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Emotion. 2010 Jun;10(3):335-48. doi: 10.1037/a0017928.

The minor third communicates sadness in speech, mirroring its use in music.

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Department of Psychology, Tufts University, Medford, MA 02155, USA.


There is a long history of attempts to explain why music is perceived as expressing emotion. The relationship between pitches serves as an important cue for conveying emotion in music. The musical interval referred to as the minor third is generally thought to convey sadness. We reveal that the minor third also occurs in the pitch contour of speech conveying sadness. Bisyllabic speech samples conveying four emotions were recorded by 9 actresses. Acoustic analyses revealed that the relationship between the 2 salient pitches of the sad speech samples tended to approximate a minor third. Participants rated the speech samples for perceived emotion, and the use of numerous acoustic parameters as cues for emotional identification was modeled using regression analysis. The minor third was the most reliable cue for identifying sadness. Additional participants rated musical intervals for emotion, and their ratings verified the historical association between the musical minor third and sadness. These findings support the theory that human vocal expressions and music share an acoustic code for communicating sadness.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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