Emotion and Music

Posted by jcmaziquemd on October 2, 2010

Hear It, Feel It

Are we hard-wired to hear emotion and meaning in music? Scientists probe the puzzling world of sound and sense.


Who knew that the send-up documentary "This Is Spinal Tap" not only lampooned the business of rock and roll but illustrated deep philosophical conundrums? Recall the scene in which Nigel Tufnel, Spinal Tap’s lead guitarist and sometime songwriter, sits noodling at the piano, plinking out a few doleful chords.

"It’s pretty," comments the faux documentarian (played by Rob Reiner). Tufnel (Christopher Guest) notes that the song he is fooling about with is "in D minor, which I always find is really the saddest of all keys, really. I don’t know why, but it makes people weep instantly." Tufnel trudges through his funereal ditty one more time, prompting his interviewer to ask: "What do you call this?"

Tufnel’s title for his teary tune is unprintable here—the crude proposition that a male rock star might make to an eager female groupie. But that punch line aside, Nigel, with his assertion of the inherent sadness of D minor, stumbled into the middle of a highly contentious debate: Musicologists have long questioned whether musical elements can be said to have any such emotional content. Does it make any sense to say that a minor key is "sad"? Some argue that such assertions are just so much trite humbug, no matter how common is our experience of music as a vehicle for emotional expression.

Why is it that we hear the E-flat major of Beethoven’s "Eroica" symphony as heroic (and not just because of the symphony’s name)? Are such judgments inherent in the frequencies of the sound itself—in the way our brains process the wavelengths? Is our emotional reaction hard-wired or is it a matter of convention, a set of responses that are learned and that differ from one musical culture to another? These are among the many questions asked by Philip Ball in "The Music Instinct," his admirable survey of the science and philosophy of music.

Mr. Ball frankly admits that no one "can pretend to open up music’s box of tricks, to show exhaustively and seamlessly how this leads to that." When it comes to how we perceive music and how it affects us, there is far more we don’t understand than we do.

Not that plenty of people haven’t been trying. Mr. Ball wades into a daunting pile of music-cognition research. In the past few decades a lab-coated army of scholars and scientists has attached electrodes to subjects and presented them with snippets of music. Listeners’ brains have been scanned, their breathing measured, their pulses monitored. They have been asked to describe what they feel when exposed to different sorts of sound, from music the world over to mere noise.

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Burt Glinn/Magnum

David Amram improvising jazz on the French horn at the Five Spot Café in New York City in 1957


The data are fascinating, if fragmentary, but they don’t answer with any certainty the questions that Mr. Ball places at the heart of the matter: Is music a language? What are composers and musicians trying to say? How does music convey emotion? And what exactly is going on when we say we have experienced emotion listening to music? Have we actually felt the emotions or just recognized them, somehow, in the music itself? We don’t have to weep—Nigel Tufnel’s assertion notwithstanding—to be able to say that we hear Samuel Barber’s "Adagio for Strings" as profoundly sad.

"Some studies have suggested," Mr. Ball writes, "that our emotional responses to music are so complex and idiosyncratic that attempts to explain them systematically may prove futile." There may be correlations between emotion and sound, he says, especially when music mimics the expression of emotion in other contexts. "When most listeners agree that music is sad, it is likely to be slow and soft—rather like the way sad people tend to move and speak." Similarly, lively, bouncy music generally comes across as happy.

But you don’t even have to go deep into the catalog of compositions to find examples that stymie any hope of a reliable rule. Consider the jaunty Burt Bacharach and Hal David tune "I’ll Never Fall in Love Again," a cheerful little confection about heartbreak.

The conundrums multiply when we consider music from outside the Western tradition. It turns out that, for almost any claim made about a natural or universal language of music based on examples from the West, counter-examples can be found in everything from Navajo chants to Indonesian gamelan orchestras. It is possible to produce music of exquisite beauty, complexity and subtlety while defying just about every Western assumption about musical form. And in some cultures, the minor tones Nigel finds so weepy are associated with joy.

The Music Instinct

By Philip Ball
Oxford, 452 pages, $29.95

Still, Mr. Ball doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that, because the music of some cultures is alien to our own, no broader common qualities can be found. While the structure of Balinese music may share little with that of Western music, both have structures. And for Mr. Ball this is the most important thing. He champions a theory put forward in 1956 by Leonard Meyer in "Emotion and Meaning in Music." Meyer argued that the structures in music—whatever form they might take—create patterns, or "schema," that the listening mind sets about deciphering. The listener, sometimes actively, but mostly subconsciously, makes predictions about what will come next based on the patterns recognized along the way. Sometimes those predictions prove right and sometimes wrong, creating a tantalizing uncertainty that engages the whole brain. Meyer thought that the emotions we feel flowed from the experience of having our expectations either met or thwarted.

There is a great deal that the theory cannot explain, obviously, but it does suggest how we become emotionally involved in music. We are swept up, as Mr. Ball puts it, in "the sheer pleasure of mental arousal." It also suggests why the most radical approaches of 20th- century musical modernism have proved to be so unsatisfying to audiences. Feeling that the Western classical tradition had devolved into hackneyed musical gestures, Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and other composers following his lead sought to break free of ingrained habits of melody and harmony.

Schoenberg devised a complicated mathematical system of composition designed to liberate music by constraining it, tying the composer to the mast so that he couldn’t follow the Siren call of song. This new atonality created orderings of notes that defied the ability of listeners to discern patterns. Without schema to work with, the audience couldn’t play the subconscious game of making predictions. Unable to engage their brains in deciphering the patterns of sound, Mr. Ball argues, listeners soon become frustrated and then bored. The search for patternless form persisted well beyond Schoenberg, of course, and may account for what the critic Henry Pleasants termed "the agony of modern music."

One could point to the same problem in the more abstract precincts of jazz. Some 50 years ago the New Yorker’s jazz critic, Whitney Balliett, described the best of the music he was listening to as "the sound of surprise." The slogan stuck and helped encourage a conception of jazz that abjured the predictable.

The avant-garde in jazz has often pushed this idea to an extreme, with some jazz modernists calling for improvisation freed from any structured tonality at all. (A standard musicians’ joke: Why do they call it "free" jazz? Because no one will pay to hear it.) The radical unpredictability of free jazz leaves the listener struggling to find patterns on which to build a sense of what comes next. Without such expectations, there can be no sensation of having one’s expectation met or, more to the point, overthrown—which results in the sound of no surprise at all.

Mr. Ball ends with a plea that we "allow music to be music, with its own set of emotions and sensations that we have yet to name and perhaps do not need to." After hundreds of pages grappling with such subjects as statistical regression analysis of melody and scientific studies of toddlers’ capacity for recognizing harmony, his plea is a bold and welcome affirmation of the mystery that music still poses for us. Cue the swelling of strings—in E-flat major, please.

—Mr. Felten is a jazz singer and trombonist.

Copyright 2009 Dow Jone


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