Monday, October 19, 2009

A brief discussion of emotion in music

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.


Augusto Monk said...

Well, I tend to agree more wih Graham. I think that what the author is saying is that the connection between sound and emotion is more the result of culture for inatance, rather than the sounds triggering some emotional mechanisms in the brain. I would say that there is a lot of music that intends not to convay any emotion, Cage for instance; I would say that such is a different approach to music in hich sound is not used to portray emotions but rather to portay ideas or concepts. Also, I think that the emotional power of music, lies more on the listener than on the music itself; I think that there is an elemnt of willingness from the listener to be moved, rather than the listener irresistibly yied to the power of music.

Leonid said...
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Leonid said...

This is an extremely complex, and interesting topic to discuss. The stories in the book are definitely thought provoking. While there is much speculation regarding the origin and nature of emotions, there is clearly a direct connection between neurological damage that the patients suffered and their “emotional disability”, which resulted from this damage. Interestingly, there is no unambiguous and generally accepted classification of emotions. Moreover, there is no commonly agreed upon a view on the origin of emotions. Some scientists believe that all emotions are the product of evolutionary process, and others maintain that all emotions are socially and culturally constructed. The emotions that are the products of the process of adaptation are sometimes called “basic emotions”, although, since scientists cannot come to the agreement as to which emotions can be defined as “basic”, the list of such emotions is in constant flux. Additionally, some theorists (like, for instance, Jesse Prinz) claim that all emotions are both evolved and constructed. Perhaps, he is right. With regard to emotional content of music, I think we need to differentiate between three processes related to music-composition, performing, and listening; and composition is easier to discuss in this context. Imagine an individual (let’s say some Neanderthal charismatic character) who first experienced a strong desire to start vocalizing in a more organized and artistic way. Wouldn’t it be logical to suppose that this music was an expression and outcome of a certain emotional state? Was this emotion culturally constructed? I do not think the connection between sound and emotion is only a result of culture. Music is being composed in every culture precisely because composition is essentially about baring one’s soul. We can clearly see it today when the process of composition is not separated from the process of performance, (for instance, in improvisation, or folk music, such as Azerbaijani mugham or Arabian maqam, and countless others). It would be preposterous to deny that musical meaning could be socially and culturally constructed, however, this would take us to the higher level of the discussion-where a performer and a listener are involved. We are all familiar with Stravinsky’s view on music as being incapable of conveying emotions or ideas. Perhaps, this statement is a result of his dissatisfaction from the disparity he felt between his own and his audience’ perception of his music. In my opinion, while experimentation with music will always be an integral part of a cultural process, an initial desire to compose/create/produce/generate/construct music would always be based on a simple physical necessity to express oneself. As for Cage, I encourage you to listen to his “In the Name of The Holocaust”, or his “Dream” - I think it would be really hard to deny that this music is heavily loaded, and emotionally charged.