Monday, August 11, 2008

Minor Issues

I've been thinking about music a lot lately. Yesterday, I had a conversation about why certain chords tend to "sound good" together. It seems like a lot of it has to do with the physical layout of an instrument; certain chords are easier to play together on a guitar. Since most rock music is based on guitars, chords that are easy to play together "sound good" together in rock music.

The thing with this is that it's arbitrary. There's no real, underlying reason why certain patterns sound good; it's just a matter of what was easiest to play, and thus what musicians played, and thus what we've been exposed to our whole lives. Other cultures hear different patterns growing up, and would think ours sound weird. If we'd grown up hearing random patterns of chords (within certain limitations, I'm sure), those would sound natural together.

This seems unsatisfying somehow. Music feels like this transcendental, magical stuff that, when done right, can tickle the deepest reaches of our souls. If the line between beautiful music and shitty music is really just a proxy for the line between familiar and unfamiliar, filtered through historical accidents in our culture (like the layout of a guitar), it seems less magical, less eternal.

I think an even more striking example is the difference between major chords and minor chords. To people in Western culture, major chords usually sound happy, and minor chords usually sound sad. Why? Did one of the first popular musicians happen to associate minor chords with sad lyrics, then later musicians just followed suit? Could it have just as easily gone the other way?

I dunno. I'm inclined to refuse to believe in the arbitrariness of music. Maybe minor chords are more similar to the sounds of crying and other expressions of sorrow, so their sadness is deeply imprinted in our genes and our souls. Maybe there is a deeper reason to prefer patterns of chord progressions, even if the specific set of chords in them is arbitrary.

I tried to look this up, as I figure it'd be a common issue and is certainly subject to scientific scrutiny. However, Google only comes up with speculation, and a quick search of PsychINFO (a database of psychology research) only comes up with only 10 results. One of them is an article from 1942 titled "The preference of twenty-five Negro college women for major and minor chords", which might be a bit outdated. I guess, then, that this is still an open issue, and I'm one of the only nerds who spends time thinking about crap like this.

Of course, overthinking music is, while fun, pointless. No amount of intellectual pondering can take away the fact that music feels magical, and that is what really matters.


Anonymous said...

You're not at all.

There was this one guy in applied math who posed the same question, except applied it to fMRI.

I would think I'd be doing this: What type of brain activity can be found to happy stimuli versus sad stimuli. And then play musical stimuli of major and minor chords, and have subjects rate as happy or sad while being imaged, and compare the patterns of activations.

Luckily I'm going into a lab that's using fMRI to look at emotional processing. Hehehe, so maybe you just gave me a really cool idea. :P

Anonymous said...

Oops -that was me, Yvonne.

Phronk said...

I did come across this article doing something like that:

It's neat, but doesn't really tell us WHY minor chords are sad. This is a problem I have with a lot of neuroimaging studies; they just confirm that stuff we already know has a neural basis, which we already knew. And that's important to confirm, but I'd rather get at deeper issues.

That's what you should do. Maybe see if the same patterns activate in response to minor chords for babies (screw ethics). Or people who have been deaf then suddenly regain hearing. See if it's all learned or if it's inborn (or, most likely, both).

Anonymous said...

Haha, maybe I should leave it to the sociologists or evolutionary psychologists?

Anonymous said...

A video on this very topic... (sort of)

Phronk said...

Von: Haha, let's not get so deep that we're just guessing because we have no real evidence. :)

Hmmm, who can I insult next?

Wisdumb: YES. Best movie ever.

Jamie said...

Ddi you happen to come across this book in your search, or have you seen/read it?

I haven't read it myself yet (I gave it to my Dad for his birthday and I'm waiting to borrow it back, heh.)

Looks like it might interest you, though. Dunno.

Phronk said...

I definitely want to read that. I'm waiting to borrow it from my own dad (such a dad book), who I think got it for this birthday too. Small world.

sirbarrett said...

Usually the theories about why music sounds good, why a western scale is 8 notes (with the eighth note being the same as the first note, just an octave higher) rest on physics. Chords sound good because of the way the amplitude of one note fits snuggly into the amplitude of another. But this still doesn't explain why minor chords sound sad to us and happy to other cultures. That part must be cultural.

I relate to your frustration though of thinking that we only like music because it's been easy in the past to play it. Is this true? Is it BECAUSE it's easy or is it just coincidence? As with poetry and music, repetition seems to make it more enjoyable for us. Perhaps what sounds good fits into our own personal amplitudes of what we come to expect from music.