Your Brain on Music


Putting the "sad" in sad songs


Different Cultures, Different Scales, Different Feelings

The effect of using major and minor keys mainly holds true for people who grow up listening to Western music—musical styles that first developed in Europe. (Western countries include the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and most of the countries on the European continent.)

Western music uses a seven-note scale. that might sound like this:

People from other cultures may respond very differently. Why? Their music is based on different systems of notes. For example, musicians in Japan, China, West Africa, and many other cultures make traditional music using five-note scales, like this one:

In the Middle East and parts of Southern Europe, most music is created in a minor key. To people there, a minor-key song from the U.S. might not sound sad at all, while it might leave Americans wiping away tears.

When you are ready, listen to the examples in the audio player below. You will hear the same song played two different ways. As you listen, think about each version and how it makes you feel.

Did you notice a difference between these two versions of the French folk tune “Frère Jacques”? Chances are the first version struck you as kind of snappy and happy. The second probably sounded all doomy and gloomy.

What changed? The first version was played in what is called a major key. The second version used a minor key. Using different keys is one way composers try to build certain feelings into their music. And for people who grow up listening to Western music—styles of music that started in Europe—minor keys appear to have special powers to give music a sad sound.

But first you should know that brain and music research has proven a strong link exists between songs and feelings. And if you’re a music lover, you know that certain songs can sound “sad” and may put a lump in your throat or tears in your eyes. This is no accident. Composers use certain techniques to help their music express every kind of feeling, including sadness.

Making Sad

Got the Blues?

Blues Journey

For more information about the history of an entire genre of music about feeling sad, listen to Blues Journey: An Exploration of the Blues.

Here are the most common ways composers use to create moving, heartbreaking music. A mix of these methods is often used to put the “sad” in sad songs.

Major and Minor Keys

In music, keys refer to the set of notes a song is built around; the notes in a key work together to create melodies and harmonies. For example, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (maybe the most famous first four notes in classical music—da-da-da-DUM) is written in the key of C minor. Give a listen:

When you listened to “Frère Jacques” a moment ago, you heard how switching from a major to minor key changes a song’s mood. That is why the key is an important tool composers choose to put emotion in their music.

Scientific research finds that most listeners have similar reactions to music in major and minor keys. In general, most songs we consider upbeat or “happy” are written in major keys. And at least two out of three songs from Western countries are written in major keys, says Professor David Huron. Huron, a scientist at Ohio State University, studies the effects of music on the brain and body.

Songs that sound “sad” or moody often feature minor keys. This is not always the case, but in general it holds true. The difference from a major key helps communicate a darker mood to us. Try listening to some of your favorite songs, and guess if they are in a major or minor key.


Tempo, the speed at which music is played, is another way composers create mood. Sing the song “Happy Birthday” at normal speed.

Now … sing … it … very … slowly.

Quite a difference, isn’t there? Sad songs usually move at a slower tempo—like someone taking a slow walk to brood about something.

For example, the tempo for Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor is marked adagio — which means “slow and stately.” Most listeners describe this piece as sorrowful. Listen:

Mozart had good reason to write a sad song. He was very sick at the time and was sure he was dying. Sadly, he was right. The musical genius was still working on the song when he died. He was only 35 years old.

That should make the rest of us sad, too. Imagine how much more great music Mozart would have written if he had lived a longer life.

Tone and Musical Range

Imagine any song played by a high-pitched flute. Now imagine the same tune tooted on a big tuba. Chances are the tuba will give the song a moodier feel.

Songwriters use different voices and instruments to help them set the mood of a song. For sad music, they will frequently use voices or instruments with a deeper, mellower sound. Also, sad songs often rely more on lower notes. Try singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in high notes. Then sing it again using the lowest notes you can. How does the feeling of the song change? Listen to both versions in the audio player below:

Why do different note ranges have that effect? Think about how people speak when they are happy, and when they are feeling blue. When we’re sad, we usually speak in lower tones.


A musical phrase is a series of notes that feel connected. They are kind of like a sentence in a story. Most musical phrases have their own beginning, middle, and end. They link together to create the song.

Songwriters and musicians use phrasing to help communicate feelings in their music. A phrase that generally moves upward may signal hope or joy. A phrase that descends can signal the opposite—fear or despair.

Listen to “Angel” by pop singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan (below). Don’t worry about understanding the words. Just listen—and feel—how the musical phrases rise and fall. This helps bring out the sad feelings in the song. Listen:


One of the gloomiest songs ever written is the third movement of Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Opus 35, by Frederic Chopin. It is better known as “Chopin’s Funeral March.” Perhaps you’ve heard it?

Most people instantly recognize the mournful melody. But there is more to this famous tune than just doom and gloom.

Yes, it is very slow and in a minor key. Yes, the main melody is played in low notes, and the phrasing seems to be heading straight for the graveyard. But about a minute into the song a surprising musical phrase rises up. And a while later, a gentler, sweet melody emerges. The march later returns to its darker beginning. It ends with the song’s well-known phrase. Play the whole movement again, listening for the more upbeat sections:

Good composers know the importance of building contrast into their music. To make a song really sad, it helps to include moments that sound hopeful. To bring out the joy in a major key, it may help to include a moody section in a minor key.

Contrast is crucial in music and other forms of art. All loud or all soft, all happy or all sad, becomes predictable and boring. Contrast helps us hear—and feel—the emotions in music more strongly.

The Science

Sadness in Speech and Songs

“Think about talking to a sad friend on the phone,” says Professor Huron. “How do they sound?” Based on scientific research, people express sadness in their voices in six ways. A sad person usually speaks:

  • more quietly;
  • more slowly;
  • in a lower pitch than normal;
  • in a monotone—their tone of voice does not move up or down very much;
  • less clearly or by mumbling;
  • in darker, huskier tones—“Like they’re speaking through a pillow,” says Huron;

Composers use similar signals when writing moody songs. For example, sad songs often are quieter, slower, and use lower notes than more upbeat music. Research suggests music can build in sadness by imitating emotional clues we use when we speak.

Researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts recently identified other connections between emotions, speech patterns, and music. In an experiment, they asked actors to speak as if they were sad. The study found that the tone of voice came out in two specific tones. These tones matched what musicians call the “minor third.” Here is how the minor third sounds:

The minor third is an interval, or distance, between two musical notes that suggests sadness to most listeners.

The experiment only tested English-speaking Americans. More studies are needed to see if these findings apply to other languages and cultures.

For about half of all people, sad songs are boring or just depressing. The other half, though, enjoy how sad music touches their emotions. And about one in ten listeners prefer moody songs, says Professor David Huron.

Why do some people like a little heartbreak and a few tears in their tunes? Brain and music researchers are looking at two main ways sad music may actually bring comfort.

First, a sad person may feel lonely and cut off from other people. But a favorite sad song can suggest there is another person out there who understands what they are going through. This connection can help them feel less alone, says music professor Ian Cross of Cambridge University in England.

Second, sad songs can trigger a physical response in some people. When a favorite pet dies, our best friend moves away, or something else makes us feel really sad, our bodies naturally release prolactin. It is a hormone—a chemical in our bodies that helps control how we feel and behave. Our bodies release it when we feel true grief or sadness. It shows up in our tears and other parts of our bodies during these times. (Interestingly, prolactin is absent if we cry from irritation, like when we chop onions.)

Professor Huron’s research suggests prolactin helps us get through tough emotional times. It acts on our minds and bodies to help us deal with deep sadness. It keeps the feelings from spinning out of control and lets us function even though we may feel miserable. “It’s like Mother Nature’s way of wrapping her arms around you and saying, ‘There, there. Everything is okay,’” Huron says.

According to Huron, sad movies or sad songs can cause the release of prolactin, too. It brings the same feelings of comfort, though in these cases what triggers the prolactin is really just music or a made-up story.

So next time you feel like having a good cry, turn on your favorite sad song and get out the tissues. You’ll feel better afterward—thanks to prolactin.



Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

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