What makes a melody sound happy or sad?

We’ve all heard many songs in our lifetime, all of which may give rise to different moods. Some songs can sound happy, while other sound sad and depressing. When we’re down and despondent, some of us might choose to listen to happy music to get our spirits up. On the other hand, a tough time might increase our cravings for sad-sounding music.

So what exactly is it that makes a song sound sad or happy? The lyrics have a hand in it, of course, but the melody also largely contributes to how a song or any musical composition makes us feel.

A musician could list certain chords, rhythms or other structures that make music sound happy or tense or whatever. This is enough for the musician to know how to generate a certain emotional response, but it doesn’t explain why the emotional response happens. There’s also the fact that what sounds ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ will vary from person to person according to a number of factors. These include the culture, heritage, family background, and several other aspects of a person’s perception.

The brain interprets everything through an extremely complex web of filters and processes. Some of that is linked to the amygdala, a part of the brain that is responsible for most of the emotional responses (e.g. fear). The amygdala responds fairly consistently (and thus predictably) to certain stimuli, which is why the same music will have very similar responses in most humans. To whatever extent that the response may be different, it’s due to the way in which memories and past experiences (which differ from person to person) are part of the processing.

This reasoning applies not just to music but also to paintings, sculptures, stories, movies, and any other creative output that evokes a feeling. Most people have a very similar basal reaction to the same scene or the same work of art. However, when two people’s reactions are different, it’s because the work might trigger different memories or relate to different past experiences in each of them.

Perceiving happy or sad melodies is a subjective practice, which is also linked to our cultural heritage as well as the meaning we find in music. Someone who is used to classical Indian ‘raags’ might not be able to perceive what metal heads are so passionate about in their choice of music, and vice versa. In fact, a Westerner would probably find it very hard to identify any kind of mood in the music of other cultures.

In Western tradition, there are some associations between certain instruments and the emotions of happiness and sadness. For instance, the ‘minor’ notes have been associated with sadness, while the ‘major’ ones are usually connected with joy or happiness. There are other aspects of the music that might also have an influence on our mood when we’re listening to the melody. These include the rhythm of the tune, its tempo, the melodic sweep, and the dynamics along with the instruments used.

A professional composer will be able to draw upon the correct instruments and rhythms in order to appeal to a certain cultural heritage. This will make their music meaningful to an informed audience.

Some might say that the tempo of a melody determines whether it seems mostly happy or sad to the majority of listeners. For instance, a happy melody will most likely have a quick tempo that’s also light, similar to the sound of giggling or laughter. If the melody is accompanied by lyrics, these will probably mention the nicer things in life in order to create a happy feeling (if that was the aim). The subject of the resulting song could be about flowers, children, love, etc.

Sad music usually comes with a slow tempo with a lot of silence in between the notes. This could be likened to the sound of sighing, sobbing, crying, etc. There’s also a sense of some deeper meaning in the song, while a more joyful melody might just be for enjoyment. Of course, there are always exceptions to any theory about the happiness or sadness of music.