Friday, September 21, 2001

My Little Forum about Music and Emotion

I've been reading a book by Joe Jackson called A Cure For Gravity, where he talks about his love of music and the wide variety of his personal experiences with it. He often mentions the great and mysterious relationship between music and emotion. So I was inspired to make this tiny contribution to bringing "normalcy" back to our lives after the events of  9/11: a forum about music and emotion. Here are some jumping-off points that you can ponder:
  • What the heck do people really mean at the end of a concert when they say "oh, it was so emotional" ?
  • Why do Major keys generally seem "happy" and minor keys "sad"? 
  • Igor Stravinski said: "Music is powerless to express anything other than itself". Do you agree? Does music really carry emotion, or is it just notes, subject to the unique psychology of the individual listener? 
  • If a group of New Guineans who never heard western music before, heard Barber's Adagio for Strings, (which we in the West consider a sad piece), would they feel sad ?  Or, if they heard a Can-Can, would they get happy? Or would it make no sense to them at all? In other words, how universal is music?
  • I’m interested in your unique perspective. What music touches you and why?

Expand on the subject in any way you like, and use as many words as you see fit. And pass this on to any highly or moderately intelligent persons you may know. I will post all responses here  (let me know if you do not want your address to be posted).

 --- David P. Gillis     Mon, 24 Sep 2001 00:10:33 EDT:

Haydn and Stravinsky were quite right. Music doesn't really express emotion. It may evoke it, but only in the broadest sense, and not in a uniform matter. There is an abstract psychology to music based on certain fixed elements (the use of brass instuments, the use of the secondary dominant chord as transition, etc.,) but music itself is not a fixed form, as is, say painting, sculpture, or the written word. Music, Dance, and any of the performing arts are "time"arts-- there is an element of ephemera which is infinitely difficult to re-create. (This is why Toscanini always said, "That's why  they're called NOTES!"  A bad paraphrase, but you know what I mean.) To be honest, we live in a fortunate time. Think of how many musicians before us would have sold their-- well-- this is the first time in history that we can actally hear Stravinsky play Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg. I sigh for Handel & Scarlatti. 
And on a personal note (everyone asks...) My favorite composers are still Handel, Haydn and Stravinsky  (and on the odd day,  Debussy.) 

  --- Bud Allen         Mon, 24 Sep 2001 12:00:00 -0400:

Unless I misunderstood Igor Stravinski, "music", in it's broad sence most certainly expresses more than itself. Music is expression of the soul/heart/???. Listen to Black Mambazo, before they went commercial ( which is a whole different discussion) and you feel. Weather you feel joy where joy was not the implied emotion or not, to me, makes no difference; you feel.
Listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan, His saddest expressions makes my heart feel as though it is about to burst with Joy.
It's hard to talk about Stevie without mentioning Syncopation. Unless you know a particular piece my heart, you're ear will not anticipate the next note or phrase. A surprise to the ear.
Listen to Mark Knopfler and he can take you, (as a Taxi picks you up and takes you to a destination) "to" agony  and drop you off at ecstasy; leaving you wanting more!
In the fifties 100's of songs had a chord progression of (C, Am, F, G), or that same progression in different keys. So, a minor key when taken standing alone may sound sad, where it is and how it's expressed counteracts the force or effectiveness of that "almost there" sound.  Just as a suspended chord creates tension that is relieved when the suspended note is resolved to the next chord, so to is with the minor chord...........

  --- (anonymous)  Mon, 24 Sep 2001 12:48:59 -0700:

Happy Lynard Skynard makes me happy,
I truly enjoy Ernest Tubb
I do not understand polka but it makes many people happy.
I hope to elucidate when time permits.Modern rap is an abomination.
Marshall Mathers makes me think very bad things about music industry executives.
How stupid are we to let them make money from such shit.
Remember music vibrates.
A minor chord slide from a major chord in barbershop....
well it just doesn't get any better.

  --- Michael Wright         Mon, 24 Sep 2001 16:46:12 -0400:

Can there be any doubt that music is a form of communication? As a matter of fact, I feel music can communicate some ideas or emotions much better than words can. As with any form of communication, there is the communicator and the intended recipient. There are so many (almost infinite) possibilities and variations in this type of comunication: The message set to music and possibly words by the composer and his/her talent in presenting it; the
talent level and sensitivity of the musician(s); the musical knowledge, experiences, and sensitivity of the listener(s); the context or venue in which the music is presented. Add in to the equation the current emotions that the performer(s) and listener(s) bring in to the situation as well asthings such as Zeitgeit or social influences. Do we as mere mortals have any hope of ever fully understanding music?Singing in Dayton Bach Society is a great experience. Many of us who have sang there have sang Bach and other composers works with other choral groups, not knowing the full intracies of the music as often pointed out by Dick Benedum. And can we ever hope to know all of the intracies of it?
My answer is no. But it is also my philosophy that humans exist to grow and learn, both, as individuals and as a race. Therefore, it is worthwhile to perform the music even if you don't fully understand it or the composer and,
likewise, it is important to learn and grow from the experience and try to gain a more fuller understanding and awareness in all aspects. I feel that humans cannot and will not ever attain perfection in any effort, but by our
very essence we are not excused from trying to attain it because of the rewards and growth we obtain in that striving.
Okay...I'm stepping down from the soapbox now.
* People refering to a perfomance as "emotional" can only be referring to their own reactions (since we are not mind or emotion readers of others). Perhaps they were touched by the performance. The levels that individuals are touched by a performance certainly can vary from individuals.
* I'm not sure why major keys sound happy and minor ones sound sad. It does seem to be a Western Music concept. Why do the whole-tone or 5 note scales used in some Eastern Music seem so much more subtle in their sounds and ideas? I do feel that a lot of Western Music is built upon the concept of anticipation, both tonally and rythmicly (sp?). If you play a major scale going up and end on the 7th note, does it not seem unfinished? Does the
musical ride not seem incomplete? And how the heck did we end up on that ride anyway? I think tonally, we get conditioned to hearing the 8th note of the scale as a natural conclusion to the scale. If you listen to James Brown
singing "I Feel Good" and you stop playing the recording just before he sings the "...I got you!" line, does that not feel incomplete? It seems to me that rythmic anticipation is what makes most percussion sounds into music. Banging a stick on a rock like a metronome is not music in my opinion. Throw in a different instrument (percussive or otherwise) playing a differnt rythm (I really ought to look up how to spell that damn word!) or throw in a kick or riff in time with that metronomic beating, then that is music. Thin line, eh! 
* I'm not all that big on Stravinsky. I think he's sort of a hack who got lucky. Music is all about the interaction of the performer and listener, the link that is formed between them. While a person may be able to look at notes on a page and imagine the sounds, the notes have not been brought to life, so to speak. I think that his quote is a particularly assinine comment in view that he was (sort of) a composer. No wonder he wrote all of that 12 tone crap that had very little meaning to people, even after hours and days of analyzing it. I think he set out to make music have no meaning. Unfortunately (at least for us who were forced to analyze his "music" in class), even his collections of notes have some, albeit unintentional, emotional experession. My opinion, take it for what it's worth (Can I help
it that I'm a Wagner fan).
* A group of New Guineans would probably find Barber's "Adagio" at least interesting. Would they feel sad? I sort of doubt it because they have not been raised with that music tradition. However, I do believe they might find the "Can-Can" to be a happy piece because of it's upbeat rhythm (Hey...I finally spelled it right!), a style they could probably identify with. It's more than the notes or the scale that make the music.
Consider this: Why does the song "America the Beautiful" have so much meaning to so many people right now? To me its still the song they made us sing in fourth grade that we liked to make fun of! Obviously, the song has
become identified with the Congress singing it and the events of September 11. Would we have appreciated Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" more if they had sung that instead? This is actually a more interesting topic than it first appears. More and more, the media appears intent upon relagating music to a background role in association with another medium. Soundtracks are a prime example of this. I had not heard "Adagio" until I saw the movie platoon. Now, I have trouble disassociating it from that movie and context (visions of Willem Defoes death by betrayal). How about "Fanfare for the Common Man" or Pachelbel's "Canon"? How about "Ride of the Walkeries" sung by Elmer Fudd or in the movie "Apocalypse Now"? The interesting thing for me about "Adagio" is that, once I tried to listen to it apart from the movie and with an open mind, I found a different emotional context for the song.
Can we try to disassociate music form the context in which we've heard it before and discover a new emotional meaning? I belive we can. Try it sometime!

  --- David B. Stang   Tue, 25 Sept 2001 13:09:04 EDT:

Mike, I'm afraid I have to disagree about Stravinsky. First, the great majority of his music was not "12-tone crap". He dabbled with 12-tone some, but mainly as an experiment, I think. Secondly and most importantly, he is not only one of the great composers, but one of the great minds of the 20th century. His music was shocking to some at the beginning of the century, just as Picasso's and Einstein's ideas were difficult to swallow at first. But his music is without question brilliant and groundbreaking, whether you happen to enjoy listening to it or not. Also, how can you say his quote is "asinine", when you go on to say in your last sentence that one can disassociate music from a previous context and discover a new emotional meaning. Also you said above: "People refering to a perfomance as 'emotional' can only be referring to their own reactions". Seems to me that supports Stravinski.

  --- (anonymous)      Fri, 28 Sep 2001 02:27:32 -0400:

What music touches me?Marlene Dietrich singing in German and French (brings the full power of a different era)
Berthe Sylvae (French)
Edith Piaf (French)
Jacques Brel
Mozart's Requiem (only when I'm suffering deep depression -- if so, I play it over and over and over)
Bach's Toccata and Fugue  (there is just raw power in this music). 
Barry Sisters (their greatest Yiddish hits)
Cher  (her talent is underestimated)
Parliament (pure animal)
Doris Day (See the USA in Your Chevrolet) 
Annie Lennox (Lenox?)
Dolly Parton 
Most "classical" music bores me.  But occasionally I'm in the mood to enjoy it. Truly depends upon my mood. 
Some music energizes me.  Occasionally I like to hear the techno music that is played on the island of Ibiza (decadent place for European eroticism).
Some music makes me cry.  I dare not listen to it.  It is too powerful.  It unsettles me.  I lose control.  It brings back painful memories. 
One song reminds me of my father being on a respirator.  It's very upsetting. I can't stand it.  Makes me very angry when I hear a particular rock song that is about breathing.  I can just feel my father's labored breathing.  It feels like the song mocks his suffering.  Naturally at an intellectual level I know that this is ridiculous, but at an emotional  (what the hell does "emotional" mean?) level it affects me greatly.
Music can inspire soldiers in war.  Create esprit de corps in a platoon. Consider marches.  All soldiers are  synchronized.  Same with religious music.
Do animals enjoy music?  We humans are animals.  But cats and dogs don't seem to notice music very much.  Or do they?
In response to your question about individuals who are non-western who hear western music for the first time, I send the following article:

The Comfort Effect of Music, by Paul Recer

  ---   Jack and Susan Hillbrand      Fri, 28 Sep 2001 09:51:24 -0400

 As you may recall, I can not sing well nor play any instrument. Susan played flute, guitar, and piano in her youth and she has a lovely and sweet voice. Our comments are basically from a layman's point of view. However, we have read the subject of music and we have attended a multitude of voice and instrumental concerts.Per your questions, we think Stravinski was correct. It seems to us that music and emotions are subconscious interactions in the mind with the emotions delivered by the listener. Sadness, and other emotions are probably conditional responses we learn and we bring those experiences to a musical performance.   Yo Yo Ma recently commented that ''Music was a way of putting all our thoughts and emotions into order and into perspective - music, specifically classical music, can hold within it all those complex emotions of sorrow, anger, and bewilderment.'' And that for example, Denyce Graves's singing of Malotte's setting of ''The Lord's Prayer'' at the service in the National Cathedral. ''That was amazing - very, very moving.''
Then in particular about memorial services he said that, ''The music served to bring people together in a kind of fellowship and it holds them there, in the moment. I have never felt more moved to be playing; every note meant so much more, both to me and to everyone who was listening.'' . . . ''Memorial services bring everything together, and such times, music is particularly meaningful. While I was playing the Sarabande in Bach's Sixth Suite for solo cello, I was thinking about some pairs of phrases in the second half. One phrase asks the question `Why?' and the other phrase says, `Because.' Music can't answer the why, but it helps us deal with that kind of question.'

What follows are quotes and other articles we researched and like -

Some Musical Quotations
Three Theories of Emotion
An Effect-Perceiving Interface
Music and Song in Discussion
Exploring the Musical Brain
From Mind's Eye to Emotion's Seat
Humpbacks, Hummingbirds, and Human Composers
Auditory Cheesecake or Evolutionary Advantage?
How Can Music Excite, Calm, or Depress People?
Emotions in Music, by Andrew Marr
The Dark Side of Music
Music and Film, by Jean Mitry
Music in the Movies, by jas79
Music and the Bible