sad songs

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Daniel Watternberg asked "What Makes a Song Sad?" in The Atlantic, noting that:

Scientific American recently reported on a Tufts University study that purportedly lends experimental reinforcement to the widely accepted, albeit vague, notion that the interval of a minor third (two pitches separated by one full tone and one semi-tone) conveys sadness, in speech as in song.

The Scientific American article about communicating sadness in a minor third quotes Meagan Curtis from Tufts's Music Cognition Lab:

"Historically, people haven't thought of pitch patterns as conveying emotion in human speech like they do in music," Curtis said. "Yet for sad speech there is a consistent pitch pattern. The aspects of music that allow us to identify whether that music is sad are also present in speech."

Her co-authored paper "The Minor Third Communicates Sadness in Speech, Mirroring Its Use in Music" (PDF) suggests that "human vocal expressions of sadness and anger use pitch patterns that approximate those used in music to convey the same emotions:"

The pitch patterns that were used similarly across domains to encode sadness were the descending minor third (300 cents) and the descending minor second (100 cents). The ascending minor second (100 cents) was used to encode anger across domains. [...] The ascending interval of 600 cents (the diminished fifth) was positively associated with a small proportion of variance in the happiness and pleasantness ratings of the speech samples.

The authors admit that these conclusions may be biased by the specificity of their sample:

Given that the present findings are specific to patterns produced by speakers of American English, it is necessary to examine the prosodic patterns produced across cultures to determine whether the minor third is used universally to communicate sadness. Such findings will elucidate the whether the minor third is a vocal pattern tied to the physiological manifestations of sadness.

In addition to its minor key and dirge-like tempo, the melodic line of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," that ubiquitous aural accompaniment to tragedy, is replete with minor thirds (if music theory isn't your strong suite, Wikipedia can help you out). Thomas Larson's book The Saddest Music Ever Written discusses the Adagio in depth, and it's on my TBR list.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on December 20, 2010 6:05 PM.

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