5 Minute Piano Lessons: The Emotion of Chords

The expression of feeling and story is an important part of music in movies and life.  Watch a breathtaking scene in a movie and odds are there’s a glorious soundtrack playing in the background.  In a ritzy restaurant, the owners play smooth jazz, creating an atmosphere of delight and charm.  How do composers achieve these emotions?  It all stems from the type of chords being used.

A triad is a three-note chord.  The C Major chord spoken of in an earlier lesson is one such triad.  There are four types of triads in all: Major, minor, diminished, and Augmented.  Each triad or chord has its own emotion: Major= happy, minor= sad, diminished= depressing, Augmented= dreamy or heavenly.  We will be discussing the three easiest chords to play: Major, minor, and diminished triads (or chords).

The Major triad_:)

Major chords are happy.  Play them high on the keyboard and they’re delightful like a cheery blue jay greeting the morning of Christmas.  In fact why don’t we do this?  Place your R. H. (right hand) towards the high end of the keyboard (far right section) and play the notes C-E-G at the same time (using 1-3-5 fingering).  This is a C Major chord with a high sound.

Play a C Major chord in the middle of the keyboard and you have a hungry tomcat that has seen the blue jay from afar.  Play it with your L. H. (left hand using 5-3-1 fingering) down low, and it’s like an old dog wagging his tail for the first time in many years… he caught the scent of the tomcat of course.

The minor triad_:(

Minor chords are sad.  Play the notes d-f-a with your R. H. (fingering 1-3-5).  This would put your thumb on the d (for the R.H.).  This is called a d minor chord.  Play it high and it’s a dirge sung by a mourning blue Jay, while being chased by a tomcat.  In the middle it’s a frisky tomcat who has suddenly realized he is being chased by a dog.  Down low (left side with L.H. using 5-3-1) it’s a droopy-eared bloodhound that lost the tomcat’s scent.

The diminished triad_X(

I don’t mean to be such a downer.  But this is the triad of no hope.  Not only have you lost your job, but you ran over your dog on the way home.  This one is even sadder than the minor one.

Play b-d-f at the same time (again using the R.H. 1-3-5 fingering) for a diminished triad.  This is a b diminished chord.  Up high it sounds like a drowning bird (who ran into the pond to escape the cat), in the middle a drowning cat (who ran in after the bird), and down low (played with L.H. 5-3-1) an old dog dying after being run over by a car.

Any sort of image or story may come to mind when playing these various chords.  Try and make up some of your own, if you can.


If you can’t

There are styles of music that do not evoke images or stories.  This is because some musicians do not see images or stories in music.  Fredric Chopin was a famous composer in the Romantic Era.  He was called the poet of the piano because his pieces did not evoke any images or stories to them (very different from Mozart who had drama behind everything that he wrote).  Chopin did, however, use the same triads we are talking about here.  Which means Chopin’s music created a depth of emotion.  It was pure music for music’s sake… which can be very powerful in its own way.  Instrumental smooth jazz at a ritzy restaurant comes to mind… as long as you don’t know or hear the lyrics to the songs they are parroting.

Exercise 1

Play all the triads in the C Major scale.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, triads are named after the first note in the chord.  Thus far we have learned and played the C Major triad or chord, the d minor triad or chord, and the b diminished triad or chord.  This leaves out four more notes in the C Major scale: e, F, G, and a.

Let’s start again with the C Major triad.  Play it in the middle of the keyboard with your R.H. (1-3-5 fingering).  Now play the d minor triad (d-f-a).  Next we have a few new ones.  Play the e minor triad (e-g-b), F major triad (F-A-C), a minor triad (a-c-e), and finally, that old depressing b diminished triad (b-d-f).  Might as well play the very next C Major triad to end it all on a good note (the bird got away, the cat was saved by a little girl, and the dog you ran over wasn’t yours).

Once you got the idea, play the chords in order twice with your R.H.  The first time play it fast.  The second time play it slow, listening to each emotion of the chord.

To make it easier, here are the same chords in order one after the other:

C-E-G, C Major

d-f-a, d minor

e-g-b, e minor

F-A-C, F Major

G-B-D, G Major

a-c-e, a minor

b-d-f, b diminished

C-E-G, C Major


Exercise 2

Play the chords in order and down low with your L.H.  This will mean you will use the fingering 5-3-1.  Don’t play it too low… or it will sound groggy.

For fun

Play the chords in any order you like, and in a counting rhythm (I recommend one chord for every two counts).  Try and listen for what chords play and sound good with each other.

This is sort of like reinventing the wheel now.  Next lesson I will tell you the various chord structures composers have used for hundreds of years… and song-writers have used in every popular song for the past hundred.  This is found in the hierarchy of chords.

Other lessons to peruse at your leisure

Happy piano playing!


6 thoughts on “5 Minute Piano Lessons: The Emotion of Chords

    • Glad you think so! It is rather hard to teach piano on a blog. I prefer the hands on approach… sometimes I fear I am over reaching in what I speak of here. I don’t know if people can grasp it without a teacher there to help them… but I can’t say this for everyone. Odds are, there are some that will learn well this way.

  1. Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, with which the music listener identifies. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but I want that the sound stays unchanged), then we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – the Research on Musical Equilibration:


    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek

    • I have never thought about the emotion of music in that way. To me it was always obvious that there is an absolute emotion with each and every chords. This observation was based on the scientific fact of overtones which in the low notes ultimately form a Major chord with a 6/4 inversion. This to me made the listener hear happiness, because all of the tones resonated harmonically in his or her ear. Any simple manipulation of this chord frustrates those overtones. In that the listener is also frustrated and thinks how the sound isn’t quite right. Thus we have the minor and diminished chords which seem sad.

      When testing this with students I have found that it is not so obvious. only the best ones are able to hear the “sadness” or “anger” of a minor chord and the “happiness” of Major one. Most of them hear sadness or anger when any sort of chord is played low, and happiness when any sort is played high. They must therefor be taught the nuances that make a chord “happy” or “sad”. And so it can be said that such harmonies are not so absolute with their emotions. It is our Western culture that bends them that way. In most other forms of world music there is no thought to harmony and thus a different cultural idea of what sounds happy or sad. In this I see your point in how we put music through a “filter” which latches our emotions to it.

      There is a threshold that my more advanced students must cross in order to play something like a Bach minute. The way that he sometimes plays with the tension of the leading tone so that for a brief moment the music is “ugly” can be hard for the student who is playing the piece very slowly for the first time. I have to teach them about why the “ugliness” of that tension eventually leads to the beauty they so long for, and in that brief ugliness the eventual resolve is made all the more potent.

      I havn’t finished reading your paper but so far it has been an enlightening experience.

    • Dominant chords are usually major (they are minor in a regular minor scale). So from a classical perspective they are usually happy in nature.

      But this depends on how the chord is attacked. At the end of a Beethoven symphony it is used to draw attention to the end, repeating back and fourth from Dominant to Tonic. Sometimes a dominant chord can be held to create tension because the leading tone (the middle note of the chord) longs to resolve to the tonic. It can then lead to something deceptive (any other chord that isn’t tonic).

      Some pop or rock tunes end in a dominant chord leaving the song with a sense of longing, which fits a tune of unrequited love. Hope this helps!

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