Music, Emotion, Prediction, & Anticipation

In this lesson, you’ll learn:

We’ll explore some examples of wince-inducing intervals, as well as calm-inducing ones.  Master how to use these, along with when they occur in time, and you will be well on the way to creating the music you want, be that jamming with friends or in a band, or writing your own tunes.  We won’t go into much detail about scales and chords, other than introduce the concepts.

Here you’ll be investigating what emotional responses arise in you from combining the sounds of two pitches (this resulting sound being an interval)



You should have read working with emuso lessons.

An understanding of the semitone, and what we mean mean by two pitches that are a semitone apart.


Music and our Emotions

How many times have you heard a melody for the very first time and yet you feel you know where the melody is going next?  How often have you heard an out-of-tune singer  in a band and you can’t stand it?  Howe many times has music made  you happy, sad, relaxed, and angry even.  It can make you tap your foot, even when you’re not really listening.  It can make you irresistibly want to dance.  And so on.  Music has a profound effect on how we feel, how we move. But why?  Well, cognitive psychologists focused on music have for decades  been researching into our emotional and physical responses to music, and their insights are pretty amazing.  They have proved (as best they can) that there’s something very deep inside humans that, as a musician, you ignore at your peril, if you truly want to connect with your listeners and those you play with.

Something about when sounds start and stop over time, along with the tempo, and the beat, plus the use of repeated similar patterns in the occurrences of sound (not necessarily the same sound), has a huge impact on us, and our ability to “lock” to the music, and our ability to remember some (all) of it.

Musical Sounds Are All About the Number of Semitones Between Pitches

As you’ll shortly explore, the musical sounds we hear are  fundamentally determined by the number of semitones between the physical sounds that form and disappear over time, interspersed with silence.  After the single pitch,  the most basic sound we relate to occurs between two individual pitches, where the number of semitones between these determines the sound quality we perceive in our brains.  At any instance in time, there may be zero or more pitches from one or more instruments (including the voice) contributing to the sound we hear.

The number of semitones between two pitches produced by an instrument contributes to your  emotional response.  This has NOTHING to do with note names, or specific tones.  It’s this semitone distance that we respond to, which I’ll elaborate on in this lesson.  This is very good news.  The practical implication is there is far, far less to learn, understand, and apply in your playing, because you don’t have to consider the individual note names involved in the music


What is an Interval?

The sound of two pitches forms what musicians call an interval, the fundamental currency of all music (other than pure percussion).  Different semitone distances have very different sounds, and musicians give these different distances names, such as “octave”, or “minor third” and so on.  We’ll start to get into interval names in the next lesson.  Different instruments have different ways of creating intervals.  Some, like a sax or trumpet, can only really create a single pitch at a time (ignoring some special techniques), so they can only play melodically (sounds created one after another).  Others, like guitar and piano, can play many pitches at once (guitar using several strings).  So these can create harmonic intervals (sounds created played at the same time).

On stringed instruments, the hand shapes used to create intervals are completely determined by how the instrument is tuned:  how many semitones apart the pitches are of  each pair of adjacent open strings.  We’ll look at this in the lesson on how tuning affects shapes.


What is a Scale?

Very often,  various patterns of somewhere between five to seven different pitches are chosen from the twelve available  semitones in the octave, where each of the chosen pitches are one to three semitones apart from each other:  or equivalently each of the chosen pitches forms an interval or zero or more semitones with some arbitrary starting pitch.  The resulting pitches (and their octaves) become your sound palette to work with.  On piano, pitches produced by five to seven out of a block of twelve adjacent piano keys would be chosen, and these would repeat in adjacent blocks.  The equivalent block on guitar contains pitches produced at twelve adjacent frets on the same string, and the choice of starting fret determines the resulting scale pitches (and their octaves).  For now, don’t worry about octaves … they extend the pitches available in our sound palette, but don’t fundamentally changes its sound flavour.

We call such a pattern a scaleNo matter the choice for the starting pitch, everything else then must follow at these semitone distances to achieve the sound flavour of that scale.  We call the start pitch of the scale its tonic. Change the start pitch, the other pitches must shift to maintain their semitone distances so the scale has the same sound flavour, just higher or lower.  Change the pattern, and you get a different type of scale, a different sound flavour.

Musicians use names for scales, rather than stating the actual pattern involved.  Each different scale type (flavour) has a different name, and a pattern of semitones that uniquely create that flavour.  So, you’ll hear about the “minor pentatonic” scale, or the “major” scale and so on.  In actual music, the writer or performers choose the tonic pitch for the scale, specifying a name, such as E major, or G major.  The choice is made usually because of ease of performance using the resulting pitches.  The performers may experiment to find a suitable tonic, especially if a singer is struggling to hit the resulting pitches.  Don’t worry about the pitch names, like E or G, for now. (emuso makes this easy, as the pitch strip can be used to position the scale at the desired tonic)


What is a Chord?

Combining more than two pitches at the same time results in several intervals mixing together, producing the distinctive sound of a chord made up of this mixture.  One of these pitches stands out the most to our ear, and we hear the other pitches forming intervals with this one (which we call the root of the chord).  Different interval combinations produce different sound flavours, different chord types.  The pitches chosen most often come from the scale being used for the sound palette (but not always … be too boring otherwise!)

Again, change the start pitch for the chord root, then the other pitches must be laid out at the same semitone distances to achieve the same sound flavour.  We just hear this flavour higher or lower.

On guitar there is usually more that one way to find the required pitches for a given chord or scale, as the same pitch can be created at different frets on different strings.

This means that music is based on intervals centred around some chosen pitch.  The actual pitches involved are irrelevant (other than physical difficulty for a singer say) … but the relationships … the semitone distances … are critical.  Musicians utilise these relationships between scales and chords and place the interval(s) in time using rhythm.  Let’s take a brief look and listen to some rhythm


What is Rhythm?

When you hear notes, some short, some long in duration, interspersed with silence, you are listening to rhythm … the occurrence of sound(s) over time.

Most music (modern or not)  makes you want to tap your foot at evenly spaced out times, and once you’ve latched on to this, the music can hold less and less note content, and we’ll still keep tapping our foot in time.  If you pay attention to where the sounds start, you’ll find that sometimes the sound coincides with your foot tap, but not always.

Listen to this next example, and feel where you tap your foot.  (If when you click on the interaction icon, you can’t seen anything obvious, then move the mouse around near the bottom edge of emuso and you’ll see the mouse change shape, indicating that the horizontal line in that area can be dragged up and down to reveal more).  You are looking at Rhythm-X.  It looks like this:

You can also drag the top edge of rhythm-X to change the window split.

Press the “Start” button to start play back.  The button relabels to “Stop”.

Listen for the bass.  You hear it strongly on the 1st and 5th beats.  Beats 1, 3, 5 and 7 are all strong beats.  These are beats the listener is more aware of.  But beats 2, 4, 6 and 8 not as strong … we call these weak beats

The rhythm used (when these sounds occur against a tune’s beat, and their duration), ramps up or decreases the emotional impact of the music .   In fact, with short duration, and placed on a weak beat, the effect is so weakened that you can get away with playing very abrasive sounds as the listener is only vaguely aware of them.  But do this on a strong beat, and you’ll definitely catch the listener’s attention … even worse if you hold that pitch, or just stop dead.  Either of these will make a definite  imprint on the listener.




For example, if two pitches are an octave apart, we perceive a very stable sound made from the mix of these two pitches.   But if one of these is one semitone above the other, or eleven semitones above the other , we perceive something pretty unpleasant, and we want that mix to go away.  We react, sometimes very strongly, to interval(s) formed between pitches blended together from one or more instruments (think of a human voice as an instrument in this context).

Let’s have a quick listen.  Here are three examples.  Each is a different interval.  In each example, use the play style control to change between melodic and harmonic.  Experiment with the effect of this sound’s duration when the sound is harmonic (hold the play button for different durations).  Conversely, how do you feel when the sound is played melodically?

Also, try CTL-left-clicking at different instrument locations to move interval around.  Listen to whether you hear the same sound flavour each time just higher or lower.

Example 1: one semitone

Example 2:  The octave

Example 3:  four semitones

Example 4:  seven semitones


Intervals, Abrasive Sounds, Expectations

In music, we often use chords that have different levels of abrasiveness, creating different emotional responses in the listener.  If she hears a really abrasive chord in an otherwise non-abrasive piece of music, she will want that sound to go away, to be replaced by something “nicer”.  The same is true if we play a single pitch that is abrasive against a non-abrasive chord, and together we get abrasiveness.  She wants that single pitch to be replaced.  Expectations are being set up and maybe we oblige, maybe we don’t.  The rhythm involved really affects this.


Here is the crux of all matters musical…

  1. Different combinations of intervals produce very different, more complex, sounds (different chord and scale types) with the ability to further enhance or reduce our emotional responses.  (Interestingly, combining a wince-inducing interval with a stable sounding one can make the wince go away, whereas putting two wincers together gives an unholy cacophony)  Aside of jazz-related music, the vast majority of tunes in Western music only use a small number of combinations.  Understanding these is simple … the effort comes in knowing how to create these combinations on your instrument.  A knowledge of intervals, their sounds, and the hand shapes involved to create these intervals, again, greatly reduces this effort.
  2. Placement of combinations in time (against the beat), with their duration, strengthens or weakens the emotional effects, a lot.
  3. Repetition of rhythmic patterns (start and stop and duration) hugely lend to memorability and connection with a listener and other players alike.

Intervals lie at the heart of music making.  In Western music and instruments,  there are only twelve intervals singled out from a pitch on-instrument up to its octave above, out of which, somewhere between three and five are the most commonly used.  On guitar, this commonly used set translates to somewhere around four to six hand shapes (avoiding wide hand stretches).  On piano, this translates to somewhere between three and five hand shapes.

Hmmm … does that sound particularly scary, particularly cumbersome, to learn?  The times tables at school are way more effort to learn and remember.  Think about that for a bit, and let that realisation sink in.  Something has gone badly wrong for so many folks to think music is hard to understand.  And so that myth propagates.

However, we are going to kill that myth stone dead.  Even in this short series of beginner lessons.

emuso is designed to visually, aurally, and tactilely embed your awareness of intervals and their combinations.  emuso is designed for you to easily explore these,  so you can choose which you want to add to your mental music toolbox and muscle memory, where they are available for improvisation and writing your own tunes.

In the same vein, emuso is also designed to improve your awareness of time and structure within time (when sounds appear, and how long for, and how regularly), to show you how rhythm makes a huge difference. Depending on when interval combinations occur in time (on the strong beat, the weak beat, and so on)  in a tune, the emotional result can be greatly enhanced or reduced.  Suitable use of rhythm also greatly increases the memorability of a tune.  If there’s no rhythm or poor rhythm, there’s no music or poor music.

So over this series of lessons, we are going to get very familiar with the effects of various musical distances between sounds, and how the effect magnifies or diminishes depending when they occur in time.


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