Graham, Gordon. “Music and Autism.”Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Summer, 2001): pp. 39-47.
In this article, Gordon Graham very briefly summarizes some of his beliefs and logical conclusions about music and music therapy. Chiefly this article addresses the issue of emotion in music. What is it? Can music itself actually have an inherent emotion or emotions? Can music successfully express and convey the emotion of one person (a performer, or a composer, perhaps) to an audience? And, if this is the case, then is the music produced by autistic persons, especially the severely handicapped, really a means of expressing deep-set emotions that have no other outlet? Does a musically talented autistic person use his or her music production as a way of communicating emotions that would otherwise go unexpressed?
Graham concludes that music itself does not have emotional properties in the way that most human beings do. A piece itself, for example, cannot literally feel melancholic, even though we may describe the music as melancholy. Thus, when we hear a “sad” piece of music, the sound itself is not literally sad. Yet people still assign emotional qualities to music; this is what Graham calls the “expressivist” view of music. And while this description of music is accepted, it is actually an example of “analogical extension,” where words are extended into new contexts, and thus retain only part of their original meaning. A “melancholy person” thus has a different meaning than a “melancholy song.”
By the end of the article, Graham has concluded that the music played by exceptionally talented autistic persons is not, in fact, anything more than a remarkable capability. It is not an emotional tool or a means of communication and window into the inner mind of the autistic person. Musical sounds themselves do not have emotional content, but are merely interpreted as having emotion.
Graham does state, though, that music can be used as a therapeutic and communicative tool, even when one removes the expressivist definition from the music.
I found this article very interesting because, as Graham says himself, the author is not a musician, a therapist, or a psychologist, and has “no special knowledge of or expertise in the understanding of autism.” (p. 41) So the article is a philosopher trying to use logic to understand music, and frankly I think it falls a little short.
Music itself cannot literally express its own emotions, but there is no question in my mind that music is a powerful way to elicit emotions in an audience. If I didn’t feel anything when I played or listened to music, then I would not aspire to have a career in music. Does this make me an expressivist? I don’t believe that the musical sounds themselves have emotions, but I do know that often composers will write music to reflect their emotional states, and this can be very audible in a composition. This is a strange phenomenon, indeed, where an external source (the music) can elicit similar emotions in different members of an audience. But this is the beauty of music! If we remove music from its emotional ties and definitions, then I think that we don’t have music anymore. We have sound. And any sound can be used as a tool for communication (take, for example, Morse code), but this doesn’t make the sound music.
Also, Graham falsely uses the music of Bach and more Baroque-era composers as examples of music that is less expressive and more analytical and form-based, but I disagree. At the moment I am studying Baroque bassoon, and learning all of the intricacies of the Baroque style. There may not be an excess of vibrato in my Baroque playing, but there is certainly an ample supply of other expressive tools to choose from, including “inégal” notes, and metric accenting. I find Graham somewhat ill-informed in this regard, and this makes me question his claims. And my point here would be that all of the music I have encountered to date can be performed expressively, and be heard as having some sort of emotional tie or description.
Finally, Graham talks about music therapy as a means of opening up communication with people (especially autistic people) who are normally hard to reach. In this I agree wholeheartedly. I am currently volunteering with a music teacher who works with a special needs class, and I have seen how many of the autistic and mentally handicapped children delight in participating in the singing and clapping we do. The simple act of music-making seems to elicit positive emotions in these children, and it is amazing to see how they participate in the music-making process.
So, on the whole, I disagree with Graham’s claim that music, and music therapy, should be “depersonalized” with regards to emotional content. The whole point of using music as therapy is to elicit emotion, and communication. And I don’t believe that music can ever be separated from its emotional content. Even if the music being played by someone who is autistic is not necessarily an expression of that person’s inner world, I still feel moved when I hear it; to me, it still has emotion.