Musicians -- what makes some music depresssing, disturbing, or "dangerous" sounding?

I’m always messing with my music collection and figuring out new ways to categorize it. Recently I decided to create a play list of “disturbing” music, and I was really quite surprised how much falls into it. About one fifth (so far) of my music collection seems to convey a sense of… well, something other than happiness, contentment, love, nostalgia, etc.

I’m interested in learning about how composers use the language of music to directly convey emotion – aside from lyrics. What makes a dirge a dirge? Why do I feel a sense of danger from the Peter Gunn theme, or creepiness from Doors music?

I am a total layman regarding music, and the only generalization I can come up with is that over a bar (or measure?) of music, the notes of “disturbing” music tend to start high and move down the scale. Do rising notes tend to elate us and falling notes depress us?

Crash intro theme by Howard Shore.

It’s the dissonance, weird minor chords, and treble-heavy guitars that do it. Other things that can make “scary” sounding music are low frequency sustained noises and unexpected blasts of percussion or high pitched noises like the “Psycho” music.

High pitched dissonance is probably the worst. Another thing you can do is have the dynamics fade to really soft and then suddenly get louder, for that “jump” effect.

There’s a PBS documentary that explores this topic a bit (it also happens to currently be available on Netflix streaming):

That’s what makes it music, eh?

I have read so many books on the topic of music and the brain. It seems to be a combination of neurological responses related to the physical frequencies of the notes (are they dissonent or congruent and how does that jangle/overload/resonate with my nerves? I mean, Smoke on the Water’s riff sounds menacing because of it uses a set of Fourths - known as the Devil’s Interval become of the way the two notes bounce off each other and ping our nerves) along with tapping into the subconscious (what native and learned responses have we acquired to that type of sound - does it sound like danger? Mating?). There is much discussion about whether music has a specific purpose or role, given its clear effect on us, or is the happy byproduct of evolving the senses we have for other purposes. It can be used to communicate, but is different than language on a neurological level, i.e., you can retain the capacity for music while having your communication capabilities impaired, like some savants.

I love to hear any academic music types weigh in…

Nigel Tufnel explaining the sadness of minor keys

Ooh! Ooh! Me me!

Any sound has the potential to be depressing, disturbing or “dangerous” in and of itself, but they’re all culturally situated. There is no objective sound which angries up the blood of a man from China the same it would someone born in the American Midwest.

In terms of our own collective Western soundscape, there is a whole study devoted to musical semiology, with giants like Philip Tagg writing about the ways in which sounds become shorthand for complex ideas or emotions.

As someone who also composes (though not as much as I’d like to), and who wrote a comprehensive set of papers on the history of “Schmaltz,” I can tell you that a lot of musical tropes come from places you wouldn’t expect. Augmented dominant triads tend to convey a nostalgic feeling; I argue that it comes from the mistuning of a gypsy violinist, which accounts for everything being a bit sharp in the diatonic scale.

Now, your question. What makes fear or danger? Rhythm and texture obviously have something to do with that. A twelve-tone row, which runs so contrary to perceived norms of a major/minor scale, can really disturb our psyche. TV and film composers use this kind of serialism to convey spooky stuff, like a stakeout gone bad at the old abandoned docks in the middle of the night. The first ever all 12-tone score was written by Jerry Goldsmith, for “Planet of the Apes,” and it’s plenty dystopic and scary.

An overview of Pachelbel’s Canon in D?

::d & r::

Actually, I can tell you if you’re interested. :smiley:

I looked at the etymology of the Yiddish loanword, theorized how it came into its present (North) American English usage, and then looked at how that compared to the music that it was describing. It came out of jazz circles in the 1920s and 30’s and described a propensity towards non-improvised, metrical music with doubled woodwinds and big sweeping *portamenti *on the strings.

For jazz audiences, they represented the mundane, the metrical, and well, the white. One looks at how these same markers came into the European music sphere, and you find that they are Eastern imports from Turkish and Gypsy musicians; one only look at the prevalence of the “Alla Turca” and “Style Hongroise” styles of playing in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Therefore, as an academic who’s forced to overlay post-modern identity politics on everything and anything, even where it doesn’t fit, it makes for an interesting case study. These same sounds can come to mean polar opposite things, depending on the social context in which they exist. They’re the exotic oriental for 19th century Europe, and the banal and clichéd occident for 20th century America.

Interesting - and yeah, I know from *schmaltz *- from the original chicken-fat to the overly-laden string swells and a bit too much Perry Como. Handled well in the 20th Century oeuvre, a la Nelson Riddle backing Sinatra on classic arrangements, or a particularly effective Countrypolitan 60’s arrangement, they can work - otherwise, cheesy would be just as good a word as schmaltzy.

Back to the OP - Boyo, you gettin’ any of this?

Take a listen to the first 15 seconds of this:

And then take a listen to the first 15 seconds of this:

Are you saying I could just as easily associate the first with sunshine and brightness and the second with doom and gloom if I’d been brought up in a different culture?

It’s impossible for me to listen to these completely objectively, without any cultural baggage, but it sure feels like there’s something more going on, something intrinsic in the music, that lends itself to current associations.

I understand the psychological and neurological comments better than I do the musical ones. It makes sense that this is all contextual, though it doesn’t really feel that way. There are certain musical passages that would seem to send a chill up anyone’s spine.

There are elements of music that are, for all practical purposes, sound effects as well. A sudden crash of drums, a blast of horns, things like that, which literally shock the senses. I think those are relatively easy to understand.

But thinking about blues music, the world’s most famous genre of downer music, that’s not so easy.

What is a 12-tone row?

What is the difference between a major and a minor chord. a major and a minor key?

Is there an online resource where I can listen to isolated examples of these things, preferably played by a variety of instruments, so I can recognize them?

And while I have your attention – I have a few questions about sheet music that I’ll throw out here though I was thinking of making it a separate thread.

It seems to me that in a lot (most?) music with lyrics, what we recognize as the melody is not actually played by any of the instruments. The melody is “played” by the vocalist singing the lyrics, and the instruments somehow play “around” and/or accentuate the melody. Is there a “standard” form of sheet music, and is it basically providing the musical notes for the vocalist? It would seem to me there should be a different set of sheet music for every instrument that would perform part of it, but I’ve never seen such a thing in a music store. Are musicians trained to look at a “standard” sheet and adorn it based on what instrument they play?

I’ve heard of “arrangers” who AFAICT do this – deciding what instruments play what notes and when for a given piece of music. Do these decisions get noted in a common set of sheet music? Does every garage band have someone acting as there arranger, or is is more like every musician is acting as their own arranger for their own instrument?

In the span of an octave in a European scale, there are 12 pitches, known as the “chromatic scale.” a Major or Minor scale typically has seven of these notes arranged to have the proper intervals in between pitches. A twelve tone scale uses all of these pitches, arranged so that (ideally) none of them come in step-wise motion from one to another. Here is a decent video from Youtube. It doesn’t sound jargon laden.

Listen to the musical excerpts. It sounds like “chilling movie music” before there was chilling movie music; he was writing these things in the 1920s.

Major and Minor scales…well, I could explain to you the intervalic relationship and such, but unless you want a crash course in music theory I’m not sure how much help that would be to you. Typically, as popular and folk music goes, anything that instinctively sounds more “sad” than “happy” is likely to be minor key, rather than a major key; this is how it’s usually conveyed when you teach music theory to little children, even though there’s hundreds, if not thousands of exceptions to that rule. This looks like a good tutorial if you’re interested!

To your sheet music question: I usually do more classical than popular music. The pop music I know, however, is (usually) written short form known as a lead sheet. Thus, while you’re correct in noting the melody is often reserved for singing, the commercial chord labels are usually affixed atop the melodic barline, indicating what chords the accompanist should play. There’s also tablatures, which is a graphic depiction of a guitar’s fretboard, so a guitarist that doesn’t know music theory or how to read staff notation can play along simply by identifying where to put his fingers on the frets of the neck.

Your definition of “arranger” works pretty well, but as far as a garageband goes, having never been in one myself, I would assume that the guitarist and bassist figures out what they’re playing based on the information given to them in the sheet music. The drummer then gets his rhythmic notation based on a time signature (though depending on the genre he’s by no means limited by it). A lot of it is an ebb and flow between different performers!

We suffer from a bias in that, as Westerners, this is our music. Although American music is almost omnipresent now, there are parts of the world where it isn’t found. And the affect for people there isn’t going to be the same. Although there’s something to be said about the pain in the singer’s voice - the “grain” of it, if you will - there’s nothing inherently objective or sad about it, save the way in which we perceive it. It’s like how sad poetry will never be sad if you don’t understand the language it was written in. Music is trickier because it has no fixed meaning like spoken language, but we nevertheless invest our own meaning into it based upon our culture.

I would be curious to find out what a listener of traditional Arab, Chinese or Indian music finds to be most sad, or depressing, and see how it measures up to our perceptions.

I heard a recording of some, hmmm, I think it was Maori (??) music - definitely South Pacific Islanders. They were singing as a group, with kind of a raw quality - kind of like South African singing you may’ve heard on Paul Simon’s Graceland album. But then - as they were singing - the entire group would slip down a half-step in key and then keep singing! They did this every time they cycled through a verse. In non-muso terms, it was like you were listening to a vinyl record and someone lightly placed their finger on it and slowed it down, so the pitch was lowered - it sounds like a smear of sound. Really eerie and surreal - sounded to my ears like something really off and discordant - the soundtrack to a bleak horror flick. But according to the narrator - I think it was on NPR - it was a song giving thanks for that season’s fishing haul.

Who knew?

OK, I may have overstated for effect; sounds are of course not EMPTY signifiers. They can’t arbitrarily mean ANYTHING. But at the same time they do not have an objective meaning. So perhaps not brightness and sunshine, but if you didn’t know the context you could think the first one was a work dirge, or a war song, or even a travel song, with the slow lumbering rhythm of the opening bars representing a marching pace.

That’s where my mind leapt as well! :smiley: For me. at least, that oversimplified notion that major chords are “happy” and minor chords are “sad” is usually more right than wrong. YMMV. And I can neither confirm nor deny whether D minor is, in fact, the saddest of all keys.

A surprisingly effective method of looking at how a song is broken out from one part to the next, I’m finding, is to get your hands on Guitar Hero or Rock Band or Band Hero for your gaming system and have a few runs through the same song using the different instruments (or have several people performing as a band on a song). Considering that you’re not actually playing music per se, it nevertheless gives you a general sense of musical arrangement and how notes on the different instruments mix together to make a song. I’d say, for a complete novice to music reading and playing, it’s a pretty good general primer on how things fit together (my wife, who has never played an instrument before, has learned more about “playing” music from this game in two weeks than she ever learned from watching me noodle around on our piano over the last couple years). Just a thought…