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.