Composers convey emotion through music by co-varying structural cues. Although the complex interplay provides a rich listening experience, this creates challenges for understanding the contributions of individual cues. Here we investigate how three specific cues (attack rate, mode, and pitch height) work together to convey emotion in Bach's Well Tempered-Clavier (WTC). In three experiments, we explore responses to (1) eight-measure excerpts and (2) musically “resolved” excerpts, and (3) investigate the role of different standard dimensional scales of emotion. In each experiment, thirty nonmusician participants rated perceived emotion along scales of valence and intensity (Experiments 1 & 2) or valence and arousal (Experiment 3) for 48 pieces in the WTC. Responses indicate listeners used attack rate, Mode, and pitch height to make judgements of valence, but only attack rate for intensity/arousal. Commonality analyses revealed mode predicted the most variance for valence ratings, followed by attack rate, with pitch height contributing minimally. In Experiment 2 mode increased in predictive power compared to Experiment 1. For Experiment 3, using “arousal” instead of “intensity” showed similar results to Experiment 1. We discuss how these results complement and extend previous findings of studies with tightly controlled stimuli, providing additional perspective on complex issues of interpersonal communication.

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