Are Stopped Strings Preferred in Sad Music?


  • David Huron Ohio State University
  • Caitlyn Trevor Ohio State University



Sad music, string instruments, stopped strings, Barber's Adagio


String instruments may be played either with open strings (where the string vibrates between the bridge and a hard wooden nut) or with stopped strings (where the string vibrates between the bridge and a performer's finger pressed against the fingerboard). Compared with open strings, stopped strings permit the use of vibrato and exhibit a darker timbre. Inspired by research on the timbre of sad speech, we test whether there is a tendency to use stopped strings in nominally sad music. Specifically, we compare the proportion of potentially open-to-stopped strings in a sample of slow, minor-mode movements with matched major-mode movements. By way of illustration, a preliminary analysis of Samuel Barber's famous Adagio from his Opus 11 string quartet shows that the selected key (B-flat minor) provides the optimum key for minimizing open string tones. However, examination of a broader controlled sample of quartet movements by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven failed to exhibit the conjectured relationship. Instead, major-mode movements were found to avoid possible open strings more than slow minor-mode movements.