Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Is minor-key music sad for everyone?

[I wrote a recent Muse for Nature News on an interesting study of the emotional qualities of major and minor keys. Here it is (pre-edited). I should say that I could do no more here than hint at the problems I had with the Bowling et al. paper. It is very stimulating – I’d not seen a claim of this sort made before – but ultimately I find it unconvincing. Their procedure is pretty hard to follow, but I think I’ve got it right in the end. I find it very odd that they are apparently digging out some ‘implied fundamental’ for all the tonic intervals they consider, more or less regardless of whether there is any evidence that such a thing is heard (in the absence of the tonic actually being simultaneously played!). And as I say, the formant ratios for both types of speech are dominated by major intervals, but simply less so for ‘subdued’ speech – that’s to say, this speech doesn’t seem to have a ‘minor’ feel to it (if such a thing is meaningful anyway), but just less strongly major. So the issue is very much open. But in any event, empirical evidence surely shows us that music using modes close to the Western diatonic minor needn’t be sad at all in other cultures.]

Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnell famously declared that D minor is “the saddest of keys”. But is music in a minor key inevitably sad?

Why does Handel’s Water Music and the Beatles’ ‘There Comes The Sun’ sound happy, while Albinoni’s Adagio and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ sound sad? The first two are in major keys, the second two in minor keys. But are the emotional associations of major and minor intrinsic to the notes themselves, or culturally imposed? Many music psychologists suspect the latter, but a new study suggests there’s something fundamentally similar about major and minor keys and the properties of typically happy and sad speech, respectively.

Neuroscientists Daniel Bowling and colleagues at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, say in a paper in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America that the sound spectra – the profiles of different acoustic frequencies – in major-key music are close to those in excited speech, while the spectra of minor-key music are more similar to subdued speech [1]. They compared the frequency ratios of the most prominent acoustic peaks in speech (called formants) with those in Western classical music and Finnish folk songs.

The acoustic characteristics of happy, excited speech, which is relatively fast and loud, are common in most cultures, while sadness elicits slower, quieter vocalizations. We have a natural tendency to project such physiognomic associations onto non-sentient objects: a drooping willow is seen as ‘weeping’. There’s good reason to believe that music mimics some of these universal emotional behaviours, supplying a universal vocabulary that permits listeners sometimes to deduce the intended emotion in unfamiliar music. For example, Western listeners were able to judge fairly reliably whether pieces of Kyrghistani, Hindustani and Navajo Native American music were meant to be joyous or sad [2,3], while the Mafa people of Cameroon who had never heard Western music could guess more often than chance whether extracts were intended to be happy, sad or ‘fearful’ [4]. Here it seems that tempo was the main clue.

Of course, it’s simplistic to suppose that all music is ‘happy’ or ‘sad’, or that all ‘happy’ music is equally and identically ‘happy’, as opposed to joyous, blissful, contented and so forth. But these crude universal indicators of emotion do seem to work across borders.

Is mode (major/minor) another of them? The idea that the minor key, and in particular the musical interval between the first and third note of the scale (a so-called minor third) is intrinsically more anguished than the major (where the major third seems naturally ‘bright’ and optimistic) is so deeply ingrained in Western listeners that many have deemed this to be a ‘natural’ principle of music. This notion was influentially argued by musicologist Deryck Cooke in his 1959 book The Language of Music.

Cooke pointed out that musicians throughout the ages have used minor keys for vocal music with an explicitly sad content, and major keys for happy lyrics. But he failed to acknowledge that this might simply be conventional rather than innate. And when faced with the fact that some cultures, such as Spanish and Slavic, use minor keys for happy music, he offered the patronizing suggestion that such rustic people were inured to a hard life and didn’t expect to be happy.

No such chauvinism afflicts the latest work of Bowling and colleagues. But their conclusions are still open to question. For one thing, they don’t establish that people actually hear in music the characteristic spectral signatures that they identify. Also, they assume that the ratios of frequencies sounded simultaneously in speech (what in music are called harmonic intervals) can be compared with the ratios of frequencies sounded sequentially in music (melodic intervals). And most troublingly, major-type frequency ratios dominate the spectra of both excited and subdued speech, but merely less so in the latter case.

In any event, this work still faces the problem that some cultures (including Europe before the Renaissance, not to mention the ancient Greeks) don’t link minor keys to sadness. Western listeners sometimes misjudge the emotional quality of Javanese music that uses a scale with similarities to the minor mode yet is deemed ‘happy’ by the musicians. So even if a fundamental ‘sadness’ is present in the minor mode, it seems likely to be weak and easily over-written by acculturation. It’s possible even in the Western idiom to write ‘happy’ minor-key music (for example, van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’) or ‘sad’ major-key music (Billie Holiday’s ‘No Good Man’).

So let’s not conclude too soon that minor keys give everyone the blues.


1. Bowling, D. L., Gill, K., Choi, J. D., Prinz, J. & Purves, D. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 127, 491-503 (2010).
2. Balkwill, L. L. & Thompson, W. F. Music Perception 17, 43-64 (1999).
3. Juslin, P. N. & Kaukka, P. Psychological Bulletin 129, 770-814 (2003).
4. Fritz, T. et al., Curr. Biol. 19, 1-4 (2009).

Friday, January 08, 2010

Looking into the Test Tube

Most of my Crucible columns for Chemistry World are too techie to be suitable here. But here’s one that isn’t. The sites I mention are well worth a look.

I also have a feature in this issue (January) on molecular machines. It was necessarily (and sensitively) cut down from a piece considerably longer, which I will put up at full length as a pdf on my website very soon.


When I say that I’m no fan of reality TV, I don’t mean that I view it with a disdainful ‘tsk tsk’ issuing from pursed lips, but simply that I’ve never even given myself that opportunity. It’s a land I’ve not visited. But I do appreciate that watching people just going about their business, rather than pretending to be engaged in exotic dramas, can be fascinating.

Of course, these programme makers lack the courage to make that business truly ordinary, relying instead on absurdly contrived situations. But perhaps we might hope that a faith in ordinariness will ultimately emerge (that is after all where the genre has its roots) to counter the current fashion in documentary-making for funny camera angles, far-flung locations, portentous music and actors in period wigs. This, all too often, is how science is presented on the small screen: an exhausting whirl of spectacular graphics, pounding music, genesis and apocalypse.

What a joy it is, then, to visit Test Tube, a web site stemming from a project at the University of Nottingham after the city was designated in 2005 one of six British ‘Science Cities’. The site offers a clutch of short videos (generally a few minutes long), posted on YouTube, that claim to take you ‘Behind the scenes in the world of science.’ And they really do.

Here are messy offices – not ostentatiously messy, but properly so, with rows of anonymous ring-binders – and anodyne lab benches. Here are scientists looking and talking like everyone else, describing their work not in carefully edited sound bites or with faux enthusiasm but in a relaxed and non-patronizing way. There are no breathless presenters, no ‘locations’: the camera rarely ventures beyond the determinedly red-brick confines of the university.

Although he would surely wish to deny it, a star of the clips is Nottingham chemist Martyn Poliakoff, renowed as a specialist on ‘green’ solvents. With his unruly shock of grey-white hair, untrendy spectacles and donnish cadences in which a ghost of his Russian ancestry survives, Poliakoff could seem like the eccentric scientist from central casting. But this notion is gently sent up even as it is indulged. In one of the most popular clips he talks about how people (especially after closing time in the city centre) constantly call out ‘Hello Einstein’. “Part of my mission is to show that all scientists don’t look like me”, he says.

The videos are made by Australian-born Brady Haran, a former BBC reporter and video journalist who became ‘filmmaker-in-residence’ at Nottingham in 2007 and began working on the Test Tube series. His short films are all the more striking for their simplicity, sometimes verging on banality. It takes confidence and skill to strip things down so much and not to appear merely amateurish: to capture people in a way that is so unforced, letting them genuinely speak for themselves. “I didn’t just want pretty pictures or a constant stream of ‘breakthroughs’, says Haran. “I wanted to show what real scientists are like and how they work. I want the viewer to feel like they are in my position, seeing what I see, and I ask what I think they would ask.”

But this isn’t all. Haran has also produced two other video-short series at Nottingham, called The Periodic Table of Videos and Sixty Symbols. The first provides a clip for every element in the periodic table, explaining something of its nature, history and roles. The second takes sixty of the symbols used by physicists and astronomers (and chemists) – the wavefunction [psi], vectors, magnetic moment [mu], and so on – and allows scientists to talk about what they mean. And Poliakoff, Haran and colleagues have just received funding approval for a new series on molecules.

The scientists involved in these projects think they can fulfil several functions. Since they are informative not only about science but about what it is like to do science (including the routine drudgery of grant proposals), they help to make that a believable career choice, rather than one that looks impossibly cerebral or falsely glamorous. They are full of useful material for teachers. Even specialists are likely to be intrigued – how would you explain a wavefunction? And the clips are so quick to make – the light editing often takes no more than a day – that they can be responsive to new developments or to viewer feedback. When element 112 was named copernicum last July, a video discussing the choice was on the Periodic Videos site within hours.

Signs are that the videos have captured attention far and wide. They have drawn web traffic from over 160 countries (some of the videos are available in foreign-language translation), and while relying on little more than word of mouth, the number of hits for all the sites compares impressively with big commercial science-communication channels such as those of New Scientist and Scientific American. Within weeks of being released, the Periodic Videos had around 500,000 hits, and they are now (like the periodic table) an ongoing enterprise. Although Haran makes canny use of forums such as MySpace and Twitter, he feels that ‘at the end of the day, if you make something good and then keep making it, people eventually notice.’ They have.