A few days ago, I pointed to a recent paper arguing that "major and minor tone collections elicit different affective reactions because their spectra are similar to the spectra of voiced speech uttered in different emotional states" ( Daniel L. Bowling et al., "Major and minor music compared to excited and subdued speech", Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 127(1): 491–503, January 2010).
The argument in this paper has a nice rhetorical shape: the authors use a new form of quantitative analysis to explain the psycho-physiological substrate of a generally-accepted cultural association. But in this case, both sides of the explanation strike me as having some very odd properties. In this post, I'll try to explain what struck me as strange in their characterization of the cultural association between "tone collections" and "affective reactions". At some point in the future, I'll return to their quantitative analysis of music and speech.
They express the scale-affect association this way:
Other things being equal (e.g., intensity, tempo, and rhythm), music using the intervals of the major scale tends to be perceived as relatively excited, happy, bright, or martial, whereas music using minor scale intervals tends to be perceived as more subdued, sad, dark, or wistful.
And they cite authorities from Zarlino 1571 to Burkholder et al. 2005 in support of this view. But their emotional terminology involves a wide range of different psychological dimensions, which they collapse, without discussion, into just one.
Consider their first two oppositions: excited vs. subdued and happy vs. sad. One of these is a dimension of arousal, while the other is a dimension of emotional valence or polarity — and both in music and in life, these two dimensions are independent if not orthogonal.
Someone who's happy can be in a subdued state of calm relaxation, rather than being excited and ebullient; and someone who's unhappy can be in an excited state of panic, fear, grief, or rage, as opposed to being subdued and depressed.
And in the kinds of music under discussion, melody and harmony are used congruently with other musical dimensions to achieve the composer's affective goals. One of the least "subdued" and "wistful" pieces of music ever written is this one:
Mozart here sets to music a hymn about the day of judgment, the day of wrath, the day the earth will be burnt to ashes. The music's relatively "excited" and even "martial" character surely does depend on "other things" like "intensity, tempo, and rhythm" — but the fact that it's in D minor doesn't make it even a little bit more "subdued" or "wistful" than it would have been if Mozart had written it in D major instead.
It's fair to say that the mood of this music is "dark" — but that's a matter of emotional valence or polarity, not physiological arousal.
A bit later in the same work comes some music that is genuinely subdued and even a little wistful:
And again, the fact that it's in B-flat major doesn't make it any more "excited" or "martial" than it would have been if it were in a minor key.
I don't know any systematic survey, but it seems to me that this is typical. To the extent that "major and minor tone collections elicit different affective reactions", it's not in terms of arousal-dimensions like excited/subdued, but rather in terms of psychological dimensions like those sometimes called "valence" or "polarity". And crucially, these are independent of level of arousal.
As a result, it seems odd to me that Bowling et al. chose to look at the differences between "excited" and "subdued" speech as the putative source of the affective associations of major and minor scales.
Most descriptions of emotional states — whether by psychologists, drama coaches, or novelists – involve a much richer ontology of affect. For example, Rainer Banse & Klaus Scherer ("Acoustic profiles in vocal emotion expression", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70:614-636 ,1996) distinguish 14 emotional categories: anxiety, boredom, cold anger, contempt, despair, disgust, elation, happiness, hot anger, interest, panic, pride, sadness, and shame.
I mention this paper because it's in Bowling et al.'s bibliography — and it was also the model that I used in 2001 to design a corpus of acted emotional speech (published as Emotional Prosody Speech and Transcripts). We also used a range of dominant-to-submissive attitudes, crossed with a range of degrees of vocal effort created by distance to the interlocutor. I'll be curious to see how Bowling et al.'s quantitative measures fare when applied to material like this.
[Update — for another example, in response to Brett's comment below, listen to the start of the second and third movements of Brahms' piano trio in B:
Or the largo from L'inverno vs. the presto from L'estate in Vivaldi's Four Seasons:
The point is not that minor-key pieces are always vigorous and major-key pieces always languorous, just that's no reliable association in the other direction.]