What Makes Music Sound Sad?

can music sound sad

Music can express a wide variety of feelings. Some associations between songs and emotions include happy and sad ones; why does that happen?

Huron and colleagues found that bowed string instruments (violin, cello and viola) scored highest in terms of their ability to express sadness. Furthermore, pitch-bending and dark timbre were all found to correlate in their study.

Major Keys

Musical keys form the core of how music sounds; major and minor keys, chord progressions, and tone all combine to form the emotion of any song. It is important to keep in mind that no musical key possesses inherent happy or sad qualities – these characteristics must be added by humans. A song in C Major could be taken as sad due to the subject matter it covers, which modulation from minor scale to parallel major key can offer hopefulness that helps offset its melancholic qualities.

Western culture typically associates the minor scale with sad music. It features more melancholy sounds than its major counterpart, and features various variations that all possess the distinctive minor third relationship with the tonic note of each key. Some popular minor scales are natural minor, melodic minor, and harmonic minor – each often associated with sadness but can also express other emotions such as happiness, hope, or mystery.

Chords can make music seem either sad or happy depending on how they’re played, depending on how a chord is interpreted by its listeners. A chord consists of multiple notes played simultaneously at once; its most prevalent form is called a triad – comprised of the first, third and fifth notes in any scale (i.e. C major chord would consist of C, E and G). Minor key chords featuring diminished 7ths tend to sound particularly saddening to audiences.

However, chord progressions alone don’t create the feeling of sadness in music – other factors such as tempo and melody play an integral role. Furthermore, vocal styles play an essential part in how songs sound – for instance a slow and somber style can intensify sadness while fast and upbeat singing styles may add an air of happiness in song lyrics.

Minor Keys

When notes are played or sung together they can create an emotional response in listeners – this phenomenon has baffled musicians, psychologists and even physicists! This phenomenon known as chord has long intrigued audiences.

Composers use the key they write their music in to set a particular atmosphere or atmosphere. Western music uses major and minor keys to convey different feelings; music written in minor keys often sounds saddish or mysterious due to their pitch pattern being more closely aligned with sounds related to sad or mysterious speech.

Reasons behind why music in a minor key can sound dispiriting are related to our perception of it. Each note contains harmonics which give its tone or color its individual characteristic, with some being higher-pitched than others; those nearer its base frequency known as thirds, fifths and octaves being especially notable – more so for minor keys.

Thirds closer to the root note can be more dissonant than distant thirds found in major keys and can evoke negative emotional reactions.

Other aspects of musical composition contribute to a song’s mood as well, including its tempo and instrument choice – slower tempos may evoke feelings of sadness while faster ones often indicate joy or happiness. Pianos tend to be used more for sad songs while violins may be preferred when writing happy tunes.

All these elements contribute to our perception that a piece of music is sad. However, it is important to keep in mind that not all pieces of music follow the stereotypical major/minor chord format; many pieces include both major and minor chords as well as various melodies and progressions.


Rhythm, melody and instrumentation play more of a part in creating sad music than chord progressions alone; yet chords remain an effective means for setting mood and emotion – especially sad chord progressions such as the 50s progression (also known as doo-wop progression). This type of progression begins by using major chord tones with minor chord iii-vi variations to produce an emotional and mournful atmosphere in any song.

Use of the minor plagal cadence can create a mournful chord progression. This common form can be heard in songs like November Rain and Let’s Stay Together; its chord progression uses an I – IV – IIV – II sequence that follows the minor scale to give listeners an unsettling and longing sense.

As well, keep in mind that major doesn’t automatically mean happy and minor doesn’t necessarily equate to sad. These are simply general guidelines to follow when writing music – tempo, timbre and melodic content have much greater impacts on what emotions a song conveys than just major or minor chords alone.

No matter the chord progression you select, it’s vital that you utilize proper technique when performing it. Slowing your rhythm down and adding techniques such as vibrato or expressive bends will add another level of feeling to your music. Also be sure to experiment with various chord progressions and harmonies until you find one that best meets your musical preferences – good luck with this and happy composing! If any questions arise regarding composition leave me a comment here on my site and I’ll do my best to address them!


Studies have demonstrated the vital role timbre plays in shaping how music makes us feel. Timbre refers to the unique quality of each sound, distinguishing one instrument or voice from another – instantly recognisable when your mother speaks versus hearing your father speak; also helping us determine emotions conveyed by different instruments or voices.

As an example, a high-pitched note played quietly can sound unsettling or frightening, while when played with an orchestra it may elicit different emotional responses depending on how it’s performed and other musical factors like harmonic saturation and tempo. Violin’s timbre has even been linked with feelings of sadness through studies which compared its sound to human speech.

When a violin sounds sad, its low pitch and dark tone may reflect human speech that expresses emotions like anger or fear. Some researchers suggest that its emotional effect stems from resonance: how it sounds when vibrated; its shape, size, material type and tuning all play an essential part.

While violin music has traditionally been associated with sadness, other musical sounds can also elicit these feelings. Saxophones, flutes and horns all possess dark raspy tones similar to human speech that can create feelings of melancholy when played for us to listen.

When learning the art of musical creation, timbre is key. Timbre refers to the overall sound of a track in terms of music production. You can influence its timbre through factors like equalization. Pay close attention to how different instruments sound as you experiment with vocal timbre experiments in order to produce tracks with vibrant timbres! You can use your EQ settings to adjust each instrument’s overtones and undertones using this approach as well.

Have you ever noticed how a seemingly upbeat song can suddenly transition into a mournful tune just by modulating into a minor key? Composers employ various techniques to enhance emotion in their compositions.

Huron and colleagues evaluated 44 instruments to identify those most effective at conveying sadness. Their assessment included looking at their capacity for pitch bending, dark tonal qualities and playing small intervals.

Major Keys

People typically associate major and minor keys with happiness or sadness, respectively, however this isn’t always the case – much music contains both types of keys in its composition, while chord progressions and instrument selection also affect mood.

Making a song feel saddened is usually accomplished using a minor key, with three variations available – natural minor, harmonic minor and melodic minor. Of these variations the natural minor has the flat third relationship to the tonic at scale degree 3 which adds darkness and seriousness while there are several other notes within this scale that create sadness.

While minor scale songs tend to evoke emotions such as sorrow or loneliness, remember that key is just one factor influencing its tone and emotion. Tempo, timbre and melody all play key roles in how a song sounds; applying multiple techniques can even make an upbeat track sound sombre.

Chord progressions are an effective way of making songs sound sadder, serving as the foundation of most musical pieces and helping create different emotions through sound. Minor chord progressions tend to be particularly emotional resonant.

“With or Without You” by U2 is an example of a sad song with a simple chord progression that evokes melancholy and longing feelings. This track uses an F minor chord progression which adds poignantly sad overtones.

One way to make a song sound sad involves creating tension through various instruments and techniques, including using instruments like acoustic guitars, electric guitars, pianos or lowering its tempo; all can add melancholia by making the tune appear more serious or contemplative.

Minor Keys

Belief in the notion that minor keys automatically connote sad music is one of the more prevalent misconceptions in all of music theory. While major and minor are only part of the story; other elements like tempo, timbre, rhythm and melody all play significant roles in creating emotional responses from music pieces.

However, many of the most emotive and serious songs around are typically composed in minor keys – from dramatic orchestral sections in “Moondance” by Frank Sinatra or Billie Holiday’s emotive vocals in “Sadness Has Been the Case.” Furthermore, some of Chopin’s funeral marches and Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor Opus 35 stand as prime examples of powerful pieces written in minor keys.

People have long been taught to associate certain musical intervals and chords with specific emotions since birth; for instance, minor third intervals often evoke sadness while major thirds sound more upbeat and hopeful.

Minor key music needn’t necessarily evoke feelings of sorrow and melancholy; in fact, when composed correctly it can still make an otherwise upbeat song sound melancholic and introspective if used effectively. All it takes to make that happen is knowing which chords to use together for maximum effect.

No matter the source, however, minor keys may still have an association with sadness that exists across musical cultures. Javanese music for instance often resembles minor scales but is typically associated with happiness; some Eastern European genres like Polka tend to feature minor keys more prominently.

That is why it’s essential that musicians and composers understand how various aspects of a piece of music affect its overall emotional impact. Though most people tend to associate minor keys with darker themes while major keys with lighter ones, this doesn’t have to be taken as an absolute rule.


At one time, it was believed that melodies in minor keys sounded sad due to our perception of music based on key signatures and how it is performed. However, recent studies have proven this belief false – whether a song sounds sad or happy is not determined by its key signature, but by tonality of chords and overall rhythm of its song; “Stars” by Dubstar provides an excellent example; its tonality of chords are major while melody notes are in minor; this produces an extremely sad melancholy atmosphere resulting in its melancholy atmosphere and melancholy feel.

What really makes a song sound sad is the instrument used to play it. Pianos and violins tend to produce sad sounding songs as their low, deep tone is perfect for conveying feelings of mournful longing.

However, music can also be made to sound sad in many other ways. Altering its rhythm or pitch may produce this effect or using different timbres can add depth. One way that a piece can sound sorrowful is through harmonic effects like vibrato.

Minor keys tend to sound sad due to their lower tonal center; this causes notes to resonate for longer and produces a sad sound, making a minor key piece even sadder when played live. Knowing which scale you should be writing songs in can also make them sound melancholic even if their lyrics are happy! Changing tempo or adding other sounds such as clapping or backing ‘yeahs’ may alter its overall sound significantly – all these methods make music seem melancholy!


Instruments are an integral component to making music sad; composers utilize instruments as one element that evokes emotion in their songs. Certain instruments elicit specific feelings and emotions to best portray what composers want their audience to experience; for instance, when playing songs in minor keys some composers choose instruments with deep tones which create feelings of introspection or sorrow while other composers might opt to slow chord progressions down, creating feelings of longing or mourning in their music.

Researchers conducted two studies in order to better understand what musical characteristics contribute to our perception of sad songs. In one, participants were asked how frequently they heard a piece of music referred to as sad and assess how often 44 familiar musical instruments evoked such responses; they also evaluated their acoustic features such as ease of playing quietly or slowly; whether pitch could easily be bent (play small intervals); dark timbre production could easily occur; as well as which note each instrument could produce.

Results revealed that voice and piano were judged as the primary instruments used for playing sad songs, followed by cello, viola and violin; triangle, cymbal and wood block instruments were considered least likely. Unfortunately, Huron and Anderson do not provide an explanation as they speculate that these particular instruments have highly correlated acoustic properties, suggesting they measure similar underlying constructs that indicate sadness; however due to its central component being low physical energy this explanation doesn’t quite do justice.

In a second study, 44 musical instruments used in the previous research were assessed for their ability to evoke emotional responses such as sadness and happiness. Participants rated how easily each instrument produced sad or happy melodies as well as its capacity for doing so; these ratings were then linked back with its acoustic features assessed earlier in this research project.