The Expression and Arousal of Emotion in Music

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The Expression and Arousal of Emotion in Music

  • Jenefer Robinson

Assumptions Robinson makes

  • 1. Music frequently expresses emotional qualities and qualities of human personality such as sadness, nobility, aggressiveness, tenderness and serenity.
  • 2. Music frequently affects us emotionally: it evokes or arouses emotions in us.

Topic question

  • Are these two facts related?
  • In particular, “are the grounds on which we attribute the expression of emotion to music ever to be identified with the arousal of that same emotion in listeners?”
  • For example, do we say a piece of music is sad (expresses sadness) because it makes us feel sad?

Kivy’s view

  • There’s no connection between the emotions a piece of music might express and the emotions it might make us fee. Music expresses emotion either
  • 1) because it has the same “contour” as expressive human behavior of some kind and is thus heard as expressive, or
  • 2) because of a convention which originated in a version of cause 1.

Robinson’s response to Kivy

  • Kivy’s account works for many examples of musical expression. But, most of his examples are music with text, a less controversial case, since the text can specify the emotion (what does she mean by “specify” here? Probably that the music aims in a general direction, and the text narrows it down?) Also, Kivy discusses a limited set of examples, mostly joy, sorrow or restlessness. His view doesn’t cover enough cases.

Langer’s view

  • No particular emotion can be expressed by music, but “only the felt quality of our emotional life and its dynamic development.”
  • Musical meanings are rich and significant, but can’t be linked to any particular words (or emotions, I guess).
  • Langer emphasizes the development of structures of feeling through a long work (Kivy ignores this). But Langer ignores the expression of particular emotional qualities.

Walton’s view

  • In listening to music we imagine ourselves introspecting our own feelings. I.e., we imagine that our awareness of the sounds is an awareness of our states of mind. And it’s not abstract; we imagine particular stabs of pain, flashes of ecstasy, etc. But, it’s an imaginary feeling, not a real one.

Robinson’s Critique of Walton

  • 1) If someone says “That’s not what I do when I listen,” how could you convince her she should be doing it, that it’s the “right” or normal way to listen? The similarity between listening to sounds and introspecting emotional states is not that great.
  • 2) We experience the sounds as coming from outside, not from within.
  • 3) Music might be able to portray a stabbing sensation; but how can it distinguish a stabbing pain from a stabbing pleasure, or one stabbing pain from another, or my stabbing sensation from someone else’s?

Levinson’s view (in “Music and Negative Emotion”)

  • Levinson’s topic question: Why do people enjoy music when it evokes negative emotions like sadness? Levinson assumes that we recognize emotions expressed in music, and that “we end up feeling as, in imagination, the music does.” This is like actually experiencing the emotion, but it’s not exactly the same. “[T]he ‘empathic’ response lacks determinate cognitive content.” You “hear sad music, begin to feel sad, imagine that you are actually sad,” but have no actual object for your sadness.

Levinson’s view (cont.)

  • So, for example, if I recognized “unrequited passion” (one of Levinson’s examples) in the music, I’d have to imagine that I was feeling unrequited passion, and experience the physiological and affective components of unrequited passion, but without actually languishing for any one particular person.

Robinson’s critique of Levinson

  • Levinson is right to stress a connection between emotion in the music and emotion aroused by the music. And he’s right to stress the role of imagination. But “the theory as it stands will not do.” 
  • 1) The same emotion (e.g., unrequited passion) may have differing physiological and affective components on different occasions.  
  • 2) The same physiological and affective component may be associated with different emotions.
  • So those components aren’t enough to tell one emotion from another.

Critique of Levinson (cont.)

  • 3) What differentiates emotions is their cognitive content. Levinson does not say how pure music can be made to carry the amount of cognitive content necessary for it to express specific emotions like unrequited passion. L’s essay “Hope in The Hebrides” goes only a little way in the required direction, and does not provide enough to say how you would express unrequited passion.

Critique of Levinson (cont.)

  • 4) Kivy correctly points out that you can recognize an emotion in a piece of music without being made to feel the emotion yourself (and presumably also without imagining that you are feeling it). Also, music may actually arouse emotion in you, in no etiolated (washed out) or imaginary sense at all. Finally, the emotion you recognize in the music may be different from the emotion the music arouses. However, by making these points Kivy has not shown that there is never any connection between expression and arousal of emotion in music. “Being moved” (his sample emotion) is not the only one.

Robinson’s own view

  • Music can directly affect our feelings, without much or any cognitive mediation. This is particularly true for the “more primitive emotions aroused by music.” Examples are surprise, excitement, calm, unease, tension and resolution, etc.

Robinson’s view (cont.)

  • By directly expressing and using these simple feelings, music can imaginatively express more complex feelings.
  • So like Langer, Robinson focuses on the large structure of musical pieces. By the expression and arousal of a sequence of basic emotions it builds a more complex picture (my analogy: computer programming, from 1’s and 0’s to much more complex content).

Robinson’s view (cont.)

  • Unlike Langer, Robinson thinks that specific emotions can be expressed in this way.
  • The feeling expressed may not always be the feeling aroused.

Robinson’s analysis of her imagined piece (p. 188)

  • It’s a piece in sonata form, in which theme A is lively, theme B ponderous, and theme A is gradually overwhelmed and dragged down by theme B.
  • I feel increasingly nervous and tense as the music progresses; the music expresses cheerful confidence turned to despair.
  • It’s by arousing those feelings in me through the course of the piece that the piece is able to express its overall, complex emotion. My feelings give me clues to what it’s expressing.

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