HOW MUSIC TONALITY EXPRESSES EMOTIONS



September 2020


Music history from antic Greece to the evolution of Classical music, has shown how composers have used music tonality to express emotions.

Music theorists agree on the tonality and its definition however, what tonality expresses specifically is still up for debate.

Does C major expresses will, happiness, and assertiveness as composers from the late 17th century and early 18th century pretend?

250 years ago, the debate was already raging, some considering E major to convey similar emotions as C major while others were using E major to express despair and sadness.

Composers have used music tonality popular with their audience. Supporting the storytelling and trends of their own generation, but the use of the tonality has evolved with the music over the years.

In the antic Greece, the Mixolydian mode expressed a rather soft rendering and often associated with feminine emotions, the same scale today expresses a totally different spirit, more towards a Dominant 7 chord. It has been used in “All Blues” by Miles Davis or “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

For most of the middle age and through the 16th century, music structure was strict and modal. The 17th century witnessed a shift to a tonal structure allowing for more complex harmonies.

This evolution has given power to composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach to explore a set of emotions ignored in music until then.

Beyond the music structure, instruments and their tuning have played a big role in the expressive power of the tonality.

Trumpets playing on D, the brightness of strings tuned in G or A convey a more powerful feeling.

It is in the 19th century that the association between music and psychology gave more concrete answers.

Music theorists defined major tonality as being happy while the minor feels more sad and somber. Adding harmonic alterations and chord enrichment such as flat 5th or augmented 9th, Also enhance mood towards brightness or darkness.

The music universality required the development of a tuning standard that appeared at the end of the 19th century. With such standard, musicians were able to play respecting the original inspiration from the composer. It is in the early 20th century that what is known as “Equal Temperament” was globally referred to as the tuning standard we know today, based on an accurate calculation of the frequencies.

Equal Temperament cut the approximate interpretation of a musician for an accurate reading from the composer.


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