How To Use Chords To Shape Feelings And Emotions

This is perhaps one of the best descriptors of chords and emotions I have discovered online, on the I breathe music forum by Jon R. Very helpful if you are looking for that right sound/feeling :

Maj triad

Neutral, but also strong, simple, positive, sturdy, clear. The most no-nonsense ending to a piece, the period at rhe end of the last sentence of the book. Not necessarily “happy”, except in a context where we might expect a minor chord (like the “tierce de
picardy” ending, which is like the sun coming out). But never sad.

Min triad

Dark, moody. Not necessarily “sad” – other factors (see above) can determine whether its moodiness is miserable, reflective, or intensely energetic. (Eg, the James Bond theme – see below – is in a minor key. Is that sad? Is Hava Nagila sad?)


Wisftul, nostalgic. A strong and obvious effect (IMO). Classic ballad chord, cheesy if overdone. Open and airy; not necessarily sad, but definitely sighing…


The classical tension chord. In conventional (old-fashioned) music, strongly suggests a following chord. Like a question with only one answer, demands that answer. But in modern music (thanks partly to blues), its tension can be felt as a groovy funkiness, a
quizzical, streetwise smirk. If you end a tune on a dom7, it’s like a big wink “what, you want an ending?? that’s NOT all, folks…”
Its central interval – the “engine” of the tension – is the tritone, the medieval “diabolus in musica”. They couldn’t handle its dissonance then, but it’s a comfortable part of our culture now. (On its own, the tritone is still stark – think the opening to Purple Haze – but
it’s softened, civilized, by the other intervals in the chord.)


A very subtle tension, not at all unbearable. Brighter in feel than a plain minor, it’s like a minor (introspective) mood, but with an opening for optimism. “OK, things aren’t really too bad, in fact they’re kinda cool…”


Warm, reassuring, even smug. Like you were a minor chord, and this is a major chord putting its arm around you, saying “hey come on let’s have a smile”. Trouble with maj6 chords is, they just don’t understand….:D (yeah, that’s the kind of grin they give you.)
NB: it’s the same notes as a min7, in a different inversion. So the two are closely related. The maj6 (obviously because of its maj triad basis) has a more positive vibe.


Mysterious, slightly creepy. End a minor key tune on a min6, and it’s like a raised eyebrow “oh, really…you think so, huh?” The James Bond theme ends on one of these, with a maj7 thrown in for good measure – that’s a big brash, soup of a chord:



The classic silent movie melodrama chord: “Oh no, he’s tied her to the track!! and there’s a train coming!!!” (yep this chord is all italics and exclamation marks.) Probably even more recognisable as a sound than the maj7. Everyone knows what a dim7 signifies.

Half-dim (m7b5)

Hard one to call, this. It’s the same notes as a min6, but in a different inversion, the choice of root note making it less stable. So certainly mysterious, and unresolved – but not as in-your-face melodramatic as the dim7. When Wagner opened Tristan and Isolde
with one of those, it caused outrage. It wasn’t an unknown harmony, but he didn’t use it properly; he audaciously didn’t resolve it the way you were supposed to. It was so notorious (and ultimately influential) it became known as the “Tristan chord”. To Wagner,
it signified tragedy, dark fate, a restless romantic dissonance that can never be solved; a story that can have no happy ending.

he plays it at 0:40. To us – as he goes on to explain – its a lot milder, even benign. It gets used in jazz all the time as a subdominant.

NB: dom7, dim7, m6, m7b5, all have the tritone in common. That gives them their restlessness. But the other intervals in the chord soften and colour the tritone in different ways. The dim7 is most tense because it contains two overlapping tritones equally
balanced – that’s what gives it its “on tenterhooks” feel. Its symmetry means it could resolve in any direction, so we don’t know which way to turn – panic! The fact it’s also stacked minor 3rds only softens it a little.


In classical music, a definite tension that must be resolved (we expect the 4 to come down to the 3 of a maj triad and make everything OK). However, because it lacks the tritone of the dom7 (and others), it doesn’t have the same restlessness, the same “itch”.
IOW, it’s tension depends largely on its context – what comes before.
In modern music, this chord is commonly removed from its classical context, so we can enjoy its ambiguity, its open-ended nature, for its own sake. Listen to the chords in this:

Every one is a 7sus4, and they shine with bright expectation. It’s the expectation not of disaster, nor of final resolution, but of a promising future, where we don’t know what will happen, but we don’t mind. We almost can’t wait. “Maiden voyage” is perfectly

titled in that respect: setting out we know not where, let’s just drift and see where we end up…

Also this famous opening chord of course:

– slightly more complicated than a 7sus4, with a 9 as well, which just ups the tension. But still brightly positive, almost unbearably so. This is a “maiden voyage” on a speedboat, with a bunch of teenagers at the wheel… woo-hoo!


Poignant, bittersweet. Related to the maj7, but where the maj7 sighs “ah, those were the days…”, the add9 says “oh, if only….”


As above, but on top of the darkness of minor. The saddest chord there is. The Yardbirds knew this, as demonstrated here:

You get the darkness of the E minor key fully milked by the deep Gregorian chant-style vocal, and the cavernous cathedral reverb. It goes to major after a while, but then at 0:40, you get that chord: Emadd9.
Man, his girl hasn’t just left him. She’s DEAD, probably from plague or something… Everyone’s wearing black cloaks and hoods, it’s midnight in a foggy December, and the chord is a funeral bell. “None more black” (© Nigel Tufnel)
Just think how it would sound if they didn’t actually resolve that 9th down to the tonic… “No-o-o-o-o-!…”.:eek:

For more:

The value and scope of music is quite vast. The more I consider music as a tool to paint and convey emotions the more I feel like exploring new musical territories. By intertwining these chords you can get a tempest of emotions, the key is to initiate them in a sequence that the brain lights up in different areas. That is why people love music most, “Research indicates that people value music primarily because of the emotions it evokes.”

I was speaking to an old music schoolmate and ended up discussing how we share a mutual sexual attraction towards the diminished 7th chord. Most people in fact, do no like a lot of dissonance but we find this chord such a delight, he posits that the augmented chords are a relative cousin towards the diminished, though it is rarely used in music, so I took him up on the offer and decided to make my own little tune with augmented chords.

It’s more than consonance versus dissonance, I believe the average person does not handle such dissonance well, because they have not opened their ears to such chords, if they are just limited to popular music. Once you are acclimated to different sounds and chords, I think one can gain a new appreciation for them and music in general.

Check out my latest electronica releases on bandcamp:
Dark Techno, IDM/Synthpop, Ambient, Industrial

8 thoughts on “How To Use Chords To Shape Feelings And Emotions

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