[Smt-talk] Emotion and music

Charles J. Smith cjsmith at buffalo.edu
Fri Feb 24 07:47:59 PST 2012

One curious discrepancy to keep in mind. As Jonathan observes, human  
emotions are startlingly complex, and can be bafflingly difficult to  
categorize and pin down in meaningful ways. (Which is why people keep  
writing novels, plays, films—telling new stories about how we interact  
and the emotional benefit and damage we bring to each other.) But the  
category words for emotions are relatively few in number—in English,  
only a few dozen, perhaps a hundred or two at the very most—on a  
completely different scale from the range of emotions themselves. Each  
individual word, e.g. "sad", "happy", "grieving", "ecstatic", is  
nothing more than a starting point for trying to understand an  
emotional state. The only way that we really come to grasp or (dare I  
say it) understand emotions is by telling stories...

Pieces of music display an equally bewildering number of "emotional"  
profiles, for lack of a better term. Each is unique and special, just  
as each person we encounter has a unique emotional profile at any  
given moment. Perhaps we can understand pieces by telling stories  
about them. Perhaps this is, in the end, all that music theorists  
actually do—tell stories about pieces, some of them highly technical,  
some of them not so technical.

But applying emotional category terms to pieces can't be more than a  
starting point, and not even a particularly interesting starting point  
at that. Given the virtually unlimited emotional range and potential  
of music, and given the paltry emotional vocabulary available to us,  
how could it be otherwise? Any sad piece is SO much more interesting  
in its detail than the simple ascription of the single emotional term  
would suggest...


PS A further question: when I describe a passage as sad, am I  
stipulating a property of the music or a property of my reaction to  
it? Probably everyone who reads this list knows of Nelson Goodman's  
unpacking of this distinction in his Languages of Art of 1968, but in  
case this now almost-50-year-old-book (my emotional state on realizing  
this is but dimly and feebly captured by a statement that I am  
"shocked"!) has dropped below today's radar, let me call attention to  

On Feb 23, 2012, at 10:08 PM, Dunsby, Jonathan wrote:

> I wish I truly knew what you mean by 'emotion.' Human feelings seem  
> to be incredibly complex. How do you know you're even asking  
> meaningful questions about what happens when people need music?
> Pinning a word to an abstracted musical object seems, well, doubly,  
> utterly weird, although music-cognition people do it all the time. I  
> personally think they are fantasizing, but there we are.
> You carry on. Who knows what you may discover?
> You might find Naomi Cumming's The Sonic Self interesting, in its  
> warnings about mentalist preconceptions?
> Jonathan
> ______________
> Jonathan Dunsby
> Chair, Music Theory Department
> Professor of Music Theory
> Eastman School of Music
> http://www.ithaca.edu/music/mtsnys/officers.html
> From: Joshua Albrecht
> Sent: Thu 2/23/2012 11:46
> To: smt-talk
> Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Beethoven's Sonatas
> Dear list,
> Perhaps I should post some clarification.  A number of you have  
> responded to my question about the emotional expression of excerpts  
> from the Beethoven sonatas with concern about the subjective nature  
> of any response you could give, paired with some suggestion for  
> approaching the question from within a given theoretical framework.   
> In actuality, I am interested in your subjective experience of  
> Beethoven, because what I'm really curious about is how to look at  
> subjective experience more objectively.  What I'm really after is a  
> set of excerpts that have the potential to be strongly evocative of  
> different emotions for a range of listeners.  The research indicates  
> that despite the individual differences between listeners in how  
> they approach an excerpt, there is quite a lot of agreement about  
> the emotional expression perceived in a given excerpt.  In order to  
> study this more in depth, I'd like to get a number of excerpts from  
> a limited repertoire (in this case Beethoven sonatas) that cover a  
> broad range of emotions.
> One way of doing that would be to randomly sample excerpts from all  
> of Beethoven's piano sonatas.  The downside to this approach is that  
> I may not get a lot of variety in the emotions expressed.  In other  
> words, many of the excerpts could express the same emotions (or  
> worse, not be particularly expressive at all).  Another approach  
> (the one I'm using) is to ask a panel of experts about what excerpts  
> are particularly evocative of various emotions.  Getting a pool of  
> excerpts would allow me to actually test any number of theories  
> about how musical structures contribute to emotional expression in  
> Beethoven's sonatas.
> Thanks again for your thoughts!
> Joshua Albrecht
> School of Music
> Ohio State University
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Charles J. Smith
Slee Chair of Music Theory & Chair of the Department
Department of Music, 220 Baird Hall
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260
716-645-0639 [direct line]
716-645-3824 [fax]
cjsmith at buffalo.edu

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