Ask musicians and they will tell you how major chords sound happy and the minor ones sound sad. Do such differences exist for non-musicians? Do we all perceive music as happy or sad and if yes then is that choice subjective? These are some of the questions that would be answered in this post.
Yes, we all perceive music as being happy or sad and that happens even in the absence of lyrics. Some of the factors that might be responsible in this affective perception of music and associate music with emotions include:
1. Culture, language and role of memory
For most non-musicians the context to music comes with the lyrics and so partly language does define for them whether music is happy or sad, more so than the major and minor chords.
Another factor that causes such an association between emotions and music is memory. So, if there is a happy memory associated with a music piece then it will make you feel happy and if there are sad memories associated with a musical piece then it would evoke sad emotions. Familiarity of a musical piece also trigger positive emotions. Neuroanatomically, it is the hippocampus in the brain that helps in this association.
Besides these subjective differences, music without lyrics also evokes emotions. This points towards presence of universal features in music that transcends culture, language and ethnicity.
2. Rhythm, beat and tempo in context with physiological states of body
The first musical exposure that humans get is the mother's heartbeat, which is rhythmic in nature. No wonder then any tempo that is near to 72 bpm would have a calming effect. This can be extrapolated thus to different physiological conditions corresponding to heart beats. A higher tempo music would sound happy and a lower tempo would sound sad. But there are studies that suggest otherwise.
3. Consonance and Dissonance, physical characteristics of sound
The physical nature of sound itself makes a combination of some tones pleasing to us, while others less pleasing. Each tone generates multiple other overtones in our ears due to resonance. Tones that generate overlapping overtones sound pleasant, called as consonance, as if all the sound waves agree with each other. This is exactly what major chord is made up of, tones that generate overlapping overtones. Consonance of music is a universal feature seen as pleasant by not just human adults, but also by babies and by other species like birds, when assessed by their preference for consonant music rather than dissonant music. But sad music is pleasurable too, thus, consonance alone cannot distinguish these different emotions.
Music evoked movement provides the final answer. We all can relate to tapping fingers, feet and banging heads on a beat. This movement which itself gets evoked on listening to music is another universal feature, as music also activates the motor region of the brain that is cerebellum.
When a comparison between movement (by showing a bouncing ball) and music was done varying different features like beat and consonance, it was found that a different combination of these factors could define different emotions.
It appears that a combination of tempo and consonance can define universal emotional states by activating specific networks in brain consisting of auditory regions, hippocampus, limbic region and cerebellum. Thus, there is a different formula for happy and sad music, as each can literally strike a different chord in your brain.
Sievers, B., Polansky, L., Casey, M., & Wheatley, T. (2012). Music and movement share a dynamic structure that supports universal expressions of emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(1), 70–75. doi:10.1073/pnas.1209023110