Interval Size and Affect: An Ethnomusicological Perspective


  • Sarha Moore University of Sheffield



sad, harmonic minor, Phrygian, Hicaz, Bhairav, Yishtabach


This commentary addresses Huron and Davis’s question of whether “The Harmonic Minor Provides an Optimum Way of Reducing Average Melodic Interval Size, Consistent with Sad Affect Cues” within any non-Western musical cultures. The harmonic minor scale and other semitone-heavy scales, such as Bhairav raga and Hicaz makam, are featured widely in the musical cultures of North India and the Middle East. Do melodies from these genres also have a preponderance of semitone intervals and low incidence of the augmented second interval, as in Huron and Davis’s sample? Does the presence of more semitone intervals in a melody affect its emotional connotations in different cultural settings? Are all semitone intervals equal in their effect? My own ethnographic research within these cultures reveals comparable connotations in melodies that linger on semitone intervals, centered on concepts of tension and metaphors of falling. However, across different musical cultures there may also be neutral or lively interpretations of these same pitch sets, dependent on context,manner of performance, and tradition. Small pitch movement may also be associated with social functions such as prayer or lullabies, and may not be described as “sad.” “Sad,” moreover may not connote the same affect cross-culturally.