Have you ever wondered when watching your favorite movies or TV shows how or why you seem to become so invested into the story, drama and characters? How when they feel something, you feel it too? 

You may not think it has that much of an impact but the truth is, music plays a much larger role than we expect.


Remember the final scene of the original Star Wars: A New Hope? Our heroes have just blown up the Death Star, the massive battle station of the evil empire used to destroy worlds. The rebels are celebrating and have a medal ceremony for Luke, Han and Chewie. As they walk up to princess Leia to receive medals, a beautiful rendition by the fantastic John Williams, is played to bring a feeling of joy, triumph and relief. They won!

The music draws you in, it tells the story and really ties the scene altogether.
So then, what would happen if this scene had no music?
Well it would be far less exciting and awe inspiring. Without music, the emotions of a film completely change. A scene that was supposed to be dramatic becomes awkward and uncomfortable without the music. This shows just how much of an important role music plays in a movie. If a film maker chooses the wrong music or lacks it in certain areas, this can create an emotion that the film makers were not intending, or worse, it could cause the film or scene to fall flat.
For more examples of music completely changing the feelings and mood of a video, check out my other blog on musical differences in media.

Music has strong influence on our minds and can cause us to feel a wide range of emotions. While it takes more than just the sound of the music, there are tones that lead our brains to feel different emotions.


Majors and Minors


Major keys and major chords have a light and uplifting feeling to them. Most of the time, this type of tone is used to bring a feeling of happiness, confidence or triumph. The reason a major chord tends to have a happy or uplifting sound is because of something known as brightness. Brightness in music is based on the relative size of intervals in a chord or a scale. A wider interval is perceived as bright and smaller intervals are perceived as dark. For example, in a C major chord C, E and G are played.

C is the first, E the third and G the fifth in the scale. C and E are 2 whole steps from each other, E in this scale is known as the major third.

In contrast, a C minor chord has Eb (flat) as the third, known as a minor third.

C and Eb (flat) are 1 and a half step from each other, giving the chord a darker tone.

Major and Minor chords have something called a perfect fifth. A perfect fifth is the musical interval corresponding to a pair of pitches with a frequency ratio of 3:2, or very nearly so. The label of “perfect” in addition to a number describes the interval’s quality. These intervals are called perfect because the ratios of their frequencies are simple whole numbers. 


4 instruments in unison


The perfect fifth is considered the most harmonious and beautiful interval outside of the unison (instruments playing or voices singing the same exact note)


Piano playing octave notes


and octave (two notes of double the frequency playing at the same time, for example C1 – low pitch and C2 – high pitch).


Augmented and Diminished

In music, there are chords that the fifth is not perfect – these chords are called augmented or diminished chords depending on where the fifth lands.
An augmented chord will have a wider interval fifth.
For example:

C augmented has a sharp fifth, G# (sharp). This chord has a dissonant and sort of sour sound. The augmented chord could be added in the music to give an air of mystery, such as in a surprise or something discovered.


C diminished has a flat fifth, Gb (flat)




Diminished chords, on the other hand, will have a darker feeling and smaller interval.

This type of chord tends to have a dissonant and uneasy sound. 



During creepy music, a minor key and a diminished chord is almost guaranteed to be played, due to its off-putting nature. This kind of chord is commonly used in scary and suspenseful music because dissonant sounds are similar to screams and this causes our brains to have a natural fear response.

Sound designers for horror and suspenseful movies love to use this to their advantage when creating the ambience and music. There are sounds that are too high or low in frequency that your ears won’t be able to pick them up, but your body can still feel them. These sounds and deep rumblings signal danger to the brain and cause us to feel fear. 
Sound designers know this, and will strategically place these sounds in the movie’s musical score or as subtle sound waves to cause an adrenaline rush or a feeling similar to a mini roller coaster.
High pitch sounds such as distressed animal calls, women screaming and other sounds with irregular noises will be used too as they cause the same feelings.

The iconic Shower Scene from Psycho portrays this type of horrific sound very well.

Music uses more than just tones to create emotions and feeling. 
The pace of a song strongly affects how it will be perceived.

Tempo and Rhythm

When it comes to the emotion of a song, the speed or tempo at which it is played can drastically change the feeling. 
Slower songs tend to have a more somber or sad feeling. While fast songs will lean towards happy and exciting, unless it is in a minor key or rhythmically fragmented. The more broken or unstable a rhythm, the more we start to feel fear.
An article on SonicScoop called “The Resonant Human: The Science of How Tempo Affects Us” says that the general consensus was that this concept was true but we had no real evidence to back these claims until psychologist Kate Hevner Mueller began experiments in the 1930s.

“Mueller asked her participants to express their emotions regarding different pieces of music in which only one defining characteristic—such as pitch, mode, or tempo—had changed. She concluded that tempo influenced our emotions more than any other characteristic.” ( Madden 2014)


The song “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor has a very strong and easy to follow rhythm, the kick and snare drums hit at a perfect pace that lets the listener walk, workout or do whatever like they are on a mission.


The tempo of this song is 116 beats per minute (bpm). The groove of the song and the guitar riffs give the song a very determined feeling.


Now contrast this with Adele’s “Hello”.


The song is at 79 BPM, and has a very gentle rhythm.

The song does not have constant movement, it breathes. The song has a feeling like a mournful sigh.


Now both of these songs have completely different feelings, most of the difference comes from the major key vs. the minor key, but it’s the rhythm of the songs that really drives the feeling of determination or sadness.  


Let me know what you think of my research and information!

Did you learn anything interesting?       


For more examples of how music can create atmosphere and emotions, check out this audio story.



Or take a fun quiz to find out what style of music matches your personality!


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