“In our last issue, we discussed the relationship between graphic communication design and neuroscience, and how both fields might contribute to each other. We created visuals and explored how graphic communication design can be used as a tool for cross disciplinary research. We concluded that rather than simply existing as a tool to facilitate our understanding of scientific processes, it can be used to explain the unexplainable, interpret the unobservable, and fill in gaps in scientific understanding. We attempted to visualize the abstract and subjective concepts of a headspace, and a consciousness. Naturally, this research was conducted in the context of sound and music processing, both neural and emotional.

In our next issue, we are triangulating for our initial line of research, and riffing off of our previous research question. One theme, or potential question for further exploration, involved a closer look into music, and its properties. More specifically, the question of musical keys arose. While we can study how different pitches, frequencies and bpm’s affect our brains and light them up, the relationship between musical keys and emotions remains subjective and abstract.

Composers, psychologists and neuroscientists alike have long studied the way certain melodies and songs affect our emotions. In his ‘Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst’ (1806), German composer Christian Schubart described each musical key in terms of quality, general emotion conveyed and associations. For instance, he describes the key C minor as a “declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key.” In a relatively similar vein, in his ‘Règles de Composition' (1682), French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier describes the C minor key as “obscure and sad.”

In addition to each key, there is an association between major/minor tonality and positive/negative emotional valence. That is a C minor and a C major invoke completely different emotions, and these distinct effects are almost always agreed upon in psychological studies. Indeed, while C minor is often associated with melancholy and heartache, C major is described as “bold, vigorous, and commanding, suited to the expression of war and enterprise” by John W. Moore in his ‘Complete Encyclopedia of Music’ (1854)  and as “gay and warlike” by Charpentier (1682) There is, however, no tangible scientific explanation for this phenomenon. In his paper, “The emotional connotations of major versus minor tonality: One or more origins?”, Richard Parcutt outlines six theories, which are all “broadly consistent with Terhardt’s pattern-recognition model of pitch perception (non-musical perceptual familiarity with the harmonic series), Schenker’s concept of prolongation (specifically, tonal voice leading as a prolongation of the tonic triad), evolutionary explanations of the emotional connotations of alterity, and a psychohistory of tonality in which melody, polyphony, leading tones, and the major–minor system emerged at different times, explicable by different psychological principles.”

While some keys are reported to have relatively similar descriptions across the board, that is, at least similar in terms of general positive or negative emotional balance, others receive extremely varying and opposite emotional assignments. For example Schubart describes the F# minor key as “a gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language.” Similarly, Ernst Pauer’s describes it as “dark, mysterious and spectral key” in his 'Elements of the Beautiful in Music’ (1876). On the other hand, music scholar Albert Lavignac described it as “light and aerial” in ‘La Musique et les Musiciens’ (1863).

When I conducted my research for this issue, I chose four different songs, each in the key of F minor: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana (1991), “Everything in its Right Place” by Radiohead (2000), “The Way You Move” by Outkast (2003) and “Gnossienne No. 1” by Erik Satie (1893).  I asked people to listen to the song, and to describe the emotion felt, the color it makes them think of, and general qualities they think each song and the F minor key might hold. Each song, while being in the same key, provoked completely different emotional responses. There were, however, words and descriptions that appeared in all four songs, such as “light,” “intense” and nostalgic.” This led me to question, can a musical key have an overarching emotional quality, which transcends the specific properties (melody, tempo, chord progression, cultural associations, context, lyrics, era, individual experience, intention) of each individual song? How much are our emotional associations to songs linked to subjective experience and state of mind? Can a key, or song, have an objective and universal impact on our emotions? Is there such a thing as a universal, shared experience to a song?”

Dania Layla, 2021