By David Whitwell Essay Nr. 27: On the Doctrine of the Affections All musical expression has an affect or emotion for its foundation

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Essays on the Origins of Western Music
David Whitwell

Essay Nr. 27: On the Doctrine of the Affections

All musical expression has an affect or emotion for its foundation.

F. W. Marpurg (1749)

Music of all the arts has the most influence on the passions

and the legislator should give it the greatest encouragement.


The intellectual subject known as “the Doctrine of the Affections” is primarily associated with German music theorists of the Baroque. It was above all a manifestation of Humanism in music, the movement to return music to its ancient role of expressing emotion and away from the fifteen centuries of Church dogma which associated music instead with mathematics.

Humanism in music had its roots in the rediscovery during the late Middle Ages of the “lost” writings by the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, which the Church had attempted to destroy but which had survived in Arabic translations. Following this one can trace growing interest in, and enthusiasm for, the role of emotions in music during the Renaissance and an almost total absorption with this idea during the Baroque (modern music history texts notwithstanding). The doctrine of the affections was part of this last chapter and it was a study which attempted to discover exactly, in a physical sense, how music communicated specific emotions to the listener.

As the philosophers who promoted Humanism in music frequently based their ideas on the ancient writers, so too did those whom we associate with the doctrine of the affections. For this reason, it might be helpful for the modern reader if we briefly review some of the weird-science – excuse us, physiological terms – which they discussed.

Hippocrates (5th century BC) of the Greek island of Cos, the traditional “Father of Medicine,” believed that man’s health was influenced by four fluids, known as the “Humors,” blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile) and melancholy (black bile).1 It was his idea that good health resulted in a balance of these four fluids. If there was an imbalance, then he treated the patient with broth of lizard, goat eye or whatever he deemed necessary to bring the fluids into balance.

The Roman doctor, Galen (130 – 201 AD) extended the idea of the four fluids by concluding they also influenced the man’s personality. Thus he equates “blood” with a sanguine personality, amorous, happy, one who enjoys laughter, music and has a passionate and generous disposition; phlegm (phlegmatic), one who is sluggish, dull, pale and cowardly; choler, or choleric, a violent person quick to anger and melancholy, a melancholic or depressed, gluttonous, lazy and sentimental personality. Now the concept became known as the “Four Temperaments,” instead of the “Humors.” It was the doctor’s job, if he found an imbalance, to treat through the use of emetics, cathartics, purgatives or by bloodletting. These views were held for centuries. George Washington was subjected to bloodletting, and was killed by the procedure because his doctor mistakenly thought the human body held twelve instead of six quarts.

During the next fifteen centuries there were numerous new “sciences” which branched off from the “Temperaments.” One of the evolutions of this theory in the 18th century was the quack-science of “phrenology,” founded by Franz Joseph Gall (1758 – 1828). Through this “science” the practitioner concluded the dominant personality traits were reflected in the shape of the skull. The practice of this study resulted in Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven being buried without their heads!

Another evolution of the Temperaments was to combine them with astrology, with three zodiac symbols assigned to each temperament.

Another label frequently used by the proponents of the doctrine of the affections was “the Passions.” This idea had its origin in the philosophy of the ancient Stoics.2 After first dividing human ends into the good and the bad, the Stoics found four basic passions: desire, fear, delight and distress. Secondary passions were related to these four, for example under desire we find anger, sexual desire and love of riches, etc. For the Stoics these passions were actual movements of the soul and that the soul was a physical entity which could be explained by physical characteristics. The Stoic sought to be free of the passions through his control of the movements of the soul.

The Medieval Church tied this idea to the basic emotions, finding among the “concupiscible appetite” joy or delight, sadness, desire, aversion or abhorrence and love and hatred, and among the “irascible appetite,” hope and despair, courage and fear and anger. The Church, of course, taught that the duty of the Christian was to keep the passions under subjugation.

As we have mentioned above, the doctrine of the affections is associated with the Baroque Period. However, a few Renaissance references suggest that the basic ideas were being discussed earlier. We must assume that the “humors” were sufficiently known to the theater audience that Lope de Vega could make fun of them in his Fuente Ovejuna,

Barrildo. There’s no such thing as love.

Laurencia. In general? That’s too sweeping.

Barrildo. Yes, and stupid.

The world itself could never last without it.

Mengo. I can’t philosophize -- wish I could read!

But if the elements from which our bodies

draw sustenance -- phlegm, melancholy, blood,

and choler too -- are in perpetual conflict,

it stands to reason.

Barrildo. Mengo, all the world,

here and up there, is perfect harmony,

and harmony is love, for love is concord.3
The French philosopher, Jean Bodin (1530 – 1596) was particularly interested in the influence of geography on the humors. In one place, speaking of the black bile, he makes a reference to music therapy in Germany.

In Lower Germany there are almost none who are mad from black bile, but rather from blood; this type of lunacy the common man calls the disease of St. Vitus, which impels them to exultation and senseless dancing. Musicians imitate this on the lyre; afterwards they make use of more serious rhythms and modes, doing this gradually until by the gravity of the mode and the rhythm the madmen are clearly soothed.4
The Italian philosopher, Girolamo Cardano (1501 – 1576), represents an early example of one attempting to associate specific musical gestures with specific emotions.

The first rule of artistic music: there is nothing more efficacious for pleasure than proper imitation. It has three parts: manner [modus], sense [sensus], and sound [sonus]. These three do not always coincide. For example, if one imitates the song of small birds, it is not necessary to imitate the sense, for their chirping has no meaning, but only their sound and manner....

We imitate by sense when there is great emotion, such as in the four moods of sorrow, joy, tranquility, and excitement....

A mood of commiseration proceeds in music in slow and serious notes by dropping downward suddenly from a high range. This imitates the manner of those who weep, for at first they wail in a very high and clear voice and then they end by dropping into a very low and rather muffled groan.5
The German philosopher, Henry Agrippa (1486 – 1536), found it quite logical to associate the humors with the “music of the spheres.”

Moreover, they that followed the number of the elements, did affirm, that the four kinds of music do agree to them, and also to the four humors, and did think the Dorian music to be consonant to the Water and phlegm, the Phrygian to choler and Fire, the Lydian to blood and Air, the mixed-Lydian to melancholy and Earth: others respecting the number and virtue of the heavens, have attributed the Dorian to the Sun, the Phrygian to Mars, the Lydian to Jupiter, the mixed-Lydian to Saturn, the hypo-Phrygian to Mercury, the hypo-Lydian to Venus, the hypo-Dorian to the Moon, the hypo-mixed-Lydian to the fixed stars…. 6
The most original writing of the 17th century on the doctrine of the affections occurred in France, by two very well-known writers. First, Martin Mersenne (1588 – 1648), author of the virtual encyclopedia, Harmonie universelle (1636), in his second treatise, Traite de mechanique, takes the basic idea of the doctrine of affections and expands it to include a discussion of music and taste.

We shall commence with tastes, the most agreeable of which must correspond to the octave. These are the sweet tastes which are found in honey, sugar, flowers of honeysuckle....

The fatty or greasy taste corresponds to the perfect fifth, since, with the exception of the sweet, it is the most agreeable taste.

The perfect fourth is comparable to the salty taste, for the salty taste is disagreeable in combination with the sweet, as is the perfect fourth when it is joined with the octave. If the perfect fourth is joined with the perfect fifth, however, it is agreeable, as is the salty taste with the fatty....

The astringent taste corresponds to the major third, and the insipid taste to the minor third. These two consonances combine well with the octave, as do the astringent and insipid tastes with the sweet. The gentle impression which the astringent and insipid tastes make on the gustatory sense is similar to that which the major or minor third takes on the ears. Although they can be mixed with the salty, the astringent and insipid tastes do not combine so well with the fatty. Similarly the major or minor third combines better with the perfect fourth than with the perfect fifth. When the major or minor third combines with the perfect fourth, it forms the major or minor sixth. The sixths, however, are less agreeable than the thirds. Just as the thirds do not contain the octave or the perfect fifth, so the astringent and insipid tastes do not partake of the sweet or the fatty.

The major sixth corresponds to the sour taste, and the minor sixth with the acid taste. Just as the major sixth combines well with the minor third and the minor sixth with the major third, so the sour can be joined with the insipid and the acid with the astringent. Such taste combinations ought to result in the sweet taste, just as the major sixth combines with the minor third to form the octave and the minor sixth combines with the major third to form the octave. The octave thus formed, however, lacks the perfect fifth, just as the corresponding taste combinations lack the fatty taste.

The sharp taste can be combined with the sour, such as wine with pepper, and that the sharp and sour agree with the tasteless and the sweet. Just as the two sixths agree with the octave and the perfect fifth. The two sixths can not be joined with the perfect fourth, just as the two aforesaid tastes can not be agreeably combined with the salty.

The bitter taste is like the whole-tone. It is always disagreeable. The tastes of all fruits begin with bitterness, as one experiences with unripe fruits. So, too, songs often begin with the whole-tone. The whole-tone is never more disagreeable than in combination with the octave, and the bitter is never more disagreeable than in combination with the sweet.

On the other hand, the bitter is never more agreeable than in combination with the salty, just as the whole-tone is never more agreeable than in combination with the perfect fourth so as to create the perfect fifth. For this reason certain people prefer the taste of salty olives to that of pheasants.7
Mersenne was also interested in the relationship of color to emotion.

It should be noticed here that songs are similar to the nuances of colors, which follows the idea of not being able to pass from one extremity to another without passing through a central shade. That is why one can be instructed in making good songs by the consideration of the nuances, for as one has seven intervals, or eight sounds in the octave, so one takes seven or eight colors for each shade, as is seen in the shade of purple, blue, and chartreuse, or lemon yellow. In this way one can compare each song to each color....

One can add that if songs are made of the twelve tones in the octave, one has also twelve colors, and that a shade may have as many colors as the octaves do sounds, or intervals, for each may be divided into an infinity of degrees.

One can be instructed by an analogy to other things. Simple tones compare to simple colors. Intervals of sounds compare to mixtures of the colors, and the songs to paintings.8
Regarding color, it is interesting that Mersenne thought it might be helpful if the composer arranged to have his music actually printed in color to help identify the emotions he had in mind. Therefore, the diatonic, a joyful set of intervals, might be printed in black; the chromatic, whose half-steps arouse sad, amorous, and ravishing feelings, could be printed in red; and the enharmonic, since it is particularly fitting “for ravishing the mind in the contemplation of heavenly things,” could be reproduced in blue.

Mersenne also assigned significant responsibility to the performer for the communication of the emotions in music to the listener. Since Mersenne was primarily interested in song, his discussion centers on the singer.

The Italian [singers] observe several things in their solos of which ours are deprived, since they represent as much as they can the passions and the affections of the soul and the mind, for example, choler, wrath, spite, rage, lapses of the heart, and several passions, with a violence so peculiar that one would almost judge that they felt the same affections which they represent when singing, whereas we French are content with charming the ear, and use a constant mildness in our songs, which hinders their vigor.9
We find the most interesting comments by Mersenne on the subject of the performer are those which deal with the problem of the emotions and their actual notation symbols. He wishes for a notational system which was more helpful and he is correct: we do not have a single written symbol which is addressed to feeling!

There are a number of passions which we can make appear in singing, for which we have not yet devised symbols, such as the great exclamations of Italian airs, and the representations of lapses of the heart. It appears that if the circumflex accent had not been used for the double-flagged would be suitable for representing these great cries and excesses of the voice, since it is composed of the acute and the grave accent, just as the exclamation of despair and of pain is composed of a cry of the voice and a small rest which descends to the third, the fourth, the minor sixth, or other intervals, according to its magnitude and the strength of the voice which sings....

We lack symbols to represent the notes or syllables which we should sing more strongly, as we have some bowing strokes much stronger than others. Since the voice has as many degrees of force as of intervals, we can divide this force into eight degrees, as we divide heat and the other qualities, so that the first degree is suitable for expressing very weak echoes, and the other seven degrees designate the different degrees of the most vehement passions up to the eighth, which will represent the greatest exclamation which can be made, such as that of despair and of any great pain of the mind or the body, such as we can imagine that of Esau when he roared and cried when demanding the benediction of his father Isaac. These different degrees of force can be designated by numbers, or by as many dots or accents. Since, however, they have already been used for other purposes, there would be need to add new symbols, although if we retain the ordinary usage of notes, which carry the value of time with them, numbers can serve to indicate the differences of force of the voice.10
It seems clear that at least part of Mersenne’s introduction to the doctrine of the affections came from the writings of Pontus de Thyard (1521-1605), who was the “theorist in residence” of Baff’s Academy, for he specifically quotes from his writings on this subject.

Pontus de Thyard also speaks thereof in his second Solitaire, in which he says that the agreement of the four humors is called health and the discord thereof is called sickness. The changeability of the pulse attests to this; it is like the master of the music of the human body. Philosophers have considered three kinds of movement in the spirit, namely, desire or concupiscence, ire, and reason, which produce an intellectual harmony in man when they accord with the will of God. Otherwise they yield a very disagreeable dissonance.

Desire has three divisions. Ire has four, and reason has seven. The divisions are called virtues. The first division of desire is Temperance, which despises the voluptuous. The second division is Continence, which suffers failure and poverty without tiring. The third division of desire is Shame, which rejects any rejoicing over the voluptuous.

Ire has four divisions, namely, Clemency, Courage or Assurance, Fortitude, and Constancy.

Reason has seven divisions, namely, Understanding, Perspicacity, Curiosity, Counsel or Consideration, Wisdom, Prudence, and Experience.

Temperance taken from the ternary of the perfect fourth, Fortitude drawn from the quaternary of the perfect fifth, Prudence drawn from the septenary of the octave, and Justice taken from the perfect consonance (inasmuch as it unites the powers of body and soul) make the perfect quaternary of the Pythagoreans, in which all the perfect consonances can be found.11
In this same place, Mersenne also paraphrases Ptolemy, concluding,

There are certain sounds which excite some to voluptuousness, others to pity and mercy, and still others to rage and ecstasy. The passions of the soul are changed according to the sounds, songs, and modes which are used.12
Mersenne begins the discussion of his own theories on the relationship of music and the temperaments with a number of general observations on the nature of the emotions and music. He begins by considering the “voices of animals,” which he finds serve to “signify the passions of the soul, but does not always signify the temperament of the body.”

Experience points out [that]...birds, dogs, and other animals make another sound when angered than when complaining, or when sick than when well again and in good health. For bile makes the voice high, melancholy and phlegm make it low, and the bloody humor renders it tempestuous. Thus the height is compared to fire, depth to earth and water and tempestuousness to air.13
Mersenne concludes that pitch itself is not an infallible indication of temperament, in either man or animal. However,

As for the other qualities of the voice, such as sharpness, sweetness and agility, they seem to be able to give us more certain indications of temperament. For those who speak swiftly and brusquely are ordinarily testy, and those who speak slowly are melancholy. But those who speak moderately are cheerful and of a good temperament.


One can say in general the hardest and roughest voices are the most appropriate for signifying the passions, and griefs and displeasure; and the sweetest voices are most appropriate for the amorous passions, and that the great cries best represent the great sorrows and sadnesses.
Now Mersenne begins to wonder if it might be more effective in expressing our feelings, if we substituted singing for speech. In fact, he concludes that “song seemingly is more appropriate and natural for expressing the passions....”

For the song of a[n interval of a] second is appropriate for expressing sadness and that of a third is appropriate for expressing joy. And if one were to examine the nature of all intervals, one would find the conformity they have with each thing, such that he could enjoy them in place of our ordinary [speech] for making us understand and for expressing the nature of things.
But, he admits, that persons with limited vocal resources would thus have trouble expressing themselves.14

It would seem a given conclusion to a 17th century philosopher such as Mersenne that “happy” songs should be more agreeable to the listener than sad ones. But to his astonishment, he found the opposite was sometimes the case!

Nevertheless all musicians are of contrary opinion, and the listeners who sing confess that they receive more pleasure from sad and languishing songs, than from gay ones....

However one can first consider that men have much more melancholy and phlegm than bile, and they embrace the earth more than air, or the skies, and the gay airs being of an aerial nature, representing fire, are not so suitable to the nature of men as the sad and languishing songs which represent the earth, melancholy, and phlegm. I have proved in the 31 propositions of the “Book of Sounds” that the high sounds are more agreeable than the low ones, because they partake more of the nature of air and fire. This does not mean however that sad songs must be less agreeable than gay ones. But the reason is not enough, since one meets bilious men, who are pleased with sad songs, as well as melancholy ones, in a way that it is necessary to take the nature of the sad songs in mind, since some listeners differ in their opinion.

It is necessary to consider the nature of sad airs, which consist of several things, for the melody of sad airs represents languor and sadness by its continuation, by its weakness and its trembling. The half-tones and sharps represent the tears and complaining because of their small intervals which mean weakness. The small intervals which are made in rising or falling are similar to children, to the old, and to those who arise from a long illness, who cannot walk in large steps....

And then when one takes a long time to shift from interval to interval that shows a great weakness, which makes its impression in the soul of the listener.... Gay songs are so rapid, that one has not as much time to notice them, since they do not remain long enough in one place to make an impression on the soul. I do not wish to speak here of the text which augments sadness, when it makes us review the unhappy accidents of life with which we have been tormented, since sad airs can exist without words.

However, it is necessary to notice that all men are more subject to sadness than to joy, for if each one could reflect on the actions that he does, or on his thoughts, he would find a dozen of the sad ones for each gay one. Sadness fell upon us after the original sin, and is natural to us. In contrast, joy comes to us by accident, as happens in joyous gatherings, where each one forces himself to give pleasure to his companion (which he does not always succeed) and there are many who have laughed while the heart was sad. But it seems that often one lets himself follow the common opinion that there are sad songs, and that one should say they are gay, since they bring contentment to the listeners. Many times musicians call songs sad when in reality they are not, but rather they fit the voice of those who lament, particularly well.

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