say it's because the first two are in major keys, while the second two are in minor keys. But are the emotional associations of major and minor intrinsic to the notes themselves, or are they culturally imposed? Many music psychologists suspect the latter, but a new study now suggests that there's something fundamentally similar about major or minor keys and the properties of happy or sad speech, respectively.

Nigel Tufnell of spoof rock band Spinal Tap famously called D minor "the saddest of all keys". But are minor keys intrinsically sad? Credit: SPINAL TAP PRODUCTION / THE KOBAL COLLECTION

Neuroscientist Daniel Bowling and colleagues at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, compared the sound spectra — the profiles of different acoustic frequencies – of speech with those in Western classical music and Finnish folk songs. They found that the spectra in major-key music are close to those in excited speech, while the spectra of minor-key music are more similar to subdued speech1.

Most cultures share the same acoustic characteristics of happy or sad speech, the former being relatively fast and loud, and the latter slower and quieter. There's good reason to believe that music mimics some of these universal emotional behaviours, supplying a universal vocabulary that permits listeners sometimes to deduce the intended emotion in unfamiliar music.

For example, Western listeners can judge fairly reliably — based largely on tempo — whether pieces of Kyrghistani, Hindustani and Navajo Native American music were meant to be joyous or sad23. A study of the Mafa people of Cameroon, who had never heard Western music, also found that they could guess whether extracts were intended to be happy, sad or fearful4. So although it's simplistic to suppose that all music is happy or sad, these crude universal indicators of emotion do seem to work across cultural boundaries.

The minor fall and the major lift

So is musical key another of these universal indicators, as Bowling's study suggests? The idea that the minor key is intrinsically anguished, while the major is joyful, is so deeply ingrained in Western listeners that many have deemed this to be a natural principle of music. This notion was influentially argued by musicologist Deryck Cooke in his 1959 book The Language of Music.

Cooke pointed out that musicians throughout the ages have used minor keys for vocal music with an explicitly sad content, and major keys for happy lyrics. But he failed to acknowledge that this might simply be a matter of cultural convention rather than an innate property of the music. And when faced with the fact that some cultures, such as Spanish and Slavic, use minor keys for happy music, he offered the patronizing suggestion that such rustic people were inured to a hard life and didn't expect to be happy.

No such chauvinism afflicts the latest work from Bowling and colleagues. But their conclusions are still open to question. For one thing, they don't establish that people actually hear in music the characteristic acoustic features that they identify. Also, they assume that the ratios of frequencies sounded simultaneously in speech can be compared with the ratios of frequencies sounded sequentially in music. And most troublingly, major-type frequency ratios dominate the spectra of both excited and subdued speech, but merely less so in the latter case.

This work also faces the problem that some cultures — including Europe before the Renaissance, not to mention the ancient Greeks — don't link minor keys to sadness. Western listeners sometimes misjudge the emotional quality of Javanese music that uses a scale with similarities to the minor mode yet is deemed happy by the musicians. So even if a fundamental sadness is present in the minor mode, it seems likely to be weak and easily over-written by acculturation. It's possible even in the Western idiom to write happy minor-key music — Van Morrison's 'Moondance', for example — or sad major-key music, such as Billie Holiday's 'No Good Man'. It seems too soon to conclude that minor keys give everyone the blues.