Emotion in Music (Part II), a practical approach

Welcome to part 2 of our ‘Emotion in Music’ blog series.

In our previous blog from our ‘emotion in music series,’ we explored the neuroscience of music. In other words; what happens in your brain when you listen to music from an emotional perspective. You can find the article here

As a music producer, engineer, songwriter or artist, you sure want to arouse your listener. We can all agree that through our music, we want to reach people, touch their hearts and sparkle an emotional reaction. In this part, we’ll take a closer look at the music/songwriting process. Which elements of a song affect us? How can you put your own emotion into the creative process? Because when you know what evokes emotions, sparks a memory or even causes chills, you can play with it in your next song.

How to add emotion? A practical approach.
In the song creation process, you can define two areas, which in tandem, create a maximum effect in arousing emotions: The Song (including the arrangement) and the Production (including the performance). In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the Song, where we try to make it interesting for both musicians and non-musicians alike. And we start with your story.

What’s your story?

Songwriting is storytelling. If you want to trigger emotion, your song needs to tell a story. In general, people like to understand and relate to your story. But what makes storytelling so effective? For starters, storytelling forges connections among people. “Stories convey the culture, history, and values that unite people”, which is not only relevant for films, books or presentations, also songwriting and music production benefits from the power story.

If you’re looking for a simple formula to write or compose a story, we have to disappoint you. There isn’t. Storytelling remains a creative and personal process. However, there are many interesting tips and tricks to play with that can assist in your writing. Google ‘how to find a story’ or ‘storytelling in songwriting’ and you’ll find a wide range of sites and videos that can help you get started. Some of the things you can try are:

So now you’ve got your story, time to translate it into a song. But before we move on, answer the following question for yourself; What is the general emotion of your story? How does it make you feel? And how can you translate this feeling into a song? We are going to explore some essential ingredients of every song that can help you in that process: Mode, key, melody, harmony, tempo, rhythm and lyrics.

Choose your colour through Modes

First, let’s look at the colour of your song. With colour, we mean the overall vibe (or atmosphere) of the song, expressed in gradients from bright to dark. Some people can apply even more colours describing the vibe in music (Jimi Hendrix was famous for that – link), but for the sake of this article, we stick to the shades of grey. With modes, you can set the colour of your song.

So what is a mode? The word ‘mode’ comes from the Latin word for ‘manner’ or ‘method’. Basically, a mode is a type of scale (as in ‘do re mi fa so la ti do’) with distinct melodic characteristics. Since they all originated in ancient Greece, the musical modes have Greek names: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian. These seven main modes have been part of musical notation since the middle ages and the earliest forms of western music.

But don’t confuse or compare modes with the ‘regular’ scales though, since modes are different and coming from a time way before major and minor scales (as we know them).
However, music that uses the traditional C major scale is similar to the Ionian Mode. That doesn’t mean they are equivalent though. But if you take the Ionian mode (C Major) as a starting point, you can create the seven different modes simply by starting from a different note/pitch.

Before we dive too deep, the best way is to show and play it for you. Watch Sweetwater’s Jacob Dupre as he explains a basic concept for understanding modes that can be grasped by musicians and non-musicians alike:

Still a bit confused? No worries, we got your back. Learning music by Ableton gives you an excellent overview of the different modes and an interface to play. You can experiment with different combinations of starting notes and modes on this page on this page on

When you play the keys of the various modes, even though they are made up of the same collection of notes, the different starting positions give each mode a unique musical character. Though the perception of these modes is undoubtedly an individual experience, most listeners would agree that modes go from sounding bright and happy to dark and gloomy in this order.

Here is a complete list of all modes in C, from the brightest to the darkest. It’s a bit generalized, but notice the more flats, the darker the sound.

  • Lydian: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 (Brightest) Loved by Film composers and rock guitarists: Link
  • Ionian: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
  • Mixolydian: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7
  • Dorian: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 Some examples: Link(including ‘Billie Jean’ by Michael Jackson, ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Deep Purple)
  • Aeolian: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7: losing my religion by REM
  • Phrygian: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
  • Locrian: 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 (Darkest) Used in popular songs Link

You can check for an overview of examples in classical music or for pop related songs.

Music modes give you more unique options than the standard major and minor contrast of happy or sad. What’s excellent about experimenting with different modes is it immediately changes the feeling and flavour of your music. It’s worth finding where the modes fit into your songwriting.

Pick a key and set the mood

Where modes set the atmosphere of your song, choosing the key or key centre can help set the overall mood of the song, giving it an emotional layer. It’s important to mention that keys can change throughout the song, so don’t feel pressured in always using the same key.

So what is a key? For those not familiar with the term ‘keys’: Keys determine the group of notes that the composer has to choose from when composing a song. In Western Music, twelve notes exist between octaves. Of those twelve notes, only seven exist in each key. A key can be major or minor. The key signature tells which notes on the musical staff are to be considered (and played) sharp or flat. The key of C major has no sharps or flats; thus, the key signature shows no sharps or flats. The seven notes in the key of C major are C D E F G A and B.

But wait. C major is the same as the Ionian mode in the previous subject. So what’s the difference? Well, both are about intervals, where key refers to a major or minor scale, and modes are the seven intervals described above. But the vibe or emotions are different.
It is important to note that pieces can be composed either in keys OR modes.

Again, gives you a friendly interface to play with:

As a starter when choosing a key, it’s essential to make sure your key choice is playable by the rest of your band. And we not only talk about the vocalist of your band. Also, instruments have different characteristics depending on the key, including how easy or hard it’s to play the part with that particular instrument.

But choosing a key for your song doesn’t just affect how high or low you will play or sing it. Different musical keys mean different moods and vibes for your song. You may notice one minor key sounds darker than another (Nigel Tufnel famously dubbed D minor to be the “saddest of all keys” in This Is Spinal Tap), or you might find a particular key sounds happier than the one a step below.

So which key should you choose? There are quite some lists available that give you an idea of what key triggers which emotion. But one of the most extensive lists is the one shared in the 18th and early 19th century, from Christian Schubart, called ‘Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst’ (1806)

Three examples, taken from the extensive list:

  • C major: Completely pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naivety, children’s talk
  • C minor: Declaration of love and at the same time, the lament of unhappy love. All languishing, longing, the sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key
  • F# major: Triumph over a difficulty, the free sigh of relief uttered when hurdles are surmounted; the echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered lies in all uses of this key

One thing is for sure; they were amazingly poetic in those days. Through the following link, you can find the complete list, which describes each key expressing a distinct vibe:

In general, choosing the right key for your song boils down to personal preference. If you think the song sounds best in a particular key or your voice or instrument reaches its full and emotional potential in that key, it’s most likely the right choice. But it’s worth mentioning that you should always pick the key before you start recording your song.

Students at Abbey Road Institute Amsterdam writing a song

Drawing attention (and making it stick) with Melody

You want your song to be remembered, right? Preferably in a very sticky way, so that people can’t get it out of their head. That’s where ‘melody’ comes in. Melody is the most recognizable part of music. It draws our attention. (Advertisers know this also very well). The sequences of notes are musically satisfying and therefore stay in our memory. From catchy choruses to sticky riffs, melodies define the music you know and love. Because they’re the part of music, you’re most likely remember, they can create a lasting memory, especially when they link to lyrics.

As humans, we are very melody oriented as well. We can sing a melody all on our own, and some researchers suggest that music and language share a primary brain resource that allows us to generate sentences and melodies. We just take some pitches and organize them into a rhythm, and when we do that, we get a melody. But coming up with a great melody is quite challenging, and it almost seems like everything has already been done before. But that’s simply not true. There is still room for your excellent melody.

“Lead… chords… I’m saying that both are good. But for me, the melody is supreme.”
– Carlos Santana

So how do we define a melody? ‘A melody is a series of notes brought together in a particular rhythm to produce a memorable tune, serving as a foreground to the backing elements.’ That’s the simple explanation. When you sing “Happy Birthday” to your uncle, or whistling ‘Over the Rainbow’, you’re singing a melody. Choosing a good instrumental or vocal melody is directly related to the mode and key. Composers spend a lot of time thinking up the best melodies they can. Here there aren’t any real formulas for evoking emotions; the best solution is to follow your “ears”.

Nevertheless, here are interesting tips for writing melodies:

  • Start by singing or playing over a simple chord progression.
  • Experiment with interesting rhythmic stressing and accents.
  • Whistle or hum something until you find something you like. Then record it & transcribe it.
  • Great melodies tend to have a nice mix of steps and leaps.
  • Keep a melody within an octave-and-a-half.
  • Melodies are mostly about finding the right rhythm.
  • Don’t give up.

Want to learn the basics? Watch how composer Michael New develops a melody in a 15 min video.

You’ll also find some great tips on writing good melodies through the links below:

Every musician experiences some kind of “writer’s block” once in a while. Especially when it comes to writing melodies, when you are stuck, a little bit of improvisation and plain “goofing” around on your instrument can bring out some fruitful musical ideas. Record them and save these ideas for later!

Creating relationships through harmony

You don’t need to know everything about music to be creative. But there are a few parts of a song that require knowledge for unlocking your songwriting talent. Harmony is one of them.
From chart-topping R&B songs to folky acoustic tracks to orchestral works, harmony is a central element of just about everything. As the name implies, it’s the glue that brings everything together, giving it a sense of power. Besides a melody and a mode or key, the next step is to choose harmonies in the song. You might ask yourself, how does it all fit in with the melody.

Harmony occurs any time two or more differently pitched notes are played at the same time.
Many people associate harmonies with vocals, but they can be produced on all multi-pitched instruments (guitars, synths, pianos, etc…) or a combination of single-pitched instruments (or two people singing) that play different notes at the same time. Harmony can refer to the arrangement of the individual pitches in a chord as well as the overall chord structure of a piece of music. But the concept of harmony in music theory generally refers to building chords, chord qualities and chord progressions.

Building music through solid and engaging harmonies is a vital skill for anyone who wants to create music. So what makes a collection of notes played at the same time a harmony?

For those not entirely familiar with harmony or chords, let’s take the key of C major as a reference. The key contains the pitches C, D, E, F, G, A, and B.
It excludes the pitches C# (aka Db), D# (aka Eb), F# (aka Gb), G# (aka Ab), and A# (aka Bb).
Therefore, a melody in the key of C major will use only notes from the C major scale.
Harmony in the key of C major will be built around chords using the notes of the C major scale. For instance, C major harmony might include a D minor chord because its notes (D-F-A) are all contained within the C major scale. It would not contain a D major chord because that chord is ‘spelt’ D-F#-A, and F# is not part of the C major scale.

Harmony and chord progressions are mostly about ‘moving away from home (travel), the tension and the desire to return home’, which describes the harmonic relation between notes and chords. Harmony opens up another spectrum in music from basic harmonies to very complex ones. To get a good understanding of the power of harmonies, watch the fantastic 23-year-old musician, composer and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier explains the concept of harmony to five different people; a child, a teen, a college student, a professional, and jazz legend Herbie Hancock.

As you can see from the video above, when musicians and producers talk about harmony, they can talk forever. But that would be beyond the scope of this article. Below are some interesting sources about harmony and writing your own harmonies.

Giving it a feel with tempo

Getting the tempo right to trigger an emotion may not be a part of songwriting you had considered before. But finding the right tempo can undoubtedly make a difference. Research shows that “music with a fast tempo has been found to evoke positive emotions, such as happiness, excitement, delight, and liveliness, while music with a slow tempo evokes negative emotions, such as sadness, depression, and gravity.” (Peretz et al., 1998; Balkwill and Thompson, 1999; Juslin and Sloboda, 2001). One of the reasons why we say that something is “upbeat” when it’s happy and positive, or “downbeat” when it’s sad or depressing.

It’s interesting to play with the tempo of your song. Changing it can give a totally different vibe, affecting the impact of the song or even its message. You often experience this during live concerts, when the artist or band plays it slightly faster compared to the studio version, giving it a different feel for the occasion.

The fact that we react to tempo is because the tempo of music has a direct effect on our heart rate. Basically, the heart’s rhythm aims to sync with the music and is therefore influenced by it. That also means that the tempo of a song roughly equates with the heartbeat that is associated with the emotion that the music suggests. When we experience excitement or anxiety, our heartbeat goes up. This also means that when our heartbeat increases because of the music we are exposed to, we experience similar inner emotions; in this case, excitement or anxiety.

Generally speaking, we can say that a fast pace tempo triggers enthusiasm, joy, and anger compared to a slow pace that can cause feelings of relaxation or depression.

Below a simple overview of tempo (expressed in beats per minute) and their emotional feeling:

  • 60 BPM is often relaxing, introspective, or even depressive, but also love and less drama.
  • 80–100 BPM (think heartbeat speed) is moderately alert and engaging, feelings of fulfilment, rewarding, and sometimes relaxing too.
  • 100+ BPM is increasingly lively, exciting, or agitating, feelings of power.
  • 120–185 BPM is common in some high-energy situations, feelings of excitement, anger or drama.

So what makes, for instance, a slow beat calm and relaxed or depressive, which are two extreme ends of the emotional spectrum? That seems to be related to the combination of the mode or key and the tempo of the song. There has been extensive research on this matter, and the overview below shows a variety of emotions most frequently chosen by musicians and nonmusicians while listening to three pieces in different modes and tempi.



It’s quite an interesting research on tempo and emotions. You can find a comprehensive study here.

But before you approach your music from a scientific perspective, eventually it all comes down to your feeling. For many songwriters, the right tempo is as crucial as the right chord or the correct lyric. And it’s evident that the best way to assess the power of tempo in your own music is to try your songs at different speeds. Even a subtle change can make a world of difference.

Adding some groove with Rhythm

Are you feeling the beat? If the answer is yes, you understand rhythm.
While notes, melody, and chords can be easily described as vibrations in the airwaves that our eardrums can detect, rhythm has more to do with your uniquely human perception of time.

But rhythm remains a difficult thing to grasp nor explain. If you asked someone in a drum circle, they would probably tell you rhythm is about playing together. ‘Ask a funk band, and they’ll tell you rhythm is about finding a groove. Neither of those answers is wrong because rhythm is how musicians connect and play with one another.’ It’s what makes music, music.

For our purposes, we’ll look at the western way of understanding rhythm. To understand rhythm, it’s important to get some of the basic concepts. We’ll let the people from Landr explain it to you:

This video is also interesting, showing a different representation of rhythms using the ‘wheel method’ taking you on a musical journey around the world.

Recent studies have shown that people can accurately interpret the emotional content of music from cultures different than their own, based on tempo and rhythm alone. Also, music with a strong beat stimulates the brain and ultimately causes brainwaves to resonate in time with the rhythm. Slow beats or rhythms encourage the slow brain waves that are associated with hypnotic or meditative states. Faster beats may stimulate more alert and concentrated thinking. Other studies show that the use of 16th notes or triplets has a higher sense of happiness, expressiveness and amusement.

It’s difficult to explain the different elements of rhythm. But you can certainly feel it!
So understanding note lengths, tempo and beats, below you’ll find some elements of rhythm to experiment with (use links for reference) that can change the feeling of your song:

Or even the flavour of the percussion, like compression, distortion, clean sound, hard electronic samples, jazz kits, etc. But it’s important to note that even though rhythm has a lot to do with percussion and drums, every other instrument in the song contributes to the rhythm, including the vocals.

Generally speaking, you can also say…

  • That smooth and consistent rhythms arouse a sense of happiness and peace.
  • Rough and irregular rhythms give a sense of amusement or uneasiness.
  • Varied rhythms arouse a sense of joy.

It’s interesting to notice that in general, rhythms don’t have significant negative emotions attached to it.

Want to add some groove in your drum patterns? Watch Music Radar (re)create the world-famous Amen Break in this article.

Now, let’s get groovy and start playing with those rhythms!

Here comes the sun text

Now it’s time to tell your story through lyrics

Writing lyrics is a form of storytelling, and writing “good” lyrics is a lifelong pursuit. Since everyone has their tastes and different ways of writing styles, it’s difficult to pin down what makes some lyrics better than others. Regardless, lyrics give songs an extra level on which to be identified.

As in all creative processes, there is no one-way approach! Writing song lyrics has no set rules and can be done before, during or after the instrumental part of your song. The lyrics can set the mood of the song you want to write, but also the other way around: the instrumental sets the tone for a lyric.

Rather than starting by writing lyrics, try exploring different themes and topics through reading, writing, visual art, or anything else that inspires you. The first step is usually the hardest, so if you have something interesting to start with, you can already try setting the stage of the song. Setting the stage is about what you want your audience to feel when they hear your song. What is that emotion that you want them feeling as your lyrics hit their ears? Here are some basic human emotions that are sure to trigger a response when used in your lyrics.

  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Trust
  • Grief
  • Belonging
  • Value
  • Love

Many images come with emotional associations. When Simon & Garfunkel sings: “I am a rock, I am an island” we understand what they mean. The singer isn’t actually, physically a rock or an island. Instead, these images are used to express the isolation and stony silence the singer is feeling.

Try it: Choose an emotion: happiness, love, trust, fear, suspicion, joy, grief. Make a list of images that express that feeling for you. Try writing a few lyric lines around some of those images to see how it works. It’s a great exercise!

For more lyric writing tips and exercises:

Play with words; Songwriter Keith Ayling explains how he was given the gift of songwriting and then had it taken away. But he created a method that everyone can quickly learn and proves that we are all songwriters with a story to tell.

Although some people seem to have “the gift”, do keep in mind that writing lyrics is something you can practice. Not everything has to be usable, just write! If you have something, you can then always play around with it to make it fit; like choice and order of words, and the structure of the sentence.

Some references for writing lyrics:

That’s it!
We hope it gives you some exciting ideas for your next song. Or to look at those other songs on the shelf. If they didn’t feel quite right, it might be something emotional happening under the hood. Try one of the things above the next time. And see what happens.