Music can powerfully affect—or reflect—your mood. Sites like and can create playlists depending on which word you click on, like “melancholy”, “happy”, “excited”, and so on. Others, like Focus@Will provide a soundtrack scientifically designed to help you reach a specific mental state. How do they do it?

Most people would agree in saying that the way that music makes them feel is what makes that music so great. So how is this done?

Is there a specific formula to follow for creating sad, angry, or optimistic music?

Let’s explore the ways that music can entirely alter your mood, or can line itself up so perfectly with your current state of mind.

We’ll skip the most obvious of ways to do this: through lyrics. Naturally the subject matter of a song will alter the mood of the listener. Instead, we will explore the musical elements concerned with creating mood in a piece of music. Think of film scores, for example. How does the composer manage to create suspense or provoke tears in the viewers?

Here are three pieces of music in various styles which evoke very different emotions or moods.

1. Sigur Rós – Hoppípolla

Although this is not technically an instrumental, the Icelandic lyrics are not required to make this song moving to people from around the world. The music itself manages to create an uplifting mood.

Some musical elements that help to create this sound are:

  • Use of a major key: which usually convey a more upbeat sound
  • Ascending piano lines: literally creating that uplifting sound.
  • Reverb: Creating a lush atmosphere
  • Use of octaves: a nice consonant interval
  • Instrumentation: the build-ups in this song are slow and gradually increase to a full orchestra creating that sense of conclusion for the listener
  • Well-chosen timbres: the bell sound of the piano and the gentle vocals help create a brighter and more optimistic sound
  • The hooks: two main hook lines played by the piano and sung in the vocals are used throughout, but are later used by the whole orchestra, with the strings taking as leading role
  • Simple chord structure: the song mostly rotates through just 4 chords

Listen again and try to identify each of these techniques being used.

2. Soundtrack from Pan’s Labyrinth – Javier Navarrete

This track works well as a lullaby, and has magical qualities within the music that make it incredibly suitable for the film.

Some musical elements that help to create this mood are:

  • Simple melody: The main melody is very simple, with the rhythm and movement of the notes hardly altering in each phrase, but instead just changing a last note or moving the whole motif up in register
  • Lullaby-like sound: the main melody is initially introduced as a humming in the vocals, with only some suspended strings underneath it. This creates a simplistic sound reminiscent of a lullaby
  • Waltz time: The track is in 3/4, with the arpeggios in the piano line emphasising this.
  • Minor key: Using a minor key creates a more melancholic feel
  • Slow simple progressions: The chords move slowly, the main pattern being: I – I – I – IV – IV – IV – IV – V
  • Haunting instrumentation: The track uses slow-moving and haunting vocals and strings in the later section. A harp is also used, creating a mystical sound

3. Requiem For A Dream, Orchestral Version

This soundtrack manages to evoke suspense, keeping the listener on edge.

Some musical elements that help to create this sound are:

  • No resolution: A consistently repeating bass note on the tonic (root note of the chord) creates suspense as it presents a lack of movement in the track, leading to a lack of resolution
  • Dissonances: the vocals used in this track are singing a melody that is often entirely clashing with the main theme
  • Audio effects: the ‘saw’ or ‘marching’ sound that is heard throughout this track puts a listener on edge by being quite harsh to the ears and unexpected compared with the rest of the instrumentation
  • The hook: It has a very short, repetitive hook line. This very simple idea gets built on very slowly to change into something a little bigger each time
  • Strong build-ups: From ominous low strings to aggressive drums and choral sections that slowly create a more and more epic sound

Next time you listen to a track and you feel particularly moved by it, although it seems like it must be magic, listen a little harder and try to pinpoint the things about the track that manage to move you so successfully.

Learn to capture or change an audience’s mood and you hold the secret to creating truly powerful music…

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