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Why do some pieces of music seem to overwhelm us with emotion?

There are some pieces of music that seem to tear down the defences of even the coolest cucumbers and the most rational beings – stirred to high emotion by the mellifluous cadence of the piece.

And there always seems to be a minor key mooching about in there somewhere with the more melancholic or sentimental pieces of music. Certainly in western cultures those Minor keys are right up there with best of them in the profoundly moving department.

How can we forget Nigel Tufnell and his unforgettable Mach Piece – in D Minor

“I’m working on in D minor which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don’t know why.”


BUT is ‘sadness’ really a universal minor key thing?

Melancholy in the western world may well reverberate through its minor chords. But such is not the case for many other cultures who can find joy and happiness in chords or harmonies that might have western ears sprinting for the Kleenex and a teary lie down.

The minor chord features heavily in both some African and Asian wedding music. Someone recently pointed out that in the Lydian Harmoniai of Ancient Greece which was designed specifically to evoke melancholy most closely resembles our major scale – and not a minor tear to be seen.

To be fair the ancient roots of our musical heritage have travelled a long and complex road – from music or harmony as one of the first human technologies – a way of expressing complex emotion, information and occasion – to their more recent shadings the result of its continental shifts out of the cradle of our current civilisations beliefs and influences.

Music or musical Harmony as we know it has bounced and bobbled around to a most staggering degree, spouting up from the rhythmic heart of Africa, thrown northwards to be strung high on the strings of the pre hellenic tribes to those deep in the Syrian basin; to roar out in the soaring song and melody of the Abrahamic peoples and faiths, via Palestine, through the Monastic Orders of the Crusades, up into the mellifluous discordant chanting of the orthodox churches into the throaty baritone of steppe Russian and Cossack singing and echoing amongst the walls of the ghettoes of Kracow; or carried on the warm, sandy  Gnostic breezes to turn up towards the Mediterranean, clipping the southern rim to meet the war-ish Moorish wails and chants: to vault the seaways into southern Spain and the monastic orders to collide with the Cantorial Melancholy of the Renaissance rendered dissonant by the long Asian shadow of the Venetian  merchant and underwritten by the colder airs and arias of the Middle and Northern European marches.

In a nutshell, harmony has been around a bit – and its been a little loose with its favours. Harmony has found itself sad and happy in so many different contexts that it doesn’t know its major arse from its minor elbow when it comes to the proving of what makes a sad or happy musical sound, note or chord.

You could say that for a broadly consensual idea of ‘sad’ (for that read minor) chords to have percolated to the top of that millennia-long journey shows their immutable and inherent power. But on the other you could say that every sequence of harmonies or notes, having travelled that road, would by now be laden with ‘context’ – the shaper and colourist of emotion in music.

This historic cultural criss-cross, the subsequent assimilation and blurring of musical cultures might explain why the chord sequence of ‘Lord, Hear my prayer’, the French Taize Christian spiritual has a decidedly Hebrew quality in the way in which its chord sequence descends and ascends, and whose chord succession has a remarkable similarity to some of the orchestrations from Disney’s Mary Poppins (more of which later).

In music particularly, there is much debate about how ‘melancholy’ or emotional characteristics are given to certain notes or chords – back to Nigel Tufnell and D Minor, the saddest of chords.

Specialists in this area point to the Theory of Musical Equilibration to explain the relationship between music and emotion. They see notes and chords as not inherently emotional but as a process of Will – a process which sets chords and notes in relation to particular cultural social and temporal contexts. The theory contests that it is these contexts that ’dye’ the notes chords or harmonies with emotion.

An example perhaps of this theory is the song ‘Feed The Birds’ featured in the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins. Written by Sherman & Sherman. There is enormous contextual substance and potency in this song for generations of western adults and their children (as the adults tend to pass down their cultural ‘mores and memes’ through sharing of the things they loved as children, and the children in turn love what their parents love as an act of belonging – emotional adhesion).

It is said that Travers, the lady who wrote the story of Mary Poppins, on hearing the suggested song Feed The Birds wished instead for Greensleeves (which Wikipedia notes as being in E Minor as is much of Feed The Birds) to be the soundtrack to Mary Poppins – as it was quintessentially English. The quintessence of Feed The Birds I would venture is of a very different tribe.

There is an underlying spirit in the music of Feed The Birds that for me is inextricably linked to the Hebrew spirituals and the eastern European musical traditions. The echo of the yiddisher musical culture of eastern Europe seems to rise up in so many of the composers of these ‘melancholia’ or nostalgia pieces. The Sherman brothers are but one example.


The composer of another great and renowned melancholic piece, the theme tune to the 1960s TV serialisation of Robinson Crusoe, was originally from Kiev in the Ukraine. And though there are some parts of this score that sound more Bond theme than anything else, the core of it, is distinctly eastern European for me. There is a point about 3 minutes and 40 seconds in where it transfers from a bombast Bond-like orchestration to the most heart wrenching solo violin. The echo of the first 60 seconds of Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G Minor is not difficult to hear – and seemingly a similar wish in Robert Mellin to incorporate Jewish inspirations into his music, as Bruch did so many years before.

In much the same way as Feed The Birds, the soundtrack for Robinson Crusoe is quite extraordinary in its ability to overwhelm the listener with feelings of profound emotion – both joy and sadness in perfect harmony.

These both make very good exemplars of the Theory’s concept of how Context (yearning, simpler times, naivete, longing, loss, when the world was young, carefree, endless summer) ‘dyes’ the music with emotion

The yearning in these pieces does seem to reach beyond simple sentimentality though. There was a profound feeling present when I first heard them. This pre-sentimental, pre-nostalgic effect is played out in the numerous comments that can be found underneath their youtube listings – ‘as moving as the first time I heard it’ is a reoccurring refrain. The fact that these pieces of music have become sentimentalised and dyed with emotion is I would suggest a secondary effect: an outcome of their initial impact and the mesmeric effect they had on the viewer/listener.

I would like to venture that they vibrate with something far greater than simple ‘context’ and dyed emotion.

They seem to vibrate with the power of a far more timeless human ‘voice’.

I wonder whether there are certain harmonies that in their vibration come closer than anything else the millennia of musical story tellers could muster to capturing the vibration of life itself.

That vibration – the energetic shaking of atoms on which all animate existence or life is based – but perhaps its resonance, however fleetingly is captured in some of these pieces.

The Law of Harmonic Attraction and Repulsion tells us that atoms shaking or vibrating at between 42 and 63 octaves per second produce a creative force – thermism – whose transmissive force – Rad-energy – creates association and cohesion – creates ‘stuff’ -the ethereal and material world we live in – Oh, and us. So we are in effect vibrating along with everything else. So why would we not recognise and respond to a fellow vibration in the world and feel drawn – to want to cohere with it – even if it is just a sound, note or harmony

It is a long stretch from the measuring of atomic octaves per second to the sweeping choir of the Sherman Brothers piece in Mary Poppins BUT I would venture that as we find out more and more about our existence and how we fit into the world we live in, especially at a sub atomic universal level, a distant and circuitous link between the octaves or vibration of life and those of musical harmony will eventually be laid out, only yo be met by an Uh Duh! response. ‘Of course they’re linked’ we’ll say.’Whoever was stupid enough to think they weren’t ?!’

There will be a quick populist ‘Brian Cox’ rewrite on the  infinite and unchangeable quantity of atomoles, the base of all matter and their state of constant vibratory motion, then the odd deft collision of both pop and high culture referencing:

What piece of work an atomole.  How infinite in extent, how unchangeable in quantity, how initial of all forms of energy; how express and admirable in action, how like a god!

Closely followed on stage by a rip roaring rendition of:

I’m pickin’ up good vibrations
She’s giving me excitations 

Perhaps a far more complex nature is at work in Nigel Tufnel’s saddest of all chords – one that reaches far beyond the influence of the cultures in which the listener was nurtured: in which they exist – one that reaches perhaps into the realm of our very life’s vibration.

Vibration as a signifier of the most profound life force is a reoccurring theme in many faiths and belief systems – not just in the physical, mathematical treatise of atomoles.

And I’ll bet you two finger cymbals, a Catholic Mass bell and a Buddhic gong that music is our way of reconnecting with the vibration of life.

And perhaps the melancholy we feel when we hear certain music is not only the residue of context and emotional dyeing but perhaps driven by a yearning rooted in its ability to remind us of a more profound connection with the vibration of life: one which we were once so closely aligned with; and to which we have now become strangers.



Tuppence a bag and a quick weep is a small price to pay for the key to cosmic connection