Pitch direction on the perception of major and minor modes

Atten Percept Psychophys. 2021 Jan;83(1):399-414. doi: 10.3758/s13414-020-02198-6. Epub 2020 Nov 23.


One factor affecting the qualia of music perception is the major/minor mode distinction. Major modes are perceived as more arousing, happier, positive, brighter, and less awkward than minor modes. This difference in emotionality of modes is also affected by pitch direction, with ascending pitch associated with positive affect and decreasing pitch with negative affect. The present study examined whether pitch direction influenced the identification of major versus minor musical modes. In six experiments, participants were familiarized with ascending and descending major and minor modes. We then played ascending and descending scales or simple eight-note melodies and asked listeners to identify the mode (major or minor). Identification of mode was moderated by pitch direction: major modes were identified more accurately when played with ascending pitch, and minor modes were identified better when played with descending pitch. Additionally, we replicated the difference in emotional affect between major and minor modes. The crossover pattern in mode identification may result from dual activation of positive and negative constructs, under specific combinations of mode and pitch direction.

Keywords: Music perception; Musical mode; Pitch direction.

MeSH terms

  • Cognition
  • Emotions
  • Happiness
  • Humans
  • Music*
  • Pitch Perception*