SONGWRITING TIP: Chord “moods” and emotions

Most people think of chords as something to put together in a certain order, to make your song sound like a song. But there’s a science behind it all… an emotional science. Here are the emotions I “feel” when hearing and playing certain chord types:

MAJOR – happy/poppy

MINOR – sad/melancholy

7th – bluesy, or “needs to move elsewhere” (Dominant chords always need to “move”, usually back to the tonic chord)

min7 – jazzy… sad, but less sad than minors… “sophisticated” sound

maj7 – dreamy, romantic, really pretty, thoughtful

add9 – “radio” – Cadd9 is one of the most radio-hit-song-friendly chords, ever. These are happy chords but with a little something extra (of course, duh… the 9th scale degree!). When majors just aren’t cutting it, use an add9.

sus – Both sus4 and sus2 have that “neutral” sound… they don’t sound happy or sad… they just kind of hang out. They’re some of my favorite chords. Lots and lots of indie rock bands use sus chords generously. Don’t forget about the 7sus4 chord, too… sophisticated and works great as a chord at the end of a sequence.

Minor added 9 – the saddest-sounding chord, ever. A little creepy, too. Awesome chord, do not ignore it.

maj9 – dreamy like the maj7, but with an extra push of epic-ness (I think of a lot of M83’s older music when I hear a maj9 chord)

Don’t be afraid to experiment… chords can take you anywhere, just as your emotions can. Connect them in the same way you connect your emotions or if you’re telling a great story and using lots of adjectives and voice inflection while you’re telling it.

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  1. stiemogo

    How do diminished and dim7 chords make you feel? Do you have any special feelings for augmented chords either? How about dim7 chord with the 3rd in the bass? 😉

    • They’re just fine. I don’t use them too much in my music because my music is very minimalistic and simple. But there’s nothing wrong with any type of chord. When it comes to those, if I use them at all, I just use them as passing chords, because they’re too tense to stay on for a long time. But, speaking as a fan of your music and songwriting, I know you use them, and they work great in the context of your writing. 🙂

  2. Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, with which the music listener identifies. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but I want that the sound stays unchanged), then we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – the Research on Musical Equilibration:

    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek

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