Date of Award




Document Type

Master's Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Department of Psychology


Cognitive Psychology

Content Description

1 online resource (ii, iii, 25 pages) : illustrations (some color), music.

Dissertation/Thesis Chair

Wilfred T Neill


cognition, inversions, music, perception, tonality, Musical intervals and scales, Music, Musical pitch, Chords (Music), Tonality

Subject Categories



A musical chord consists of three or more simultaneous notes. Of particular importance in Western music are major and minor triads. A root-position major triad consists of a tonic note, a note a major third (4 half-steps) above it, and a note a perfect fifth (7 half-steps) above it—e.g., C-E-G for a C-major chord. Similarly, a root-position minor triad consists of a tonic, a minor third (3 half-steps) above it, and the perfect fifth—e.g., C-Eb-G for a C-minor chord. Even non-musicians reliably distinguish between root-position major and minor triads as “happy” or “sad” respectively. However, there has been little investigation of how the perception of major versus minor chords is affected by inversions: In a first inversion, the tonic is raised above the third and fifth (e.g., E-G-C); in a second inversion, both the tonic and third are raised above the fifth (e.g., G-C-E). In Experiment 1, participants learned to judge triads as “major” or “minor”, with feedback on each trial. They discriminated second-inversion triads as well as root-position triads, but performed poorly on first-inversion triads. In Experiment 2, participants judged major or minor triads as sounding “happy” or “sad”, without feedback. The results mirrored the first experiment: Major triads were judged most often as “happy” and minor triads most often as “sad”, in root position and second inversion. However, in first inversion, more major triads sounded “sad” and more minor triads sounded “happy”. In Experiments 3 and 4, tetrads were included along with triads to test if maintaining the musical intervals (but still changing the bottom note) impacted discriminability. The results imply that perception of major and minor chords is not determined merely by pitch classes, but instead depends on the specific intervals between notes and, importantly, that participants identify the tonic before determining whether a chord is either major or minor.

Included in

Psychology Commons