Music, Meaning, and Emotion

18 September 2006

Today's episode is about the philosophy of music. Our guest will be Peter Kivy, a leading philosopher of music and a former colleague of mine from Rutgers University.

I fancy myself a pretty accomplished philosopher. I've been at this philosophy thing for about 25 years now. I also consider myself a decent musician. In my youth I played a lot of music -- trombone, violin, piano. Plus I sang in various choirs. I don't perform much anymore, but I still consume music of all sorts.

But I have to admit that although I'm not bad at philosophy and pretty good at music, I've never given music a great deal of philosophical attention. That's one reason I'm so looking forward to our conversation with Peter later today. He has given a very great deal of philosophical thought to music. I think he's written something on the order of five or six books specifically about the philosophy of music. So I expect to learn a lot from him.

Just to get the juices flowing, I thought I'd ruminate in my elementary, not yet completely well work-out sort of way on some things that I personally find philosophically puzzling about music. Here goes.

First worry. What distinguishes music from non-music? The world is replete with sound -- both man made sounds and the sounds of nature. Many of these sounds are quite beautiful -- the cries of various animals, the sound of the ocean, the whistling wind, the human voice, the majestic boom of the space shuttle as it rockets into space. But only a few of the sounds with which the world is replete count as music. Is there anything deep to say about what distinguishes music from non-music?

I'm not sure. One initially tempting thought is that music can be demarcated from non-music by its structure and organization. Music comes with a key signature, with meter, with melody, harmony and all that. Certainly a lot of music is organized and structured in this way. Almost all music that I enjoy listening to, for example, has some or all of these features. But there are probably instances of music that have none or few of these features -- late twentieth century and early 21st century "classical" music comes quickly to mind. That suggests that there may not be any necessary and sufficient conditions for what counts as music rather than non-music. It probably doesn't matter that there aren't such conditions. Most of us certainly know music when we hear it, even if we couldn't define it.

Second Worry. Music is often quite emotionally gripping. By turns, it can make us feel sad or elated, It can convey a sense of unfulfilled longing, of awe and wonder. It can make us laugh or cry. Music may even convey anger or regret.

It's not, I think, hard to come up with a first pass explanation of how music with lyrics or that accompanies other contentful representations might convey such emotion. When we set words to music, the words retain at least the expressive and representational powers that they have all on their own. But even here there are some complexities, I think. Music may certainly enhance the expressive power of the words, images, or scenes it accompanies. Imagine a scene in a scary movie. First imagine it without any music. Then imagine it with a subtle but creepy melody rising slowly. Which is more effective? It will depend, of course, on the details. But we've all seen movies in which the music greatly enhances the sense of doom lurking around the corner. (When I was a kid I used to imagine that when I finally fell in love, and declared my love to my beloved, an invisible orchestra would begin playing some swelling romantic tune as my beloved and I exchanged our first tender kiss.) But if music can enhance the expressive power of a scene or a speech, then it's not the words or the scene alone that does the expressing, even when we have words accompanied by music.

It's also possible I suppose for there to be a mismatch between the music and the words (or other representations). Imagine angry words sung to a happy uplifting melody. I suppose, also, that it's possible to exploit such mismatches intentionally and creatively. The result I guess would be a kind of irony or perhaps even satire.

"Pure" music -- for lack of a better term -- probably does raise the issue more accutely, though. By pure music I mean music entirely devoid of representational content -- music accompanied by no scenes or words or images or narration. Just pure sound (ordered and structured to be sure) but still just pure non-representational sound. How does such music achieve such astounding emotive power in the absence of all representational content?

I don't really know the answer, to be frank. I'm not sure I have even a proto-theory. I do wonder, though, whether the emotion is, as it were, "in the music" or merely in our reaction to the music. Let me explain what I mean. You could, I suppose, think that when we called music sad or mournful or happy or said that it expresses unfulfilled longing, we mean nothing more than that it evokes such sentiments "in us." And there might be no deep explanation of why just these sound sequences should evoke just these sentiments or feelings in us. Maybe psychology might eventually reveal something deep. But there might be nothing more than brute fact or something about evolution or something about cultural constructions.

On the other hand, you might think that when we call a piece of music sad we are getting at some sort of response-independent facts about the music itself, about, as it were, the internal qualities of the music.

I tend to think it's a "both and" sort of thing -- though it wouldn't take much to talk me out of this half-formed view.

My thought is that when we call a piece of music sad, we are saying both something about its, as it were, intrinsic musical character -- albeit indirectly -- and also something about our response to it. In particular, by calling the music sad, we "license" certain emotional reponses as "appropriate" in light of the intrinsic musical character of the piece. If you aren't moved to sadness by sad music, you've in a way misperceived the music. Or that, at any rate, is what I believe at the moment. Let's see if it holds up after a conversation with a world-class expert.

The reductive metaphysician in me would like it to be the case that we could eventually say, in non-emotive terms, just what it is about the intrinsic musical character of a piece of music that makes it correct to say that the music is sad. But the music lover in me, wonders if we would really understand music better if we really could do such a thing.

There's a lot more that could be said about all this. Unfortunately, I've got to take off for the studio now. And one certainly shouldn't drive and blog at the same time. (DWB is surely at least as dangerous as DWI.

Comments (14)


Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, September 19, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

An attentive listening to Wagner's Tristan reliabl

An attentive listening to Wagner's Tristan reliably leaves me weeping every time. But the fact that I have a highly charged emotional response to that piece of music, or that I get a like kick out of improvising on the guitar or playing simple pieces on the violin, is not sufficient to show that listening to or performing certain types of music is an ethical good. Maybe it's just a diversion, a waste of time--like playing a video game (which can also be "emotionally charged" in its own way).
That in mind, I'm hoping Kivy will be interested in discussing what it is that makes music peculiarly worth pursuing. Should I spend the next 15 minutes listening to Bach or learning a Charlie Parker head, or are there generally more important things I should attend to?

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, September 23, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

On the first point, I think the one necessary cond

On the first point, I think the one necessary condition of music is that it's created for the purpose of consumption as music. Something is "music" if it's creator says it is, and by doing so, he or she is asking us to appreciate in a certain way. This may mean we go to a concert hall, we listen on headphones, we view it in the context of other music we have heard. "4'33''" by John Cage, the piece where musicians sit quietly (not playing) for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, is music because it's "performed," the audience knows the performance starts, and listens for the period of time.
That's my initial thought on that.
On the point about music arousing emotions, I think that it really is mostly in us, as listeners. Many people have similar emotions in response to music because those people have similar experiences listening to music and similar cultural backgrounds. When I, as a Westerner, hear traditional Chinese music, it sounds "exotic" and "mysterious" to me, and many Western listeners would probably agree. Would Chinese listeners hear the same qualities? Probably not.
There may be some facts about our brains that contrain how we perceive music. A baby crying is probably universally distressing to people, and similarly certain sounds probably arouse emotions regardless of cultural background. There are probably some hard-wired reactions, but even so, these biologically driven responses are probably modified by culture. Different cultures don't get sad in the same ways.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, October 12, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

Interesting post, Ken. In his Phil. Review pape

Interesting post, Ken.
In his Phil. Review paper, "Narrative Explanation," David Velleman talks about theories according to which early experiences tend to leave traces, perhaps "templates", in our brains. These correspond to "emotions", and emotions have internal structures or stages. Later in life, when we hear stories or strictly speaking "narratives," these narratives evoke the emotions--somehow the template is activated (my words here) and we "re-experience" the emotion. Velleman argues that this is the characteristic feature of narrative and narrative understanding--it involves a kind of emotional understanding ("deja senti, rather than deja vu").
I think roughly speaking music might work in a similar way. All of this of course is very rough and impressionistic. Music that evokes emotions is typically structured internally in "stages", as it were, and these may be isomorphic to the internal stages of emotions.
Many people find opera especially moving. Perhaps this is because it combines the power of storytelling and music to evoke emotions.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, October 22, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

There is an interesting take on music and emotion,

There is an interesting take on music and emotion, from the paradigm of Embodied Cognition. It is probably not news to anyone that only 7% of verbal communication actually consists of the words we employ. The rest is derived from body language and facial gestures. (Mehrabian). So gesture counts for a whopping 93% of all comumnication! Perhaps we recognise the gestures employed in playing music (aurally), and imagine 'if we were to make these gestures, then how would we be feeling?'. This is something called 'The Mimetic Hypothesis' (Cox). A good example of this is if you call someone on the phone, and you very quickly know if that person is upset, or close to tears. But how? The theory basically says that we first listen to the words, and we 'imagine' what configuration OUR vocal tracts would have to be in, in order to produce that sound. The next step is then to 'imagine', how WE would be feeling,if our vocal tracts were in that position. In this way we can infer emotion. Also think about someone playing air guitar. Do they just play it with their hands, or do their faces contort with the 'imagination' of the emotion the guitarist feels? It seems there is some form of mapping going on...from our embodied experiences, to the target experiences. This is known as Metaphoric Logic. Basically it seems that there may be a strong connection between Motion (gestural, postural etc..) and eMotion...What think you all?

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, November 15, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

At 41, I've just been listening to music dated fro

At 41, I've just been listening to music dated from my final year at high school and I find it depressingly sad to listen to. Why is this so?

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, November 15, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

At 41, I've just been listening to music dated fro

At 41, I've just been listening to music dated from my final year at high school and I find it depressingly sad to listen to. Why is this so?

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 22, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

just some scattered thoughts: i don't believe e

just some scattered thoughts:
i don't believe everyone hears form or structure in music as it is taught or delineated in music schools. i believe a form is heard, a structure is heard, but non-specialist listeners probably conceive of these things in perhaps more general, possibly more subjective terms, and its possible, for example, when they say "i hear melody", that the specialist could elaborate and take apart that concept and its accompanying experience into more distinct categories or linguistic expressions/descriptions, such as harmony, motif, counterpoint, etc. this is not to say the non-specialist isn't affected by these things, or does not notice them, but usually it can't be described, or is described in very subjective terms.
i also want to add that what is considered as a non-musical sound still has a form, a structure, and a relationship to other sounds. i might add that in some spaces, non-musical sounds can be quite regular, mechanical even. some non-musical sounds have rhythmic and harmonic, even melodic properties too, if you look at things in those specialized terms...
i also believe that its possible for specialist and non-specialist composers alike to hear the same things, but not ascribe the same conceptual framework. of course, this cannot ultimately be proven...
as for the idea of some sort of "emodied mapping", not everyone knows how to play an instrument or how it feels to play a certain sound...and...not everyone probably feels the same way when they play the same sound. one can uninvested in what one does...i still think there might be something to the notion, but in at least some cases i'd say it might have to do more with the idea the listener has of the composers or musicians gestures (and their relationship to one's mental state) than with their reality.
also, i'm not sure if any music is non-representational, it might just be question of how it is representational. this might differ in some cases on a case to case basis...

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 22, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

oh yeah, i was just thinking how the official t

oh yeah,
i was just thinking how the official terms used to describe music, while being useful, should not be regarded as the only terms that are useful, or possibly deserving of an official status. there are many ways to listen to and describe something!

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, February 15, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

Hi there, I hope my comment can bring another p

Hi there,
I hope my comment can bring another perspective into this discussion, as I post this as being a songwriter myself.
When I remember my first steps into songwriting (which was at the age of about 10), I can remember that I just felt the need, that I had to express a feeling, a state of mind or whatever you may call it, in a song, in music. I think this was due to the fact, that I had really learned about my feelings through music and songs. The best feeling for a song was, when it just caught me somewhere, where I at that point of time emotionally really was at. Of course, music could also reveal some feelings without having any relation to the actual state of mind/emotion. It can make me sad, even though I'm not sad, when I listen to it. But the really great thing about a song was for me, when it expressed a feeling for me that I had inside of me for such a long time, not being able to name it, not being able to explain it or putting it into words. In these moments I just thought: This is just exactly how I feel!!! When these moments appeared it was so liberating! I felt so thankful for being able to really understand a feeling by the help of a song after such a long time of carrying it around without knowing how to express it.
And I remember myself thinking: 'hmmmm, maybe this should work also the other way 'round...!'. And so it did. I was then able to express my own feelings in a song, feelings that I found no other way to express for.
And this, of course, also helped me to really see through the emotion better.
From that time on I was into songwriting and never stopped. My idea when I write music today still is that it does the same to someone else, like it does to me at those certain moments. That it just exactly describes the emotion of someone listenig to it and helps him understand his feeling better by then having an expression for it. By then being able to really look at the feeling while the song describes and reveals it.
I hope this comment was helpful. I'm so thankful that there is something so beautiful in life as music.
Best,
telstar

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, February 25, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

1. Music as I've been told is a way of measuring t

1. Music as I've been told is a way of measuring time through sound. Thus even when non-professional listeners (like myself) hear it the patterns such as "repetitions", "layering", "cyclic structures" and whatnot can be detected. True we may not know how to express it in a formal way but the way in which the underlying intuition about music come about, is formal.
2. The power of music, as I see it, is not emotive in that it is not any particular emotion a piece expresses but a sense. Just as words are saturated with sense so is music. They are sometimes ineffable because the content is so abstract but perhaps what a piece of music is trying to express is not emotion of an idea as we experience it. Out of movement and progression, there is sense, and out of sense there is a thought, however abstract. It is the human tendency to superimpose its familiar understanding (of emotions, feeling, whatnot) to forms and beings that they can not quite make out what it is exactly yet.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 16, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

The appreciation of music is learned behavior. At

The appreciation of music is learned behavior. At young ages, many children are exposed to rock music, rap, or country, and if they have positive reinforcement from a source they trust (parent, sibling, top 10) then the child assimilates that as being "good music".
Later in life, we begin to resist other forms of music that don't seem to share the traits of the music we like. If you had a general music class in school, you may remember hating classical music, opera, and other "higher" forms of music. That music does not conform to the standard chords, rhythms, tempos, and instrumentation of today's radio music, and so it becomes an acquired taste, if you will. I'm sure Mozart and Puccini would feel the same way about contemporary music!
I've had 7 years of collegiate training in music, and I have performed some really strange things that most ordinary people would not enjoy as music. I have learned to appreciate the intellectual component of such pieces - composers write in bizarre rhythms, odd sounds, or simply write an emotion or dramatic effect for a specified length of time. These are intellectual exercises, but are still considered (at least by the composer) to be music.
During my college years, I fell in love with african and latin music - as a percussionist, I could identify with the complexities of the rhythms. The music "grooved" in a way that seemed familiar to me, a feeling that Bach is still having trouble casting upon me. This feeling in no way diminishes the classical composers - it simply reinforces the concept that the structure of music I was exposed to as a child dictates how well I am able to accept other forms of music now.
Is it possible to grow up loving John Cage and hating everything else? I believe it is - it's simply a matter of what we are exposed to early in life, and how we are able to ascribe meaning to other forms of music we are unfamiliar with later in life. Music is sensory input that we identify with at some level, due to our previous experience with it.

Alex's picture

Alex

Friday, June 6, 2008 -- 5:00 PM

I think that every peace of music touches some str

I think that every peace of music touches some strings in our souls and this causes emotions. For any certain person emotions caused by the same music are different. So music causes emotions rather that contains them.

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, July 4, 2008 -- 5:00 PM

"Q" the Enchanter asks if there might be "more imp

"Q" the Enchanter asks if there might be "more important things to do" than deal with music (important in what sense?). I have concluded that unless one is religiously inclined, there can be no more important thing human beings can concern themselves with than art. It is probably the major talent differentiating ourselves from other species, even more than language. Music is indeed a mysterious art.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, May 17, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

music is an inspiration for the soul, rejuvenates

music is an inspiration for the soul, rejuvenates us, helps us be better. We should make many of our daily tasks to the sound of music

 
 
 

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