Musical Experience and Description – Chapter 9

Much of the time, we assume that music is a form of expression. This is something that piqued my interest while considering the research I have conducted for my paper. Music could be seen as an experience of emotion rather than an expression. In music, the listener should be an active participant in the music, not a merely passive listener. If the listener is unengaged in the music or is distracted, I find it reasonable that such an experience would be less immersive, and as such, could be an expression to an audience rather than evoking a novel experience in the listener. Derek Matravers writes an essay titled “The Experience of Emotion in Music,” wherein he tackles two large questions.

The first is in regards to the actually experience, “What is the experience like? And where does it locate the expressive property?” (Matravers 353) Analytically, it stands to reason that this question is prompting the listener or the audience to focus on the feelings of the music and how it affects them in the moment. This also raises the question of whether or not the music should be analyzed in the moment or if it should be savored and then considered in hindsight. The second question is about the “enlightening way in which expression can be analyzed” (Matravers 353). I think that this follows from the previous question, and that the two questions begin to form a cohesive whole that is asking about the nature of expressional emotion.

According to Nick Zangwill, “we give many descriptions of music (and of the way music sounds) that are not emotion descriptions, yet which are obviously metaphorical.” (392) In his essay, “Music, Metaphor, and Emotion,” Zangwill begins to address the idea that music is described in terms of an emotion, but he also tackles the idea that this is done through use of metaphor. This language is important, because it gives the listener a way to begin to knowledgeably address the way that a piece of music makes them feel. Zangwill also continues to emphasize the fact that music is described with terms that we do not typically apply or associate with emotions (392). The argument that Zangwill makes is that music should be described, for best effect, with a combination of emotional and nonemotional metaphors. The example he uses is that “angry music is usually violent or jagged.” (393)

This concept makes quite a bit of sense in association with the questions that Matravers posed. In order to address the ways in which music creates or causes an experience, there must first be a basic understanding of how to discuss the experience or emotion that is generated or felt. As such, the first step to understanding the way that music affects an individual is for that person to be able to coherently express their opinion on the mood or tone of the piece. In fact, later in his essay, Zangwill writes, “primary musical experience involves various experiences, such as perceptual experiences of the music and experiences of pleasure in the music.” (397) Zangwill’s argument is that the emotional reactions are not part of the music itself, but rather “some typical music-reaction correlations.” (398). I think that this argument is valid, but that emotion itself should be viewed as an elastic concept which evolves along with the listener’s understanding of the piece. In light of the research that I have done on the subject, and in light of my personal experiences, I am not certain that Zangwill’s argument is correct, however many of his points do have merit. Additionally, I can understand how the reaction a listener has to music could be an understanding and acknowledgement of the emotion that it is perceived to be describing and not an actual evocation of emotion.

In Matravers’ essay, the idea of experience as an imagination or perception is also touched on. He writes, “the experience the sound causes in us is correctly described (…) as our imagining of it [the experience]” (359). I take this to mean that, in a way, Matravers is agreeing with the idea that music is a two part experience, and that he argues for the reaction to music while the music is being experienced. In order to have a reaction to the music itself and to an imagination of an emotion that is being evoked, the listener is necessarily engaged in the music and in a mental state that creates emotional references. Thus, I think that it is reasonable to state that the experience of music is related to a personal knowledge of emotional context.

Matravers, Derek, “The Experience of Emotion in Music,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 61, no. 4 (Fall 2003): 353-63. Accessed November 4, 2015. JSTOR.

Zangwill, Nick, “Music, Metaphor, and Emotion,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65, no. 4 (Fall 2007): 391-400. Accessed November 4, 2015. JSTOR.


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