‘Happy’ chords are dying out, study reveals

15 November 2017, 17:45 | Updated: 16 November 2017, 18:04

A study suggests that minor and major seventh chords are the happiest sounds in music, but today’s songwriters are ditching them in favour of simple minor chords. But why does this matter?

We all love an epic major chord – like the explosive D major chord that introduces the choir in Handel’s Zadok the Priest, or that cor-blimey C major chord in Bartók’s Fifth Door. You know, this one:

Yeah, it’s basically the stuff of dreams.

But according to a study, major chords are not the happiest sounds in music.

Although people do perceive major chords as more emotionally positive than minor chords, the happiest sounds of all are seventh chords – major or minor chords with a seventh added.

Using a sample of pop songs from ultimate-guitar.com, the scientists investigated the emotional impact of chords through lyrics.

Here are the chord categories they used:

“Major: A Major chord is a triad with a root, a Major third and a perfect fifth. Major chords are indicated using either only the root note, or the root note followed by M or maj. For instance, F, FM, G, Gmaj were considered Major chords.

Minor: A Minor chord is also a triad, containing a root, Minor third and a perfect fifth. The notation for Minor chords is to have the root note followed by m or min. For example, Emin, F#m and Bbm were considered Minor chords.

7th: A seventh chord has seventh interval in addition to a Major or Minor triad. A Major 7th consists of a Major triad and an additional Major seventh, and is indicated by the root note followed by M7 or maj7 (e.g. GM7). A Minor 7th consists of a Minor triad with an additional Minor seventh, and is indicated by the root note followed by m7 or min7 (e.g. Fm7). A Dominant 7th is a diatonic seventh chord that consists of a Major triad with additional Minor seventh, and is indicated by the root note followed by the numeral 7 or dom7 (e.g. D7, Gdom7).”

What did they find out?

They found that the sound most consistently associated with happy lyrics was the Minor 7th chord – and people apparently feel happiest when hearing the chord alongside positive terms such as ‘life’ and god’.

According to the study, for the Dominant 7th chord, people feel happiest when it is accompanied by a lyrical term of endearment, such as ‘baby’ or ‘sweet’. Major 7th chords, on the other hand, add emotional impact to negative words like ‘die’ and ‘hell’.

The study also found that major chords work effectively in tandem with negative lyrics.

Take ‘Gethsemane’ in Jesus Christ Superstar:

That epic falsetto moment in Act 2 – when Jesus’s character screams “why should I die?” – is a crucial point, when a significantly negative term is being used alongside a major chord. By throwing in the seventh, Lloyd Webber adds a whole new level of emotional impact to the troubling moment.

So why are songwriters using more minor chords?

The study demonstrates that while major chord usage has been stable in songwriting over the last 50 years, minor chord usage has been growing. 

And while it might seem that an increase in minor chords would mean sadder songs, the study suggests that we feel significantly less emotionally affected by minor chords than major or seventh chords.

Let’s talk about the seventh

The study argues that emotional impact – how much we feel affected by a song – has been declining in pop music since the 1950s. And that goes hand-in-hand with the declining use of Major 7th, Minor 7th and Dominant 7th chords (see this graph for further detail).

So essentially, we all feel less impacted by today’s popular music because fewer writers are using seventh chords to accompany their lyrics anymore.

However, the study does reveal that lyrics have been more emotionally powerful in the 2010s than they were in the 2000s.

Perhaps this means the seventh chords are making a comeback...


Read the full study for more information.

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