Relating Extra-Musical Cues to Music Theory Concepts

       Although not being the sole element present in a musical composition, pitch may be associated with melody, scales and chords. The association of pitch to a natural and distinctive human quality is the voice and thus it is with no surprise that pitch in musical compositions began to be compared with the frequencies present in vocal expression. For instance, low pitch is often associated with sadness and high pitch associated with happiness in both vocal expression and musical compositions. It has also been noted that the communication of basic emotions is accurate in both vocal and musical expression and, more importantly, that the ability to recognize basic emotions in vocal and musical expression develops early in life (see Motherese and the Origins of Music).

      The development of this early perception of narratives in the emotional development of the melodic line serves as support to the anticipation of repeating harmonies, phrases and emotional forms in a vocal or musical performance. All considered, this means that everybody, musicians and non-musicians, develop the sensitivity to acoustic cues related to extra-musical aspects present in life situations, bearing in mind that we tend to have different life experiences and thus the differences in the way we decode these extra-musical acoustic cues. As for a practical use of this bit of knowledge, it is only natural that each composer delves into his/her phonological and melodic references that express different emotions. But this sensibility to acoustic cues and their emotional references has already been put to use in music composition.

       As listeners we are very proficient in identifying basic emotional qualities in music, such as happy, sad, angry or fear. Taking this in consideration, the appropriate choice of dynamic, texture, rhythm, melodic contour, harmony, form, timbre of instruments, among other musical features, music can express and/or evoke emotions.

      But this isn’t anything new if you consider that the prevailing vocal technique throughout the 18th and 19th century in Europe, called Bel Canto (see Bel Canto), was not only focused on the musical skills associated to singing but also to prosodic singing (see note*) (the usage of accent and emphasis); matching the vocal register and tonal quality of the voice to the emotional contents of the words; phrasing based on the grammatical and rhetorical pauses. But it didn’t begin here.

      For instance, in the Renaissance period there was a musical form originated in Italy called Madrigal, where the composer attempted to express the emotion contained in each line, and sometimes individual words, of a poem. Also, the Doctrine of Affections was widely used in the Baroque period and it was accepted that music could elicit emotional responses in the listeners. A few examples of how the musical elements could be manipulated to convey emotions were; joy would be elicited by large intervals, sadness by small intervals; fury could be aroused by a roughness of harmony coupled with a rapid melody; certain instruments would be used to depict contexts or associated to certain characters; fast tempo, agitated basses and frequent modulations were commonly used to express anguish, excitement, heroism or rage; and descending melodic lines in minor tonalities, also using descending chromaticism, would be used to depict suffering.

References: listen to Purcell´s Dido’s Lament from Dido and Aeneas or Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo; Madrigal from composers like Adrian Willaert, Francesco Landini or Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and his books of madrigals.

      The contemplation of the emotional aspect of music is not limited to the Baroque or Renaissance era and it may be found throughout the history of music. It is an essential part of Ancient Greek’s musical theory – the Doctrine of Ethos was focused on the symbiosis of oratory and music, and how one should influence the other. The doctrine explored the influence of sound on human behaviour, character, emotion and moral. Music was arranged into separate scales that were stated to have specific influences on human behaviour. Some evoked feelings of happiness, some sorrow, some rage, some mental concentration, some lethargy, and some other emotions. The doctrine incited the exploration of sound vibrations on the human condition and new identifications of harmony. This was the beginning of western scales, chord progressions and the symbolic use of music theory concepts and techniques in order to express emotions.

      On a curious note, Gregorian chant was also modal and the medieval church modes were also considered to have different effects on the listener, just like the ancient Greek’s modes. In fact, the names of the church modes were borrowed from the Greek modes, although the two systems don’t really correspond to each other.

      So far, everything sounds like cooking. But it’s not like we are so far from the truth, if you consider the ingredients to be the musical elements and the way you combine them, triggers different moods/responses to your music. Your creative mind is your only limit, but the good news is that you can keep expanding it just by listening closely to how other artists use the musical elements in order to present their ideas. However, music is not the end in itself. There are lots of inspirational sources such as film, theatre, books, astronomy, mathematics, life… This way, you will never run out of inspiration.


* The use of pitch, loudness, tempo, and rhythm in speech to convey information about the structure and meaning of an utterance. In music, prosody is the way the composer sets the text of a vocal composition in the assignment of syllables to notes in the melody to which the text is sung, or to set the music with regard to the ambiance of the lyrics.

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