Sounds Like… Joy!

From playing in flurries of snow to baking yummy holiday treats, December is all about sharing joy and cheer with the people you love. When you’re watching Christmas movies in your favorite pair of pajamas, notice the music that you hear in the background. So many songs are festive and relaxing for the winter season!

But what makes music sound joyful?

In our blog, “How to Talk About Music,” we learned that music can communicate different moods to listeners. We also covered several methods used by composers to write suspenseful music. However, many composers also want to communicate a carefree and joyous mood to their listeners, especially during this fun time of the year.

When Pixar makes short films, the composer of the background music has a very important job. Because the films don’t have dialogue, responsibility falls on composers and animators to help the audience feel specific emotions.

Listen to the background music in the beginning of the Disney short film Piper below. When the baby sandpiper is with her mother, what emotions do you feel?

Preview clip from Disney short film, “Piper.

Adrian Belew, the composer behind the clip above, uses music to make the audience feel happy and joyous — just like the baby sandpiper! At the end of the clip, when the wave comes, he changes the music to add suspense. We already learned about the ways that composers make music sound suspenseful, so here are some different ways that composers can achieve joyous sound.

1. Major Keys

If you need a refresher on the difference between major and minor keys, or the meanings of whole steps and half steps, check out our suspense blog. Minor scales sound melancholy to many people, but major scales often sound cheerful and happy! Why is this the case?

Major keys often sound happy because of the intervals between notes in the scale. The term interval in music refers to the distance between two notes, in terms of whole steps and half steps. A minor interval has one less half step than a major interval. For example, we can look at a C major third, which has four half steps:

C Major 3rd Interval

The above interval is a major interval. Many people think major intervals sound happy. We can also look at a C minor third, which has one less half step than the C major third — it only has three half steps:

C Minor 3rd Interval

The above interval is a minor interval. Many people think minor intervals sound sad. The music in the clip of Piper that you saw earlier is played in a major key, so it includes many major intervals. These help the listener feel happy.

2. Consistent Tempo

Tempo is an Italian word that refers to speed. If you walk, you’re moving at a slow tempo. If you’re running, you’re moving at a fast tempo.

In music, having a slow or fast tempo doesn’t necessarily make listeners feel happy or sad. However, having a consistent tempo (a tempo that stays the same throughout the music) can help the listener feel more relaxed and joyful. When a tempo speeds up, it can be exciting, but it can also feel nervous or suspenseful.

In the following clip of the Disney movie Ratatouille (2007), the inconsistent, frantic tempo at the beginning can make the audience feel stressed for the main character, a rat named Remy. But once Remy reaches the view of Paris (about 50 seconds into the clip), the tempo slows down and stays consistent. How does the music at the beginning make you feel? How about the end?

Clip from Disney’s “Ratatouille” (2007)

3. Predictable Melody

The melody of a song is the series of notes that are most important. When you have a song stuck in your head, you’re probably thinking about the melody of the song. If someone is singing, the singer usually has the melody. When an orchestra is playing, different instruments trade off the responsibility of having the melody.

Psychological studies, studies of people’s minds, have showed that the brain’s favorite type of music is predictable music. When the melody is predictable with only a few surprises, we like hearing the song again and again. That’s why our favorite songs typically get stuck in our heads the most. They’re predictable!

Many Christmas songs are great examples of the three topics that we’ve discussed above. Deck the Halls is in a major key. It also has a consistent tempo and a predictable, repetitive melody. All three of these traits have helped it become known as a joyous, happy Christmas song.

“Deck the Halls” instrumental version by Kevin MacLeod

Now that you’ve read about how composers can change the moods of their music, try using some of the words above! When you’re watching a happy scene in a holiday movie or TV show, how does the composer communicate joy through music? What emotions does the music make you feel?