Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The emotional "meaning" of music intervals

When searching for some existing work which relates to the perception of musical intervals in the ears (and the brains) of listeners, I came across this publication:

Marco Costa, Pio Enrico Ricci Bitti and Luisa Bonfiglioli (2000), Psychological Connotations of Harmonic Music Intervals, in Psychology of Music, 28, pp. 4-22, April 2000.

The article is available online here at ResearchGate. In this article the authors (from the University of Bologna) are showing their investigations into the perception of musical intervals by listeners. While their own results are indeed very interesting, their paper shows also some other treasure of knowledge which I would like to share here. Apparently there have been earlier investigations into this matter on how to perceive musical intervals, a here are some of those results in a summary table.

Here is a table which summarizes some of the generally known "properties" of intervals:

Table 1: Musical intervals and their expressiveness

Interval nameSample notesTheoretical statusExpressive function (Cooke, 1959)Expressive function (others)
minor second C-C# dissonance Semitonal tension down to the tonic, in a minor context; spiritless anguish, context of finality Dissonant, painful, uptight, afflicted, discouraged, humiliated
major secondC-D dissonance As a passing note, emotionally neutral. As a whole-tone tension down to the tonic in a major context, pleasurable longing, context of finality.Dissonant, in suspense, tormented, sad, uptight, eager, pleasant
minor thirdC-E♭ imperfect consonance Concord, but a "depression" of natural third: stoic, acceptance, tragedy.Painful, severe, languid, sweet, melancholy, frank, still, submitted
major third C-E imperfect consonance Concord, natural third: joy.Sonorous, Joyous, furious, strong, cheerful, pleasant, happy, right, pure, quiet, stable, shining
perfect fourth C-F perfect consonance As a passing note emotionally neutral. As a semitonal tension down to the minor third pathos. Lugubrious, active, tense
augmented fourth (tritonus) C-F# dissonance As a modulating note to the dominant key active aspiration. As "augmented fourth" pure and simple devilish and inimical forces.Hostile, averse, destructive, misterious
perfect fifth C-G perfect consonance Emotionally neutral, contrxt of flux, intermediacy.Consonant, pleasurable, stimulating, gentle, acrimonious, healthy, agreeable
minor sixth C-G# imperfect consonance Semitonal tension down to the dominant, in a minor context: active anguish in a context of flux.Pleasant, consonant, painful, discontended, strained, distressing, active, unstable
major sixth C-A imperfect consonance As a passing note: emotionally neutral. As a whole tone tension down to the dominant, in a major context: pleasurable longing in a context of flux.Pleasant, consonant, unstable, sweet, desirous, bright, tense
minor seventh C-B♭ dissonance Semitonal tension down to major sixth, or whole-tone tension down to minor sixth, both unsatisfactory, resolvign again down to the dominant: "lost" note, mournfulnessDissonant, sad, painful, empty, melancholy, severe, strained, bewildered, lugubrious, unsatistied
major seventh C-B dissonance As a passing note emotionally neutral. As a semitonal tension up to the tonic, violent longing, aspiration in a context of finalityDissonant, tense, bitter, disagreeable, gloomy, optimistic
octave C-c perfect consonance
Consonant, easy, solemn, majestic, strong, severe, full, stable, energetic

Here are the relevant literature references, as given by Costa et al.:
D. Cooke (1959). The language of music. New York: Oxford University Press.

N. Castiglioni (1959). Il linguaggio musicale dal Rinascimento ad oggi. Milano: Ricordi
G. Galilei (1638). Dialoghi intorno a due nuove scienze. In G. Galilei Opera Omnia (vol VIII), 1966, Firenze: Biblioteca Nazionale
C. Gervasoni (1800). La scuola della musica in tre parti divisa. Piacenza: Niccolo Orcessi.
P. Gianelli (1801). Grammatica ragionata della musica, ossia nuovo metodo facile di apprendere a ben suonare e cantare. Venezia: A.Santini
J.J. Rousseau (1782). Dictionnaire de musique. Aux Deux-Ponts: Chez Sanson et Compagnie.
R. Steiner (1975). Wesen des Musikalischen und das Tonerlebnis im Menschen. Dornoch: Rudolf Steiner Verlag
G. Tartini (1754). Trattato di musica secondo la vera scienzia dell' armonia. Padova: Giovanni Manfre Editore.

In 1940 Edgar Willems has investigated this perception a bit more - here are his results:

Table 2: Expressive values of musical intervals according to Willems (1940)

Interval Sensorial Affective Intellective
unisonous fusion, smoothness will, peace insistence, serenity
minor second derangement, roughness fear, anger shyness, illness
major second movement, friction wish, vulgarity request, displeasure
minor third heaviness, shadow sadness, pain lament, discouragement
major third clearness, limpid joy, happiness hope, balance
perfect fourth hardness, cold firmness, indifference achievement, simplicity
augmented fourth (tritonus, 45:32) fracture, heat disdain, excitement pretension, surprise
diminished Fifth (tritonus, 64:45)excitement, instability restlessness, anxiety doubt, uncertainty
perfect fifth balance, emptiness love, calm certainty, mastery
minor sixth upsetting, penumbra suffer, melancholy worry, pity
major sixth radiant, light effusiveness, kindness satisfaction, gratification
minor seventh dynamic, warmth exaltation, love lyricism, romanticism
major seventh limitation, wound wickedness, hate pride, rebellion
octave solid, stable courage, exaltation heroism, liberation

Edgar Willems (1940). L'Oreille musicale. T. I. La prĂ©paration auditive de l'enfant. Avant-propos de E. Jaques Dalcroze. II. La culture auditive. Les intervalles et les accords. Avant-propos de H. Gagnebin Reliure inconnue – 1940 available at Amazon France

These are very interesting attributes, which seem to correlate with my own perception of musical intervals. It would now be interesting if these attributes are dependent on the absolute pitch. I have not found any investigation which looked at this aspect.