Deconstructing the minor third

Posted on: June 24, 2010

In a June 17 blog post at the Scientific American website, Ferris Jabr writes, “Almost everyone thinks ‘Greensleeves’ is a sad song—but why? Apart from the melancholy lyrics, it’s because the melody prominently features a musical construct called the minor third, which musicians have used to express sadness since at least the 17th century…. A study in the June issue of Emotion suggests the minor third isn’t a facet of musical communication alone—it’s how we convey sadness in speech, too…. In the study, Meagan Curtis of Tufts University’s Music Cognition Lab recorded undergraduate actors reading two-syllable lines—like ‘let’s go’ and ‘come here’—with different emotional intonations: anger, happiness, pleasantness and sadness…. What she found is that the actors consistently used the minor third to express sadness.” Jabr writes that it is unclear whether the pattern spans different cultures and languages. “I have only looked at speakers of American English,” says Curtis in the blog post, “so it’s an open question whether it’s a phenomenon that exists specifically in American English or across cultures.”

Posted June 24, 2010