Western tonality provides a hierarchy among melodic scale-degrees, from the closural tonic triad notes to “out-of-key” chromatic notes. That hierarchy has been occasionally linked to emotion, with more closural degrees associated with more positive valence. However, systematic investigations of that association are lacking. Here, we examined the associations between tonality and emotion in three experiments, in musicians and in nonmusicians. We used an explicit task, in which participants matched probe tones following key-establishing sequences in major and minor keys to facial expressions ranging from sad to happy, and an implicit speeded task, adapting the Implicit Association Test. More closural scale-degrees were associated with more positive valence in all experiments, for both musicians and nonmusicians, with larger effects for major keys. The pattern of results significantly differed from that observed in a comparable goodness-of-fit task, suggesting that perceived scale-degree valence is not reducible to tonal fit. The comparison between the results from the explicit and implicit measures suggests that tonal valence may rely on two distinct mechanisms, one mediated by conceptual musical knowledge and conscious decisional processes, and the other largely modulated by nonconceptual, involuntary processes. The experimental paradigms introduced here may help mapping additional connotative meanings, both emotional and cross-modal, embedded in tonal structure, thus suggesting how “extra-musical” meanings are conveyed through tonal hierarchy.

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