Musical Emotionality: The Intertwining of Music, Expression, and Emotion

 

 

Musical Emotionality:

The Intertwining of Music, Expression, and Emotion

 

 

 

 

Sara Laudeman

HONR 3700 – H04

DUE December 11, 2015

 

 

 

 

I – Introduction

Over the course of history, music has become intertwined with human culture. Music is accepted as natural, and many people find it enjoyable, drawing strength or solace from it. Joel Kreuger emphasizes this, stating that “music and musicality are deeply embedded in everyday life,” and that they help define the interpersonal relationships and communications we have on any given day.[1] While music varies drastically with region and time period, the ways in which music is understood, emotionally, are fairly uniform at first glance. Nearly every individual would agree that music is a type of emotional catalyst that can evince physical feelings or psychological emotions in an audience or listener. Rhythm, beat, and sound are concepts that humanity is drawn to, but there seems to be a lack of thought dedicated to music on an individual level. The casual listener probably does not think critically about a song they might hear on a radio, listen to while running, or even why or why not they might like a particular song they hear. The idea that music acts as a conduit for emotion is a powerful question that requires inquiry into what might create those emotions. It is generally accepted that music can become a bridge which smooths the transition between emotion and understanding. This paper will observe the distinction between two specific methods of musical perception. The first concept is that music creates emotions that are unique and novel. The second concept refers to music’s ability to act as a conveyance, or means of translation, between the composer and the audience. To be unconscious regarding the emotion that is portrayed in a song or composition is to be unconscious of the meaning that the artist intended. To ignore any message in a piece of music is to dissolve the connection between the composer and the audience. If music is meant to be enjoyed, then would the emotion it elicits be ignored or not fully realized?

II – Musical Philosophy

Music is fleeting, graceful, and in some cases vague. Because of this, it may seem impossible for music to be categorized. It is a form of art, but it is not an immediately physical or visual art. Music cannot be scrutinized in exactly the same way that a painting or a particular piece of dance might because it transcends the bounds of visual art by including an audible aspect. In the same way, music cannot be analyzed as a piece of writing. However, when a performer dances to a piece of music, a conductor leads an orchestra, or a guitarist’s fingers deftly pluck strings, music develops some of the qualities of a visual art, such as movement and visual composition. Similarly, when a singer gives voice to a score, or a composer sets words to a piece, there is a component of writing, creating rhymes, rhythms, and meter in words. Music becomes an amalgamation of different ideas and sensations in this way, and begins to be defined in many of the same forms that dance, painting, or writing is.

Because music should be analyzed as a sum of many parts, the idea of music as an expression is of great interest in scholarship. On any given day, music affects and drives the human culture. While there are individuals who think critically about what they hear, the added depth that comes from delving into of music as both visual and auditory art is profound. Contemplating music in these ways encourages rising into elevated levels of thought, thus engaging the critical listener more thoroughly. The way that music is perceived and reacted to offers some insight into how it is accepted, but even without an exhaustive understanding of why humans are so drawn to music, there are ways to begin to analyze and comment on that attraction. Tom Cochrane, a scholar in the field of music philosophy, writes that “(w)e can, without knowing the principle of life, analyze the properties of the organs animated by it.”[2] This concept certainly applicable to music. Without knowing how it affects the human psyche and emotions the way it does, music can still be studied and labeled. Or, if not labeled, then it can certainly be commented upon and discussed. This matter is important, especially in the current culture, because music is often viewed as a casual pastime. It is important to understand and more deeply appreciate the ways music can affect its listener.

III – Theories of Musical Expression

In order to address the idea of emotion in music, there must first be an understanding of the accepted philosophies regarding music and emotion. The fields of musical psychology and philosophy have put forth a number of theories. Many of these theories are not related to one individual, however. There are three major theories of musical expression that will be pertinent to the discussion that follows: the theory of musical arousal, the resemblance theory, and the expression theory. The knowledge of these theories of emotion in music is important, as it begins to establish a vocabulary that can be used to discuss music and understand the impact that a musical piece can have on an audience. Additionally, it is important to note the idea that emotion may be a choice. That is, it is possible to view emotion as a conscious reaction to a stimulus as opposed to an involuntary reflex.

Of the many theories of music, one of the first that should be addressed is the theory of musical arousal. This theory asserts that a listener or audience will experience emotional and psychological arousal while engaging in a performance of a piece of music.[3] The theory concludes that this arousal and engagement is what causes emotion.[4] By linking psychological arousal to music, there is a correlation suggesting that music is causing the emotional response directly. One example of this concept is the feeling of goosebumps while listening to a song or a particular musical composition. These aspects of physiological responses can add to and deepen a person’s perception of music. In this way, emotion is an effect of experiencing the music. The music itself conveys emotion, thus inducing an emotional response in the listener. The theory of musical arousal addresses the physiological impact of a piece, however, however it fails to converse about any possible emotion that is elicited. This then leaves a musical analyst contemplating the question of vocabulary.

To address this, scholarship turns to the resemblance theory, which begins to develop a means to communicate effectively. The theory of resemblance states that associative meanings are given, such as saying, “a piece of music is sad in the same sense in which we say that a weeping willow is sad.”[5] This is metaphorical and in many ways projecting human traits on the inhuman, thus giving the music emotions that it does not inherently sustain. While this theory fails to directly associate the emotional ideas with music, it does sculpt a means of discourse. The ability to associate and project human emotions into music offers a way to differentiate between genres, types, and tones of music. For instance, while addressing classical music, a minor key would typically be associated with a more negative tone, such as sad, angry, or heartbroken. This perception is because the series of notes, when played simultaneously, has a discordant tone and seems to clash cacophonously. More specifically, the frequencies of the notes are not harmonic and therefore do not resonate as a major chord does. Conversely, a major key would be labeled as happy, cheerful, or excited perhaps because of the resonance of frequencies. These chords tend to sound harmonic and natural, as opposed to forced. According to Andrew Kania’s The Philosophy of Music, there is a scholarly objection to this theory, as it is not a definitive means of gauging the resemblance of a piece of music to an emotion with which it might not otherwise be associated.[6] This idea of addressing music with terms that are already applicable to emotions creates a secondary connection, which makes music more understandable and relatable on a general level.

While the theory of musical arousal and the theory of resemblance address many aspects of music philosophy, they do not comment on the idea that music is itself an emotion. Expression theory while not as widely accepted, begins to fill this gap. By arguing that the pieces of music themselves are “expressions of emotion,”[7] expression theory extends the concept that emotion could function as a secondary connection by drawing the conclusion that emotions are an inherent part of the musical piece. However, Kania explains that “neither composers nor performers often experience the emotions their music is expressive of as it is produced.”[8] Because this theory relies on the assumption that the composer is putting emotion into a piece, the previous assertion creates a major flaw in the argument of the expression theory. To combat this, Jenefer Robinson argues to return the theory to acceptance with the suggestion that it applies to the idea of musical expression, rather than the general state of expression.[9] The key distinction of expression theory as compared to other theories is that in this theory, the emotion is that of the composer or the performer, and specifically not the emotions that the music creates.[10] Because the emotion in expression theory is placed on the composer, the music simply conveys that emotion to the audience, thus creating a bridge between two parties. Expression theory is interesting because it supports the idea that music is a tool for composers and performers to express themselves to an audience. While there are flaws in the details of expression theory, the general idea that composers create the emotion that exists in a musical piece is a view that scholars return to often.[11] This theory gives a formal name to the assumption that a piece of music should mean something to the person writing it.

These three theories work together to create an outline of the scholarly discourse in the field, and the brief statements given above begin to structure a framework that can be used to discuss music and the reactions to it. There is importance in analyzing music, as it can lead to a deeper understanding of the composer, oneself, or another individual. There is much to be learned from a person’s taste in music, and the connections that are based off of musical appreciation benefit from the shared understanding of emotions. David Carr asks the reader to consider if emotional states arise from intentions.[12] That is, is the act of feeling or experiencing emotions a conscious decision that is made? Is it a knowing, thoughtful reaction to a stimulus? This relates back to the idea of emotions as a choice and the different musical and emotional philosophies as discussed in Kania’s The Philosophy of Music. Choosing to express, or to not express, an emotion is one idea, but what Carr asks is not whether an emotion can be repressed. Repressing an emotion implies that its existence has already been acknowledged. Carr is asking whether the experience of an emotion can be deferred entirely. If so, can one resist the ability of music to elicit an emotion? Similarly, is the individual’s emotional response to music chosen to be more or less intense, that is to say, can a response to music be dampened once it has been chosen that it will be expressed?

IV – Expression of Emotion

The element of choice in experiencing emotion leads directly into the analysis of emotion as expressed in or through music by encouraging the consideration of intentionality. In order to make the argument that music is either an expression of or a conveyance for emotion, the experience of emotion must be considered. Questions that must be asked surround the “how” of emotions. The perception of emotional responses can range from abrupt to gentle. Derek Matravers writes an essay titled “The Experience of Emotion in Music,” wherein he tackles two large questions. The first is in regard to the actual experience, “What is the experience like? And where does it locate the expressive property?”[13] 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 savored and then considered in hindsight. The second question is about the “enlightening way in which expression can be analyzed.”[14] The two questions begin to form a cohesive whole that asks about the nature of expressional emotion. Emotional perception changes based on the level of engagement in a piece. If the listener is looking for an emotional response, it stands to reason that he or she would be more likely to find it.

Music is an entity which evokes an emotion that is unique to itself. The theory of musical arousal supports this argument. The theory is backed by the discussion of the reasons that music evokes emotions, and the possible explanations as to why. For instance, Tom Cochrane and his colleagues suggest that an emotion is a response which prepares the person to contend with a significant event.[15] The key in this definition is that emotions evoke a physiological response – not only an emotional or mental response. Cochrane and his coauthors also suggest that music can elicit different types of emotions.[16] Later in the same book, Joel Krueger explores the idea that music can also evoke intense and immediate relationships with one another.[17] Kreuger also argues that listening to music is not a passive experience, and that it in fact requires active participation and understanding in order to achieve the maximum benefits of listening to music.[18] These ideas shape an argument that by engaging in the music as an active listener, an audience is able to gain a better understanding on the music, thus finding a more definite emotional reaction to a piece. Rom Harré compares the idea that music is a method for the expression of emotion and that the music is what causes or produces emotion. He focuses on the idea that emotions do not have to be felt to be acknowledged.[19] The essay ascribes a certain importance to the fact that the performers also have an effect on the perception of the music. This is important because it emphasizes that while music may have an emotion that is inherently part of the piece, the role of a performer is to extend their emotions and to make that emotion much more clear.

To return to Carr, he describes emotion in music in a slightly different manner. Carr writes that “emotional properties we are inclined to take this or that piece of music to express are nevertheless properties of the music rather than of our own mental states.”[20] This is key because it expresses the idea that while many individuals might ascribe a certain emotion that a piece of music elicits in them to a life experience they have had. It is also possible that that experience is merely highlighting the emotion that was already present in the music. In fact, the association of life events or memories with music is one way in which an individual can become more engaged as an audience. This creates a way for music to become related to the audience and making the music more understandable on a personal level. Carr is suggesting that the emotions are a fact of the music, and he posits that those emotions are not of our own making. This is not to say that emotions are not individualized, as it stands to reason that no emotion is entirely universal. However, it does imply that, while the individual experiences may differ based on past experiences and mindsets, there is a general relationship that comes from the music and the way that music creates emotion in an audience.

Another valid idea of emotionality in music is the concept that music acts as a vehicle for emotion. One way to interpret this is that music can become a tool to express the emotion of a performer or a composer. As stated above, expression theory draws on the assumption that the music arranged by a composer is meant to elicit a specific response from an audience. While the downfalls of expression theory have already been discussed, there are other means to support this concept. Additionally, the idea that music can transfer emotion between two parties is, perhaps, a defense of expression theory.

According to expression theory, the emotion in music would be found in the performers and conductors who would accompany a piece, and that emotion would come from a composer who wished to impart the particular emotion to the world. Thus, music becomes a space of expression. It is an extension of an individual to multiple individuals, who are expected to understand what is being conveyed through the music. Nick Zangwill writes, “primary musical experience involves various experiences, such as perceptual experiences of the music and experiences of pleasure in the music.”[21] These perceptions of music could come in the form of a visual stimulus, such as a dance, while listening to accompanying music. They could also come in the form of activities undertaken while listening to music. Thus, it is entirely possible that perception of emotion in music could be defined by the surrounding atmosphere. That is, perhaps a different experience of emotion would be understood when listening to a song while running as opposed to while lying in bed.

The idea of metaphorical language when speaking about music is another example of the perception of music. If, as above, the expected emotion influences the actual perception, then it is reasonable to suggest a song that is labeled with an emotion will be perceived differently than one which is not labeled. 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.”[22] 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. Additionally, the fact that this kind of language is used is important because it is projecting emotions onto the music, making it more relatable to an individual who is not necessarily musically inclined. Zangwill continues to emphasize the fact that music is described with terms that we do not typically apply or associate with emotions.[23] Zangwill makes the argument that music should be described, for best effect, with a combination of emotional and non-emotional metaphors. The example he uses is that “angry music is usually violent or jagged.”[24] This concept is projecting emotions of an individual onto the music in a very literal sense. The assumption operates under the belief that music is not capable of “feelings” as a human being is. That is, music does not feel sad or angry. However, human culture uses these terms to describe music because they are familiar and relatable. Zangwill’s argument is valid, but emotion itself should be viewed as an elastic concept which evolves along with the listener’s understanding of the piece. While his argument is valid, it could be debunked by the above argument.  However, many of his points do have merit. Additionally, it is important to note that any 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.

V – Conclusion

The arguments above both have great merit, and are both accepted and justified within the scholarship that surrounds the question. However, there are a number of points which should be made. First, conscious thought about music does not seem to be as prevalent as it should. In a culture that is dominated by pop music and radio hits, many individuals fail to consider music as a deeper means of communication. As such, the general understanding of music is shaped by an audience’s reaction to a piece. These reactions, however, are shaped by the past experiences of each individual. Because of this, musical perception is, of necessity, a group effort. Matravers writes, “the experience the sound causes in us is correctly described (…) as our imagining of it [the experience].”[25] This means that, in a way, Matravers is agreeing with the idea that music is a two part experience. That is, music expresses the ideas of a composer, but also evokes an emotional response in the listener. He also 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, it is reasonable to state that the experience of music is related to a personal knowledge of emotional context. Music has emotion, but that emotion is augmented and influenced by the performance and performers as well as the members of the audience.

In order to address the ways in which music creates or causes an experience, there must be a basic understanding of how to discuss the experience or emotion that is generated or felt. 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. Listeners must be engaged and actively aware of their perception of music in order to completely comprehend their reactions to it. It is key that audiences be receptive to the experience of emotions, theirs, the performers’, and the composer’s. An acknowledgment of emotions could lead to a deeper understanding of the way that music manifests the emotions of a composer as well as defines emotions unique to each listener. This does not answer the question of dominance. That is, when is one idea of musical expression more dominant than another? Additionally, how do the personal experiences of the audience affect their perception of these two theories? Both of these questions could expand on the research done here, creating additional connections to support and defend the idea that the two theories work together to begin to explain the roll of emotion in music and society.

 

References

Carr, David, “Music, Meaning, and Emotion,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 225-34. Accessed 27 October, 2015. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.librarylink.uncc.edu/doi/10.1111/j.0021-8529.2004.00155.x/epdf

Cochrane, Tom, Ed. The Emotional Power of Music: Multidisciplinary perspectives on musical arousal, expression, and social control. (Oxford University Press, 2013)  Oxford Scholarship Online. 2013-09-26. Web. 12 October 201. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199654888.001.0001

Harré, Rom. “Emotion in Music,” in Emotion and the Arts edited by Mette Hjort and Sue Laver (New York, Oxford University Press, 1997), 110-18

Kania, Andrew, “The Philosophy of Music”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), n.p. edited by Edward N. Zalta. Accessed October 26, 2015. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/music/

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. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.librarylink.uncc.edu/doi/10.1111/1540-6245.00120/epdf

 

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. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.librarylink.uncc.edu/doi/10.1111/j.1540-594X.2007.00272.x/epdf

[1] Cochrane, Tom, Ed. The Emotional Power of Music: Multidisciplinary perspectives on musical arousal, expression, and social control. (Oxford University Press, 2013) 178

[2] Bichat, qtd. In Cochrane, Ed. The Emotional Power of Music: Multidisciplinary perspectives on musical arousal, expression, and social control, 263

[3] Kania, Andrew, “The Philosophy of Music”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition) n.p.

[4] Kania, “The Philosophy of Music”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[5] Kania, “The Philosophy of Music”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

 

[6] Kania, “The Philosophy of Music”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[7] Kania, “The Philosophy of Music”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[8] Kania, “The Philosophy of Music”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[9] Kania, “The Philosophy of Music”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[10] Kania, “The Philosophy of Music”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[11] Kania, “The Philosophy of Music”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[12] Carr, David, “Music, Meaning, and Emotion,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 229. Accessed 27 October, 2015. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.librarylink.uncc.edu/doi/10.1111/j.0021-8529.2004.00155.x/epdf

[13] Matravers, Derek, “The Experience of Emotion in Music,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 61, no. 4 (Fall 2003): 353. Accessed November 4, 2015. JSTOR. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.librarylink.uncc.edu/doi/10.1111/1540-6245.00120/epdf

[14] Matravers, Derek, “The Experience of Emotion in Music,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 61, no. 4 (Fall 2003): 353

[15] Cochrane, Ed. The Emotional Power of Music: Multidisciplinary perspectives on musical arousal, expression, and social control, 123

[16] Cochrane, Ed. The Emotional Power of Music: Multidisciplinary perspectives on musical arousal, expression, and social control, 125

[17] Cochrane, Ed. The Emotional Power of Music: Multidisciplinary perspectives on musical arousal, expression, and social control, 177

[18] Cochrane, Ed. The Emotional Power of Music: Multidisciplinary perspectives on musical arousal, expression, and social control, 178

[19] Harré, Rom. “Emotion in Music,” in Emotion and the Arts edited by Mette Hjort and Sue Laver (New York, Oxford University Press, 1997), 116

[20]Carr, “Music, Meaning, and Emotion,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62, no. 3 (Summer 2004), 225

[21] Zangwill, Nick, “Music, Metaphor, and Emotion,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65, no. 4 (Fall 2007): 397. Accessed November 4, 2015. JSTOR. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.librarylink.uncc.edu/doi/10.1111/j.1540-594X.2007.00272.x/epdf

[22] Zangwill, Nick, “Music, Metaphor, and Emotion,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65, no. 4 (Fall 2007): 392

[23] Zangwill, Nick, “Music, Metaphor, and Emotion,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65, no. 4 (Fall 2007): 392

[24] Zangwill, Nick, “Music, Metaphor, and Emotion,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65, no. 4 (Fall 2007): 393

[25] Matravers, Derek, “The Experience of Emotion in Music,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 61, no. 4 (Fall 2003): 359

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