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New study decodes music tones to specific emotions

A small man, wearing a suit and tie and hunched over a Steinway and Sons grand piano, started his performance.

Last month, renowned pianist Anton Kuerti came to Duke as part of Duke Performances’ piano recital series. For three hours, his music took those in the audience on an emotional journey, courtesy of Ludwig van Beethoven. A recent study conducted by Duke neuroscientists found music’s capacity to affect our emotions might be linked to notes’ similarity to vocal tones.

“We were interested in why major [key] music makes people happy and why minor [key] music makes them sad,” said Daniel Bowling, a third-year Ph.D. student in neuroscience and co-author of the paper. “Why should certain collections of music sound happy and others sad?”

Bowling’s group had 10 native American English speakers record vocal monologues in both excited, happy tones and sad, subdued ones. The scientists then matched the monologues’ frequencies to those of 7,000 musical pieces. Frequencies of minor tones in the musical pieces corresponded to those of subdued monologues while major tones’ frequencies matched those of excited monologues.

Finding emotions in notes, however, is not restricted to the laboratory.

“Looking at different keys, E-flat has a warm, regal and rich connotation,” said Jonathan Bagg, professor of the practice of music and violist in the Ciompi Quartet. “C-minor, on the other hand, reflects anxiety, unsettledness and darkness.”

Composers choose the appropriate key for a particular piece, Bagg said. Music performed at a dinner party, where the overall sentiment is one of frivolity, would be in a major key, whereas music performed at a funeral would be in a minor one, he added.

Emotions are channeled not only in notes, but in the instruments that play them, Bagg said. Instruments take on a distinct character, and can be sorrowful and elegiac or jubilant and celebratory.

“The viola is an introspective instrument—plaintive, reserved and darker than the violin,” he said. “It is the opposite of the flute, which is showy and more extroverted.”

A singer’s voice—particularly in opera—works to convey feeling like an instrument.

“In the opera, roles are assigned based on a performer’s vocal ability and type,” said Wayne Lail, a lecturer in voice and Baritone who performed in German opera houses for decades. “Sopranos, who reach the highest notes and can fluctuate and flourish vocally, are happy characters who convey warmth. Tenors, who fall between sopranos and bass in the vocal range, are always youthful lovers—faithful or unfaithful. The bass, who have deep and powerful voices, play villains, kings, high priests and fathers.”

Director of Duke Performances Aaron Greenwald said he strives to bring performers who create intimacy with the audience and ratchet up the emotional intensity of a show.

“I listen to music for the way it makes me feel, and for the emotional places it takes me. On one level, what you want is for music to give you joy and be beautiful—from there you can go places,” Greenwald said.

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