Musics Effects On The Brain Music Essay

Music is a world renowned language that all can understand. From Australia to the deepest jungles of Africa, music is associated in people’s everyday lives. Music can be heard anywhere and everywhere: the grocery store, the gym, in the car, at work, at school, on the television, etc. Not only is music applied for entertainment but it can also be used for story telling, learning, religious rituals and medical therapy. Today, it is not uncommon for music to be used as a medicine for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression, anxiety, stroke-victim recovery, stress, memory loss, and mental well-being.

Music’s effect on the brain is a very profound and mysterious topic. It is said that music influences the process of thinking and analyzing, making work more enjoyable and efficient. Studies have shown that music increases the amount of endorphins (a chemical released in the brain to reduce pain and provide a “good feeling” state) in the brain, initially, jump-starting the bodies healing process. As it distracts the attention from pain, it concurrently generates chemical behaviors that promote healing.

Along with physical healing and mental effects, music impacts human emotions. Often, someone will listen to music when they are distraught, happy, need to focus, exercising, etc. Experiments show that music in a major key will cause a person to be happy, while the music in a minor key will bring sadder, depressed emotions. This paper will discuss how the music of major and minor keys differently effect human emotions.


Throughout an average day, humans will experience one emotion after the other: sadness, happiness, frustration, anger, guilt, remorse, etc. But when one is asked the question “what is an emotion?” most find themselves dumbfounded. The answer to “what is an emotion” is not an easy one to answer. For centuries great minds have studied to answer this question but have yet to receive a definite answer. “There are many reasons for this state of affairs. One reason is that emotions are difficult to define and measure.” (Juslin and Sloboda 73). To be able to define emotions, theorists must know where emotions come from and how they are detectable. From a scientific perspective, emotions can be concluded from three types of evidence: self reports, expressive behavior and physiological development (Juslin and Sloboda 74). Self reports are a variety of surveys people will take to measure their emotions. Although this method is a first hand account of emotions, it still includes many problems “such as the imperfect relationship between emotions and words that denote emotions, and the problem of choosing which words to include on checklists or scales” (Juslin and Sloboda 74). The second type of evidence is expressive behavior which is the study of people’s emotion by their facial expression, vocalizations or body language (Juslin and Sloboda 74). The difficulty with this procedure is that not all emotions are visible by expressive features. The third type of evidence used to decipher emotions is physiological kinds of measurement; this includes measuring heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension and much more.

Many theorists have suggested definitions of emotions based off the previous three types of evidence. “Based on a review of these definitions they proposed the following consensual definition (Kleinginna & Kleinginna 1981, p. 355):

Emotion is a complex set on interactions among subjective and objective factors, mediated by neural/hormonal systems, which can (a) give rise to affective experiences such as feelings of arousal, pleasure/displeasure; (b) generate cognitive processes such as perceptually relevant effects, appraisals, labeling processes; (c) activate widespread physiological adjustments to the arousing conditions; and (d) lead to behavior that is often, but not always, expressive, goal-directed and adaptive”‘ (Juslin and Sloboda 75). As seen in the previous definition, it is almost impossible to define emotions simplistically or even in one sentence.


Like emotion, tonality is not an easy concept to grasp. For one, it is used in many different senses and areas of music. Also, tonality has been widely discussed amongst theorist as to what it is and its significance in Western music. “One simple definition of tonality is a system for interpreting pitches or chords through their relationship to a reference pitch, dubbed the tonic. Once the tonic is established the relationship of this pitch to other pitches can be designated using scale-degree names or numbers” (Huron 143). In other words, tonality is the organization of pitch.

Referring to Western theorists, there are two types of tonalities: major and minor. The theory and use of major and minor tonality dominated Western culture between 1650 and 1900 (Forney 20). The tonality of a piece of music is determined by the scale used for the foundation of the music (Forney). A scale is “a series of tones in ascending or descending order; may present the notes of a key (Forney A20). Because of the combination of intervals between notes in a scale, each scale has a special and unique sound. Major scales promote a feeling of happiness and cheerfulness while minor tones sound sad and dark “A composer would not be likely to choose a minor key for a triumphal march, nor a major key for a lament” (Forney 21). As stated earlier, the first note of the scale, the tonic, is used as a starting place

Affects of Major Tonality on Human Emotions

Music’s effect on humans has been a hidden phenomenon for thousands of years. The emotional experience one has with music has always been enticing and misunderstood. “Still, it is probably true that most people experience music-somehow, somewhere-everyday of their lives, often with an accompanying affective response of some sort (e.g. nostalgic recognition of a favourite song on the radio while driving a car, frustration directed at the music at the shops, joy while listening to an excellent performance at an evening concert, a sad mood created by the soundtrack of a late night movie) (Juslin and Sloboda 3). The goal of this section is to describe how the music from major tonalities influence human emotions.

To sum up the affects of major tonality on human emotions is the results of David Huron’s, author of Sweet Anticipation, experiment on the feeling evoked from listening to major scale degrees. Huron conducted his experiment by asking ten experienced Western-cultured musicians to describe the emotions they incorporate with different scale degrees from the major key. All ten musicians were given the following instructions: “For each of the following scale degrees describe as best you can the distinctive quality or character of that tone. Describe how the tone makes you feel in as much detail as possible. Imagine the tones for the major key only. Please think of pitches rather than chords” (Huron 144). The table below is the result of Huron’s responses as displayed in his book Sweet Anticipation.

Scale Tone

Common Descriptors

Sample Responses


Stable, pleasure, home, contentment

Stable, extremely satisfying, centered, foundational, solid, resolved, strong

Raised tonic

Strong, upward, bold

Edgy, unstable, uncertain, upwardly, mobile, mildly precarious

Lowered supertonic

Surprise, abruptness, pause

Somewhat dark, a sense of almost inevitable further descent, murky, unexpected richness, mild surprise


Solid, movement, resolve

Hanging, dangling, transitory, moderate expectancy of more to come, part of a flow

Raised supertonic

Longing, unstable

Needling, moderately harsh, jarring, unstable, off balance


Bright, love, warmth, beauty

Light, lifted, bright, point of many possible departures, yet also strongly restful, peaceful and calm



Akward, tentative, strong sense of being unfinished, “Now what?” no clear expectation of future, hanging feeling, would be happy to fall by half step

Raised subdominant

Intentional, motivated

Moderately anxious, interrupted flow to dominant, somewhat curious about possibilities, fluidity, transitory


Strong, muscular, balance, possibility, pleasant

Strong, towering, height, sense of looking down from a tall building and being comfortable, but knowing you’ll eventually take to elevator back to the street level

Raised dominant

Leading, aspiring

Leading to something, sense of implication, unfinished, leaning, mildly uncomfortable


Balance, open, lightness

Airy and open, temporary suspendedness, neutral, evokes mild curiosity in regard to direction


Falling, lightness, drifting downward, shifting

Heavy, like walking with a limp, unexpected, open new possibilities, sheds a new light on things

Leading tone

Unstable, pointing, restless

Sense of inevitably, highly unstable, uncomfortable, squirmy, itching, restless

Huron’s table provides direct and professional examples of emotions accompanied by scale degrees in the major key, now the question is what links these emotions to these particular scale degrees? Huron clusters the results into seven categories of the responses he received, certainty/ uncertainty, tendency, completion, mobility, stability, power and emotion (Huron 163). The certainty/ uncertainty category is the easiest to explain through statistical properties of music. “Two scale tones were described as “unexpected,” “surprising” or “abrupt”- the lowered supertonic and the subtonic pitches” (Huron 163). Because the supertonic and subtonic pitches appear the least out of all the scale tones the feeling of surprise or abruptness is normal. The category tendency describes the scale tones level of continuation, in other words, the tones ability to carry on with the melody or song at hand. The raised dominant and the leading tone were both described with words associated with “tending” or “leading”, -“both tones that are statistically limited in their possible continuation tones” (Huron 163). The completion category can also be described using statistical properties of music with relevance to the tonic and mediant pitches. Both pitches were described as “restful” indicating the pitches connection to the end or closure of musical phrases, allowing the listener to feel at rest or home-like.

The fourth category, mobility, involves the supertonic and subtonic pitch. The supertonic was depicted as “modern expectancy of more to come” and the subtonic as “like walking with a limp”. Both pitches portray the act of moving but do not hold the same “leading” value as the tonic. The category of power, however, can not be easily described through the statistical properties of music. The raised tonic and dominant pitches were connected with words like “jarring” and “harsh”, creating the effect of power to the listener. The last category Huron describes is emotion. Terms like pleasure, beauty, and warmth, love, bright and pleasant are used to describe the tonic, mediant and dominant pitches. “Negative hedonic terms like harsh, jarring, uncomfortable, and anxious were applied to tones such as the raised supertonic, the raised subdominant and the raised dominant” (Huron 164). As made apparent from the table, positive emotions seem connected to “frequently occurring tones with closure” (Huron 164).

A peculiar fact about tonality is that different tones can suggest different and specific emotions. Even a tone in one given context can have a completely different effect in another context. There are several factors attributed to why scale degrees in the major scale cause the listener to feel a variety of emotions, one of them being the predictability of a tone. When a tone has a high rate of predictability, the experience for the listener is more positive “The most predictable tones and tone sequences tend to be experienced as the most pleasant- especially if listeners are not consciously aware of the high predictability” (Huron 173).

The most predictable structural feature in music is cadences. Cadences are the place of rest in a musical phrase. A cadence can either end in the middle of a melody, called an inconclusive cadence, causing the ending to feel dissonant. Meanwhile, a cadence can also end at the end of a melody, creating a consonant ending call a conclusive cadence. “Music theorists have long observed that cadences tend to be organized in a stereotypical fashion. It is not simply the final note of the cadence that is predictable; the final note is often approached in a characteristic of formulaic manner” (Huron 154). Cadences, however are not the only feature that increase the feeling of uncertainty “Another feature is the increase in uncertainty that commonly follows after the closure point” (Huron 156). So not only is there high predictability before the cadence but after as well. Listeners are more apt to forebode predictability with points of disruption or closure.

Music in Silent Movies (To be changed)

Silent Movies

In today’s movies there is barely ever a silent moment. For example, while actors are walking down the street multiple sounds can be heard: the actors’ dialogue, the sound of footsteps, cars screeching down the road, birds chirping, etc. There is constant noise in current movies, never allowing for one second of silence. In 1890s to the late 1920s silent films were prominent among towns and cities in the United States.

Although they are called silent movies, they are far from silent. Characteristics of silent films include: little or no dialogue (if there was dialogue it was written in pamphlets and given to the audience), usually black and white, live orchestras and sometimes live narrators or actors. Because there was no recorded dialogue, silent films relied heavily on the acting of actors and the music to set the mood and tone for the film. Most actors were required to over act to be able to convey the emotions across the camera without verbal help. Actors like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Clara Bow, and Blanche Sweet were all prominent in silent films and were used to portray the emotions the audience longed for. Genres of silent films include comedies, westerns, horror, science fiction, documentaries, series, animates, epics and experimental films.

Like the actors in silent films, music played an essential role in this movie era, “As silent cinema developed, and especially after c.1912, music came to play a crucial role in shaping and conditioning the viewer’s response to moving pictures” (Cooke 5). Musicians were needed to write scores for the films that would effect people’s emotions the same way words would. The music was needed to take the audience through the story emotionally, “…, by its very physical presence, created a sense of three-dimensionality singularly lacking in the projected image: while the film was projected from the rear of the hall to the screen at the front, so music played at the front was projected backwards over the audience and ‘through a kind of transference or slippage between sound and image, the depth created by the sound is transferred to the flat surface image’ (Kalinak 1992, 44).” (Cooke 6).

Silent films were seen as an art form that had never been tried before. It was new technology that everyone was fascinated in learning and perfecting “The silent era was a period of immense creativity, and there seems to be no end to its surprises” (Brownlow XI). Silent films have been and will be longed cherished as timeless classics. Unfortunately, “ninety percent of the films made during the silent era have disintegrated” due to the use of nitrate film (Scorsese IX). Organizations like the National Film Registry and the Library of Congress work to preserve these movies and prevent any further losses.

Charlie Chaplin

As stated previously, Charlie Chaplin was a famous actor and director of silent films. Charlie Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889 in London, England. Charlie was born into fame, both his parents being renowned vocalists and actors. Appearing in small rolls for films like “The Eight Lancashire Kids” and “Sherlock Holmes”, Chaplin began his career before the age of fourteen “I went home on the bus dazed with happiness, and began to get the full realization of what happened to me. I had suddenly left behind a like of poverty and was entering a long desired dream-a dream my mother had often spoken about, had reveled in. I was to become an actor!” (Chaplin 78). Chaplin continued his career through vaudeville, which brought him to the United States where in 1913 he signed with the Keystone Film Company, making thirty-five films. From 1915 on, Chaplin directed his own movies “and the popularity of his baggy-trousered tramp character earned him a million-dollar contract with First National in 1917” (Cooke 27). While working under First National, Chaplin made the films Shoulder Arms in 1918, The Kid in 1921 and The Pilgrim in 1923.

In his later years, Chaplin focused away from directing and dabbled in music, sports and writing. Charlie Chaplin was a self-taught musician and wrote music for many of his films, for example “Sing a Song”, “Eternally” and “With You Dear in Bombay”. Chaplin also authored four books: My Autobiography, My Trip Abroad, A Comedian Sees the World and My Life in Pictures. Charlie Chaplin died Christmas day in 1977 at the age of seventy-eight. Over Charlie Chaplin’s career he was able to convey to the audience any character he wished ” Chaplin’s range of characters was extraordinary: he could be a waiter, a down-and-outer turned cop, a hapless immigrant, a vagrant violinist, a soldier- all with equal conviction” (Kobel 59). Being the chameleon that Chaplin was, he spoke to the audience through his characters; appealing to people’s emotions and desires. (More sources and information to be added)

How Major Tonality’s Effect on Human Emotion is used in Chaplin’s Movie “”

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