Why Major Chords Sound Happy and Minor Chords Sound Sad

Music can bring out our innermost feelings. While it may appear obvious that major chords evoke joyful sentiments while minor ones elicit sorrowful ones, that’s not necessarily the case.

Researchers conducted studies where they asked participants from remote communities in Papua New Guinea and musicians in Sydney to select which of two chord progressions made them feel happier, discovering that its associations with emotion are predominantly cultural in nature.


Intervals are gaps between notes, which influence both sound and function in chords. Their size can be determined by counting staff positions or scale steps between their endpoints; so for instance the interval between C and E (three letter notes apart) is known as a third interval while one between F and G (5-semitone fifth apart) is known as fourth (4-semitone fifth; 5 letter notes apart).

Interval sizes can either be major or minor. Major intervals are larger than minor ones, producing fuller-sounding chords that sound happier. Furthermore, major intervals have higher pitches.

Minor chords could be misunderstood as sad while major ones appear joyful for some people due to pitch differences; however, this might simply be cultural conditioning since musical styles from other cultures don’t generally associate minor chords with sadness and major ones with joy.


Use of major and minor scales can help us create chord sequences that evoke various emotions, from those associated with happiness or sadness to satisfaction, relief, gratitude and peace. For instance, F Major can evoke these same sentiments while G Major brings out feelings of love, compassion, tenderness and spirituality.

For a more melancholy feel, you could use mediant chords in a I-IV-V progression – this type of chord progression is popularly used in rock music and adds a dramatic feel.

Studies have revealed that Western adults consistently respond positively to major chords as being ‘bright and joyful’ while minor chords tend to sound melancholic; these perceptions may not be universal as factors like tonality and tempo can impact how we react to certain harmony pieces; additionally chords can also be combined with various notes and inversions for additional emotional effects.


Contrary to what may have been taught in elementary music classes, it’s not just major chords that create happy-sounding music – melodies play an equally crucial role. Guitarist Adam Neely explains it all here by using intervals – the relative sizes of notes that compose chords or scales – as a basis. Larger intervals tend to seem “brighter”, so major chords with major 3rds appear brighter than minor chords with minor thirds.

Beethoven’s ‘Di-va’, built upon an A minor chord, sounds so joyful: its melody and harmony momentarily diverge, creating an dissonance that’s subtle yet telling, conveying anxiety and fragility.


As a 9-year-old, you probably believed that songs in major keys sounded bright and upbeat while songs in minor keys tended to sound dark and melancholic. This phenomenon stems from how we learn music; our emotional responses often depend on certain intervals or chord progressions making us feel certain ways.

Recent research has disproved this notion. Studies on our perception of music have demonstrated this isn’t always the case – for instance, studies on remote communities in Papua New Guinea who are exposed only occasionally to Western styles don’t reliably perceive major and minor chords as having different emotional associations.

Still, musicians often write songs in one key and create variations in other keys – for instance Hey Jude is in C major but the chords remain the same in an E minor version of it.