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The Theory of Musical Equilibration

November 14, 2015

By Daniela and Bernd Willimek


The Theory of Musical Equilibration explains the emotional impact of music

Why is it that the minor key sounds sad? Until recently, science seemed unable to provide an answer to this question. German researchers Bernd and Daniela Willimek have developed the Theory of Musical Equilibration (die Strebetendenz-Theorie), which provides the first viable hypothesis about the emotional effects of music, offering a major contribution to psychological studies.  Expressed in simple terms, their Theory posits, for example, that a minor key does not sound sad in and of itself;  instead, the person listening to the music identifies with a process of will which conveys the idea, “No more.” Identifying with the content of this will is what fills the minor key with a sense of sorrow.

To date scientists have unsuccessfully attempted to establish a direct correlation between music and emotions. The Theory of Musical Equilibration, however, explains the emotional impact of music as a general process in which the listener identifies with the content of the will encoded in the music. The Theory of Musical Equilibration creates a framework in which even complex and special processes of the will can be depicted musically, based on the many options that result from harmonies, both as they are played and when they are anticipated. Other musical parameters such as tempo, timbre and volume play a part as well. The Theory explains why a minor chord played at increasing volume does not seem sad, but rather angry: it expresses the same message, “No more,” but now appears to be full of energy and aggressive. Hearing this chord at a louder volume is similar to identifying with a person loudly screaming “No more.”

To obtain statistical validation of the emotional effects of harmonies, the researchers have conducted extensive tests with over 2100 participants from four continents; members of the famous Vienna Boys’ Choir and the Regensburg Cathedral Choir have also taken part. The tests yielded a strikingly high correlation of 86%, confirming that certain harmonies are preferred over others in specific contexts, a phenomenon defined and explained by the Theory. For example, the diminished seventh has been conclusively linked to the feeling of despair, while an augmented chord conveys a feeling of astonishment. Furthermore, Bernd and Daniela Willimek cite multiple examples from musical literature which illustrate that for centuries, composers have made deliberate use of these harmonies to inspire particular emotions.

Their book Music and Emotions – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration is available free of charge at the link It bases its arguments on musical repertoire itself, and its precise analytical descriptions of harmony are compelling as a generally valid parameter for composing music. Currently, tests are being conducted at a neurological clinic because the insights the Theory offers are also promising in the field of musical therapy.

Music and Emotions – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration: Introduction

The link between music and emotions is more of an issue than ever before, and music research is increasingly focusing on understanding the complex characteristics of this interaction. After all, for a long time the fact that music has an emotional impact upon us was one of the greatest of enigmas, since fundamentally it only consists of inanimate frequencies. This is a topic something we do not usually think about in everyday life, and that is why an aura of the indescribable still hovers around music. The question as to how and why music can convey feelings seems to have a certain taboo to it ― and interestingly enough, this is the case among musicians as well.

Although people like to describe music as an international language, science has still not been able to provide an explanation that deconstructs the nature of this language. For decades, it left the task of decrypting this enigma to a small group of people: music psychologists. Despite being well-equipped with statistics software and calculators, music psychologists to date have not had any more success than the widely-cited brain research of recent decades when it comes to resolving the question about why music can stimulate an emotional response.

The Theory of Musical Equilibration (known in the original German as the Strebetendenz-Theorie) is the first to create a psychological paradigm which explains the emotional effects of music. It breaks down musical sequences into one of their most essential components ― harmony ― and directly uses this material as the basis of its argumentation. Harmony is essentially music in its concentrated form, since within a single moment it can reflect melodic and other musical processes which otherwise can only be depicted over a given interval of time. The psychology of harmony is the psychology of musical feelings. This book uses selected examples from the repertoire to make clear that the emotional character of musical harmonies cannot only be systematically deconstructed, but plausibly justified and empirically demonstrated.

Between 1997 and 2011, over 2000 participants at German schools in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America took part in studies on the Theory of Musical Equilibration; most recently, participants included the famous Vienna Boys’ Choir and the Regensburg Cathedral Choir. The results of our research offer empirical validation of the Theory which explains the correlation between musical harmonies and emotions.

Between 2008 and 2010 over 1700 participants from many different countries took part in Theory of Music Equilibration surveys.

Between 2008 and 2010 over 1700 participants from many different countries took part in Theory of Music Equilibration surveys.

In his book Musikpsychologie[1], musicologist Ernst Kurth offered an initial insight into understanding the psychology of listening to music. Despite the fact that his observations were primarily rooted in his personal experience, he nevertheless came to a significant and certainly universal conclusion: before we perceive frequencies and interpret them as music, they are physically experienced and then undergo an internal translation into something with a different essential nature. However, Ernst Kurth’s description of the physical concept of potential energy was misleading when he compared musical perceptions with material processes. His hypotheses gave rise to an invalid conclusion: he saw physical potential energy as something that people can identify through pure feeling. This was probably the cause of the fateful error in his thoughts about physics, the result of which rendered his work all but useless in psychological research. In his 1987 thesis Das musikalische Raumphänomen[2], Bernd Willimek, then a college student, corrected Ernst Kurth’s incorrect comparison of feelings and potential energy, and he created a new interpretation of this context by explaining how people identify with processes of will. The Theory of Musical Equilibration[3] which resulted is the first description of harmonic functions as the listeners’ ability to identify with processes of the will; these processes run counter to the equilibration effects as Ernst Kurth understood them.

To anyone who has ears to hear, the many epochs and genres in music provide an endless range of material for studying the correlation between chords and emotions. In our research, we focused on compositions found in Romantic lieder, Impressionist music, film music and pop music: these types of music show a clear connection between the use of musical harmonies and the content of lyrics and/or scenes. The overlap found here highlights easily identifiable correlations to the Theory of Musical Equilibration’s descriptions of musical harmonies. Our early research yielded promising results: we asked children of different ages to tell us their spontaneous responses to different chords. The way in which the children attribute a certain character to musical harmonies shows unmistakable parallels in the results of our later research.

It is our hope that our study will serve as an impetus for observing the emotional impact of music and will contribute to a long-overdue revival of the respective areas of musicological research.

1. Ernst Kurth, Musikpsychologie, (1930; ND Hildesheim: Olms, 1969).

2. Bernd Willimek, Das musikalische Raumphänomen, graduate thesis as part of the music-theory degree program at the Karlsruhe University of Music, 1987.

3. Bernd Willimek, “Die Strebetendenz-Theorie,Tonkünstlerforum Baden-Württemberg, 1998. No. 29 and No. 30, September and December 1998.

Daniela and Bern Willimek, authors of Music and Emotions: Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration.

Daniela and Bernd Willimek, authors of Music and Emotions: Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration.

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