I came across an interesting article today on how music affects the brain.  All musicians know the difference between a major and minor chord, but those not familiar with music discover they can tell the difference easily too.

Listen to these two chords…

The first sound you hear is called a major, the second is a minor (don’t worry about why) they’re repeated a few times in the audio.  For most people, the minor sounds a bit ‘sadder’ or more ‘thoughtful’.

Now test yourself – listen to this one – is it a major (happy) or minor (sadder)?

Mouse over for the answer

It was a minor

I’m pretty certain you got that right – but how?

This is the question researchers were trying to answer in this study. “Emotion processing of major, minor, and dissonant chords: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study” by Karen Johanne Pallesen1Elvira BratticoChristopher BaileyAntti KorvenojaJuha KoivistoAlbert GjeddeSynnöve Carlson DOI: 10.1196/annals.1360.047

They found that musicians’ and non-musicians’ brains both responded in similar ways to major and minors (and also dissonant chords – which sound like a drunk cat walking across a piano).  With minor and dissonant chords activating the amygdala (amongst others), a brain region related to stress and danger.

This may be one of the reasons why we enjoy music – the journey from majors to minors and back again is often heard in songs (Maria Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas’ is a great example) and many songs end on the major, giving a sense of completion, having got through the tricky parts of the ‘journey’ back to the good times.  Musicians and composers have always intuitively known about this, through ‘feel’, just as listeners do – but now we understand a little more about how it works too.

Here’s the science bit, if you want it:


Musicians and nonmusicians listened to major, minor, and dissonant musical chords while their BOLD brain responses were registered with functional magnetic resonance imaging.  In both groups of listeners, minor and dissonant chords, compared with major chords, elicited enhanced responses in several brain areas, including the amygdala, retrosplenial cortex, brain stem, and cerebellum, during passive listening but not during memorization of the chords.  The results indicate that (1) neural processing in emotion-related brain areas is activated even by single chords, (2) emotion processing is enhanced in the absence of cognitive requirements, and (3) musicians and nonmusicians do not differ in their neural responses to single musical chords during passive listening.

Ready to find out more…

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