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What Makes Music Sound Happy?

Zoe Sones

Ever wondered why music makes you feel a certain way? Learn what makes music sound happy and choose the perfect tracks for uplifting scenes.

A film score communicates the unspoken, gives the viewers an insight into what the world sounds like, and can foreshadow or take the viewer into a character’s distant memory. Those moments of happiness, excitement, and romance in a screenplay wouldn’t be complete without a musical score to enhance the emotion. Uplifting scores enhance happy scenes in various ways compositionally. Here are some techniques and examples.


Harmony and Tonality

In music theory, the chosen harmony and tonality can dictate the character of the music. In a painting, it would be the color scheme you select for the subject you want to create.

First, let’s distinguish the two. Tonality refers to music with a home tone (in music theory known as a tonic) that is stable throughout. Harmony is the study of chord progressions within the music. In a broad generalization, major and minor tonalities are associated with opposite emotions, major being “happy” and minor being “sad.”

Thomas Newman’s score for Finding Nemo has moments of pure magic achieved through using the major tonality. The track “Nemo Egg,” which occurs at the film’s opening, has a very warm and comforting feeling.

Rachel Portman’s score for Emma is another beautiful score that provides a very calm and positive nature. Specifically looking at the theme track “Emma,” the tonality is major throughout, but there are minor chords present. A harmonic language that only consists of major chords won’t necessarily make it sound “happy.”

Those minor chords present within the given tonality give the music shape and contour. As the piece progresses, you will hear some minor chords; listen out for the change in chords in the track below. This juxtaposition of major and minor chords also helps to develop a contrasting section which will, in turn, exaggerate the central theme that is in a major key.

Some chords may be more complex harmonically. A typical chord is made of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th. However, composers also use added notes to enrich the chord. As long as the added notes are within the tonality, having the 4th or the 6th included in a chord can change the sound significantly, and mainly for the better!


Piano, Strings, and Electronic Effects

Choosing the instrumentation is also key to bringing that joyful feeling to a scene. Whether it is romance, playfulness, or a moment of peace, many instrumental colors can complement these moods.

The piano is a popular choice amongst composers. It can be great for conveying nostalgia, calmness, and also romance.

Spirited Away is another soundtrack packed with adventure, joy, and romance. Hisaishi’s use of instrumentation captures these moods well.

One example of this is found in the composition for “One Summer Day.” The opening chords sound delicate and tranquil. The pianist achieves this by playing at a quiet dynamic and at a higher pitch on the piano. Hisaishi also instructs the pianist to arpeggiate the chords to soften the chordal texture, so it sounds lighter and also imitates the sound of a harp.

The presence of strings is also a common choice amongst composers for those highly romantic yet calm moments. As you can sustain the violin more so than a piano, you can dynamically swell the music to provide more shape to both the music and your edit. Strings can use a technique called vibrato, so the tone of the notes doesn’t sound so flat; it vibrates and gives a fuller sound.

Electronic instruments and effects are also used. This may be from synthesizer chords or other sound effects that may only be available electronically.

Thomas Newman is renowned for using these to enhance the sound world. His score for Revolutionary Road has utterances of electronic instruments and audio effects, very similar to his Finding Nemo score. The track “Picture Window” has a lush texture and a great combination of instruments: the unison strings playing tremolo to start, which then swells into a thicker chord in the lower strings, then a sustained chord in the higher strings. This is then complemented by the repetitive piano riff, surrounded by a pan flute and other eerie sound effects. You can hear the reverb in the piano that makes it sound fuller and more dream-like, same with the pan flute that’s heard, which also has a delay for an echo effect. So romantic!

Rhythm and Joy

For a more uplifting character, there is more scope for driving rhythms and faster speeds. Michael Giacchino’s score for Up gives the feeling of playfulness and a happy-go-lucky nature through these techniques. The track “Married Life” has a notable upbeat yet steady pace in the first half compared to the more romantic and slow pieces we’ve heard above.

In the accompaniment, it has an “um-cha-cha” rhythm which is very dance-like. This track is in three-time, meaning three beats in a bar. Not only does this track sound like a waltz, but it’s very joyful to listen to. The melody is moving more rhythmically and just feels faster.

Giacchino’s use of instrumentation also helps capture the joyfulness. He uses a variety of different instruments for the melody, such as a muted trumpet with a playful tone to it. The track also includes a clarinet, as well as a solo violin and a glockenspiel to add that twinkle into the mix. Having the melody change instruments makes the track more exciting to listen to.

Triumphant Melodies

The melody, in particular, is something the listeners will naturally latch onto. It’s the element that stands out the most. A lot of melodies sound incredibly triumphant, so it becomes more memorable. These tend to be the themes that occur throughout the entirety of the movie.

There are a few variables to consider with melodies when it comes to conveying happiness. We know that using a major tonality is a good start. Phrasing is also an important element as having balanced phrasing makes the melody more memorable and overall aesthetically pleasing for the listener.

There are many iconic movie melodies. John Williams is renowned for writing a number of triumphant melodies, including Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, and many more. Not only do these examples give that positive feeling, but also Williams gives them an exciting element.

The theme from Indiana Jones is a prime example. The use of a brass instrument playing this iconic melody is an excellent choice as it’s a very loud and prominent instrument. The use of percussion also heightens this. As mentioned previously, the driving rhythm and faster tempo in the accompaniment and main melody enable the listener to remember the tune. The faster and louder, the more exciting!

Whether you are watching a romantic movie, a comedy, or just a feel-good movie, listen for those beautiful string lines. Notice how dominant those theme tunes are throughout, and how the rhythm is either calm or exciting. Listen for the soundtrack and think about how the composer is communicating emotion and ultimately bringing that happiness to life.

For more happy scores from PremiumBeat, check out the playlist below.


Cover image by Mind Pixell.

For more insight into music, check out these articles:

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