While musical features like slow tempo, minor mode, quiet dynamics, and legato articulation have been identified as particularly suitable for conveying sadness, the affective connotations of instrumentation practice in Western orchestral music have received limited attention (McAdams, 2013). Following up on recent findings that solo instrumentation is consistent with the conveyance of sad affect (Hansen & Huron, 2018), we here test a related conjecture for offstage instrumentation. A corpus analysis was conducted on 218 four-bar passages from 100 classical works written by 75 unique composers between 1760 and 2017. Offstage (i.e., lontano) passages were compared with matched control excerpts from the same works. Each passage was coded according to known sadness-expressing features: slow tempo, quiet dynamics, low pitch height, narrow pitch range, legato articulation, smooth rhythms, low textural density, decreased activity level, prominent use of the minor mode, solo instrumentation, and instruments deemed particularly suitable for conveying sadness. A logistic regression model predicted offstage status with 77 % accuracy from sadness-related features like slow tempo, narrow pitch range, and low textural density, but also from salience-related features like major mode, punctuated rhythm, and non-sad instrumental timbres. Follow-up analysis, however, revealed that sadness-related features outperformed salience-related ones for the entire corpus whereas salience-related features were better for brass excerpts and sadness-related features were better for non-brass repertoire. This suggests that despite a significant association between lontano passages and sad musical features, offstage instrumentation also serves other musical contexts such as those depicting the hunt, military, and pastoral topoi (Monelle, 2006).
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