Music and Emotion; Or: I’m Not Crying, My Eyes Are Just Very Sensitive to the Air, the Molecules of Which Have Been Even Further Stimulated by That Cello

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 19 min.

This is an essay I wrote at a time when I was interested in the question of to what extent, if any, emotion as an inherent property of music contributes to our emotional experience of music as listeners. I first look at some prevalent ideas on the topic, especially from philosophy and neuroscience, and I then endeavor to lay some groundwork for my own account. I’ll likely revise this at some point, so please let me know if you catch anything that doesn’t work:

Odilon Redon - The Crying SpiderThe most debated subject among philosophers of music is the nature of our emotional experience of music. At the heart of this debate is the question of what sort of meaning music can and does communicate to the listener. Most philosophers agree that in order to have an emotional experience of music, there must be some kind of understanding on the part of the listener, and for there to be understanding, there must be meaning. In his highly influential book, Emotion and Meaning in Music, philosopher and composer Leonard B. Meyer describes the two major points of view in this regard as “absolutism” and “referentialism.” [1]

It is the view of the absolutists that music only communicates meaning within the context of the music itself, and that such meaning does not contribute to an emotional experience in the listener. That is, the relationships of the musical elements correspond to an established system, such as Western music theory, and it is these relationships that mean something to the listener, but any emotional experience would come from something outside of the music, such as when a song evokes nostalgia. The absolutists also argue that extramusical meaning in music would typically come from program material (e.g., a story meant to be read in conjunction with listening to the music) or sung text; this is why it is generally program and text-free music that is discussed when considering the question of meaning. Referentialists, however, argue that, in addition to musical meaning, music also “communicates meanings which in some way refer to the extramusical world of concepts, actions, emotional states, and character.” [2]

One of the primary aims of Meyer’s book is to find a middle ground between these points of view by showing that the relationships between the musical elements can and do express a kind of meaning that results in an emotional experience in the listener. He points out that when a listener is familiar with a certain style of music, there are expectations of how musical elements will relate to one another. The anticipation of the fulfillment of those expectations creates suspense, which skilled composers play with in order to evoke different kinds of emotions in the listener. In this way, the drama and interplay that happens within the music itself reflects the sort of drama that occurs in life. This may seem closer to the referentialist point of view than the absolutist, but it is in fact a combination of the two because the referentialists tend to view the extramusical references in the music to be abstract and naturally inherent to the music; Meyer makes it clear that familiarity with the kind of music being listened to is important in order to develop expectations of what that style of music would typically do.

Meyer’s work has been very influential over the last 60 years. However, he himself was also influenced by contemporaries in his field. The most notable of these is perhaps Susanne Langer, who proposed a reason/emotion dualism in our experience of music. Meyer and others since have sought to reduce this dualism to a single experience. One of the more successful recent examples is Felicia Kruse’s (Meyer-influenced) article “Emotion in Musical Meaning: A Peircean Solution to Langer’s Dualism.” By way of theories of Charles S. Peirce, who developed a concept in which we are argued to interpret musical meaning through feeling, Kruse attempts to eliminate the dualistic experience in Langer’s theory in favor of a monistic one. The essential premise upon which Kruse builds her argument is stated as follows: “The fact that experience is irreducibly temporal guarantees that it is a semiotic process.” [3] In other words, because music relies on a series of pieces of information (i.e., musical elements) being relayed over time, there must be an understanding of how one musical element relates to the next, as well as each to the larger whole, which ultimately results in a meaningful narrative (otherwise music would just be a random collection of isolated, unrelated sound events).

Despite the prevalent influence of the likes of Meyer and Langer, however, most current philosophers fall into one view or the other in terms of whether music can impart the sort of meaning that is necessary to have an emotional experience of music per se. Two of the most widely recognized thinkers working in the field today are Stephen Davies (professor and Deputy Department Head at The University of Aukland) and Peter Kivy (Rutgers Board of Governors Professor of Philosophy). Davies argues that emotion is an inherent property of music, and that the emotions present in music evoke an experience of those same emotions in the listener. Kivy, however, argues that, although there are emotional properties in music, the listener’s emotional experience of music does not involve “garden-variety emotions such as happy, melancholy, angry, and the like.” [4] Instead, argues Kivy, emotional responses to music are a particular kind of response to the aesthetic beauty of the music itself, which we sometimes mistake for garden-variety emotions. Or, we mistakenly attribute a conditioned response to music, such as when a song triggers a sad memory.

The arguments to which I am the most sympathetic are those presented by Davies in his book Musical Meaning and Kazuya Akimoto - Crying WomanExpression. Davies points out that there is the experience of sadness (to use one emotion as an example) on one hand, and the appearance of sadness on the other. One example he uses for the appearance of sadness is the face of a St. Bernard, which, based on human ideas of sadness, appears to be sad. The same is true in music, says Davies. To experience music that sounds sad can create a secondary kind of sadness in the listener that, although not genuine sadness, is a gradient of actual sadness. I’ll point out here that to recognize that music sounds or is sad does not necessarily mean that one is actually having a profound experience of the music (that is, enjoying it to a great degree). It is possible to recognize that a minor chord, for example, sounds sad, without actually feeling much sadness. However, if one is subjected to hours of hearing nothing but a string of minor chords, one might start to fall into a gloomy mood. Davies, in fact, uses a similar example, pointing out that the sight of a tragic mask may not make one sad, but to work in a tragic mask factory would eventually cause the melancholy tendency of the mask to affect one’s mood.

Kivy refutes Davies’ mask theory, pointing out that it is a far from normal circumstance to imagine occurring, and that the analogous situation in music would be to expose oneself to the same amount of melancholy music, which, claims Kivy, nobody would ever do (that is, no one would ever choose to submit oneself to such an unpleasant experience). All in all, says Kivy, people subjected to normal doses of melancholy music (such as at a single concert) do not become depressed. While what Kivy is saying is largely true, it does not negate Davies’ theory of appearance. Davies does not suggest that a single concert of melancholy music would leave one depressed. What he suggests is that it does cause a minor form of sadness, which he emphasizes by pointing out that abnormally large doses would cause a more drastic form of sadness.

One of Davies’ most convincing arguments is that music can have intentional, arbitrary meaning, generally based on convention, but also based on conditioning. Meaning based on convention refers most notably to intentionally referring to an extramusical element within a strictly (non-programmatic) musical context. Davies uses the example of J.S. Bach using his initials as the basis for a motif in the The Art of Fugue. Regarding conditioned meaning, as I pointed out earlier, many philosophers discredit the idea that an emotional response to music as the result of conditioning is a result of the music itself. Davies points out that salivating at the sound of a bell in an orchestral score is just as meaningful as salivating at the sound of a dinner bell in an extramusical context. I find this to be a particularly important point. It is my view that it is unfair to remove music from all contexts that would give it meaning in order to prove that music does not have meaning. If removed from the context of the English language, the word “help” also no longer has meaning in the way we think of it, but that does not prove that the meaning it has within the context of the English language is invalid or nonexistent.

This idea of context is something that Davies relies on quite a bit in his theories. Writes Davies, “An appreciation of musical history is more directly pertinent to an understanding of individual works than is mastery of technical vocabulary.” [5] I agree with this idea in general, though would qualify what is meant by the word “appreciation.” I don’t necessarily have to have knowledge of music history in order to have an understanding of how a piece of music (including a current pop song) fits into the greater context of a stylistic idiom. However, familiarity with music from earlier eras within an existing style will lend itself to a greater or lesser enjoyment of an individual work. For example, if a current band were to be heavily influenced by the 1960s band Pink Floyd, fans of the current band, upon discovering Pink Floyd for the first time, might gain a greater appreciation of the meaning behind the music of the current band. This scenario might lead to disappointment or greater affinity for the current band, depending on the extent to which the band has added their own innovations to those elements which were borrowed from Pink Floyd.

Western classical music is, in general, a good example of the role of familiarity in one’s appreciation of music, partlyThomas Tallis because of its inexhaustible scope of types. That is, the work of Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 – 1585) has very little in common with the work of Pierre Boulez (1925 – ), however they are broadly put into the same category of music based on the tradition from which they arise. An understanding of Tallis, a British liturgical composer, would not seem to lend appreciation to the work of 20th century avant-garde French composer Boulez. Yet, it does seem that having a familiarity with Tallis and other composers in the line that precedes Boulez does in fact make it possible to have a greater understanding of Boulez’s work, even if that understanding enables one to confidently denounce Boulez’s work. This is particularly interesting to me in the case of a composer such as Boulez, as he claims to strive for contextual autonomy in each of the works he produces. That is, he wants whatever meaning is contained in an individual work to be unique to that work, and to reside solely in the music itself, and to rely on no extramusical contexts, nor on existing musical Pierre Boulezcontexts. Due to this, you will not hear a major or minor chord in the work of Boulez. Instead, he strives to essentially construct his own historical context for each specific piece, which would make it especially difficult for non-composers to penetrate, as it requires a deep understanding of music theory to understand the meaning that Boulez is putting into the music.

The question of how important musical knowledge is to one’s understanding of a piece of music is another topic of debate among those concerned with meaning in music. Like many other philosophers, Kivy argues that at the very least grasping the large-scale form of most Western classical music works is necessary for an understanding of them. What is not clear is what Kivy means by “understanding.” On a basic level, this idea refers to the fact that a listener needs to be able to retain what happens early in a piece of music in order to relate it to what happens later in the piece (which in some cases may be thirty to sixty minutes later). Knowledge of form may help with this, and helps give the listener a framework within which to form expectations that relate specifically to the music and not to the form itself. Andrew Kania describes this idea as follows: “Even if architectonic listening is non-perceptual it is a well-established mode of understanding pieces of music in the Western classical music world.” [6] (By “architectonicism,” Kania is referring to the alleged need to comprehend form in order to understand a work, which is in contrast to “concatenationism,” proposed by Jerrold Levinson, and which suggests that musical understanding consists in paying attention to musical and emotional elements in particular passages of music.)

Kivy’s idea seems obvious to me, and I would argue that it’s just as true of pop as of classical music, especially in the case of pop albums that make use of repeating and contrasting themes. Still, while I see the value in understanding form, I think that there are many people who would not care either way and will simply enjoy music for the experience of hearing the music. I also do not believe that it is necessary to be familiar with, or enjoy, an entire symphony in order to enjoy a profound experience listening to an isolated movement from that symphony. Kivy has a tendency to imply that his own experience of music is everyone else’s experience of music. Or, perhaps more accurately, he views his learned experience of music to be superior or more profound to that of someone with less knowledge. I do not agree with this except for in instances in which a cultural contextual familiarity with a certain style of music aids in its appreciation. I would even point out that this familiarity is itself a form of cultural conditioning (the sounds of home can be quite comforting to one undergoing culture shock, for example). But Kivy does not give credence to conditioning as an experience of music itself, so, I find it very difficult to find much in his theories that I can agree with.

Returning to Kivy’s above use of the word “understanding,” my question to him would be, “Understanding to what end?” Based on what I know of his work, I think he is suggesting that in order to understand the meaning behind the music so as to have an emotional experience of the specifically musical kind, one must understand the various forms that are specific to classical form. Again, I find this to be untrue in many instances. The knowledge that Beethoven added an extra movement to the symphonic structure, or that his seventh symphony’s fourth movement is in sonata form, would seem to add little extra value to the experience of the music for most listeners.

Aside from the field of philosophy of music, there has also been much research into our experience of music done in the field of neuroscience. The most notable of these is producer turned neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin’s fascinating book, This Is Your Brain on Music. In the first chapter, Levitin writes, “Pitch is a purely psychological construct, related both to the actual frequency of a particular tone and to its relative position in the musical scale.” [7] He also explains one of the most important aspects of the nature of musical sound, and something that I’ve not seen discussed among current philosophers, though I have seen it explored by neuroscientists and composers (most notably Arnold Schoenberg): the overtone series. When a single pitch is played on a piano or sung by a human voice, there is a series of notes that occurs. In the case of a piano, the string vibrates simultaneously at varying frequencies throughout its length, thereby producing multiple notes at once. The note that has the strongest representation will give the series of notes its single name, such as “C” or “A.” The other, quieter notes are referred to as overtones, thus the name “overtone series.” How loud the varying notes in the series are throughout the life of the pitch determine in large part the timbre (or color) of the pitch (which helps us distinguish between a piano, flute, or other instrument). The mathematical ratios between the notes in the overtone series are consistent on any instrument, including the human voice; that is, the overtone series always occurs in the same order or notes. Also, research by Levitin and others has shown that neural pathways form in the brain that correspond to specific pitch frequencies and, by extension, the overtone series.

guy-maddin_the-saddest-music-in-the-worldWith this information in mind, there are a number of ideas that begin to develop. It is my view that our emotional experience of music is not only contingent upon meaning in music, but also on the interplay of consonance and dissonance — the juxtaposition of pretty sounds and clashing sounds, essentially — which involves a physical response to sounds (despite these sounds being mental constructs: the process that corresponds to, or results in, the mental construct, for example, might have something to do with the emotion we experience). All well-known music I’m aware of, even of the prettiest sort, has a fair amount of dissonance in it. Generally this dissonance arises from the combining tones that are close together in the scale, such as A and A#. However, if we consider that the overtone series exists in each note, we see that dissonances occur much more frequently than originally assumed, such as when we combine “C” and “F,” two notes which, alone as pure tones, would not clash; but their overtones do clash. We do not always consciously hear this, but the dissonance is not lost on us. It has been theorized for some time that our musical system developed in compliance with the overtone series, as, it seems, have some of our neurobiological features. It seems plausible to me, then, that the interplay of the overtone series could create an emotional reaction in us. This explains, in fact, why a minor chord sounds sad and a major chord happy or triumphant: the minor chord has more clashing overtones (in fact, the strongest overtones of a single note spell out a major chord). It is a much more intricate affair, of course, to combine notes in a way that results in a deep emotional experience, but I think that the fact that a single chord can evoke an idea of an emotion is significant, and that emotion, it seems to me, arises out of the consonance or dissonance happening in the overtones (note that if pitch exists solely in the mind, so do consonance and dissonance).

With this idea in mind of consonance and dissonance as an integral part of our emotional musical experience (thereby being a natural biological response), I shall now return to and elaborate on some of the ideas mentioned earlier in this essay.

As I see it, there are a few very important contributors to our emotional experience of music. As I’ve pointed out, philosophers generally discuss music that has no sung text (or, more specifically, no human voice at all). However, I don’t feel it is the text so much as the presence of a human voice that creates the emotional response to music in such works. Otherwise, it would be acceptable to use a sung work so long as the listener does not understand the words. In reality, the most emotionally charged sounds that humans can voice have little to do with words, and often contain no words. A wail, scream, laugh, or sob do not need words for an emotion to get across. These human sounds, however, only have the sort of meaning we attribute to them (consciously or unconsciously) in a human context (and that meaning is not specific, which Kivy seems to think is required of any sort of musical information for it to convey emotionally-relevent meaning to a listener). That human context continues to exist where music is being listened to. The extent to which that music hits the right contextual spots in the listener will determine the level of emotional response that listener experiences.

Another important element of our emotional experience of music is the role that emotions existing prevalently in us play at the time of listening to music. A generally melancholy person might seek out music that is melancholy, or at least respond more strongly to such music than happy music (which could also be used as a sort of antidote to the melancholy). Kivy admits that scary sounding music can be used to enhance the existing scariness in an already scary movie, but claims that the music on its own will not be scary. Note that by “scary sounding,” Kivy is not necessarily admitting that there is something in the music that evokes an emotion of fear. To be clear, his claim is that music can contain properties that, for a number of reasons, suggest the idea of certain emotions, but do not create those emotions in listeners. Even given this qualifier, however, Kivy’s “scary” music theory seems illogical to me, in that there must be something in the music that evokes fear, otherwise it would not enhance the scariness in the movie. In this same way, there must be something melancholy in the music, otherwise it would not be able to enhance melancholy in a person. Note that I’m using “melancholy” in the human context. That is to say, whatever elusive quality that constitutes this state of melancholy must have some component within the music itself, and we must recognize this somehow upon experiencing the music, consciously or unconsciously (biologically, for example).

Another example that seems to provide strong evidence for the ability of music to invoke an emotional response in listeners is the fact that non-programmatic and wordless music is capable of inspiring laughter. Dmitri Shostakovich, for example, was known for inserting musical jokes into his works, some of which would require a specific contextual knowledge (such as inserting the practically ubiquitously-practiced Hannon piano exercises into a piano concerto written for his son), and some of which simply had the appearance or shape of humor (such as sliding a note downward on a trombone to give a clear sonic impression of a deflating erection following a sex scene in the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District). The former example shows the importance of context when imparting musical meaning, as does the latter (a young child may not get the reference, but most adults would; Sergei Prokofiev is often quoted as having referred to it as “pornophony”). However, the latter example also shows that the mere shape or appearance of humor in the music itself is enough to inspire a reaction to humor in the listener. In this instance, the humor results from an extramusical reference rendered funny because of the context of being played on a classical instrument in a music hall (note that this is a cultural context, not a context that requires a knowledge of musical language or theory). In other instances, such as in much of the music of Frank Zappa, similar results are achieved with no specific extramusical references.

Also in the example of laughter, I see further evidence pointing towards the idea that something must already exist in the listener in order for the music to strike an emotional chord. Our mood, the company we are with, the kind of sense of humor we have, etc. will determine whether we laugh or even recognize humor in music. Therefore, there must be something in the listener with which the music can ring in sympathy. Another interesting point that is made with this example arises out of the idea of recognizing the humor at all. We may not recognize the humorous aspect upon first listen, but, whether spontaneously discovered or brought to our attention, once we do recognize the humor, something clicks and we laugh. Recognizing the humor is really just a registering (that is, understanding) of a kind of meaning held in the content of the music. It seems to me that this meaning can be one of humor, sadness, happiness, triumph, or any other number of emotions.

In summary, as Davies pointed out, it is possible, and in fact common, for composers to give music extramusical meaning. I would expand on this and point out that it is not only up to the composers to do this. Listeners are just as free to give meaning to music, and they often do, whether it’s through conditioning (“this is our song, it always makes me think of you”; “this song makes me want to go dancing at that club I haven’t been to in so long”) or is conscious (“when I hear this section, I imagine a volcano erupting”). Meaning, however, is not the only thing that translates into a deep emotional experience of music. Other important factors are our biological responses to certain frequency combinations and inflections (consonance-dissonance; baby crying), the emotion that already exists within us at a given moment, and, in many cases, a grasp of the cultural context within which the music exists.

[1] Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1956), 1.

[2] Meyer., 1.

[3] Felicia E. Kruse, “Emotion in Musical Meaning: A Peircean Solution to Langer’s Dualism,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 41 (2005): 769.

[4] Peter Kivy, Introduction to a Philosophy of Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 110.

[5] Stephen Davies, Musical Meaning and Expression (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 369.

[6] Andrew Kania, “The Philosophy of Music,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta, <>.

[7] Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2006), 15.

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Further Reading

2 Replies to “Music and Emotion; Or: I’m Not Crying, My Eyes Are Just Very Sensitive to the Air, the Molecules of Which Have Been Even Further Stimulated by That Cello”

  1. Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:

    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:

    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek

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