Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Emotional responses to music have a measure of objectivity. Though the type and intensity of emotions felt are response-dependent, they are not subjective in the sense of being mere projections. Expressiveness is contained in the music itself. As philosopher Stephen Davies has argued, music seems sad or happy because it has the appearance of sadness or happiness—that is, we identify characteristics in music analogous to our own experience of those feelings.
Davies calls this “appearance emotionalism,” or the resemblance between temporally unfolding music and human behaviors associated with emotional expression. Musical movement is discerned from various motions: high to low pitches, fast to slow tempo, loud to soft volume, harmonic tension and resolution, etc. Like human action, the momentum of music seems purposeful and goal-directed. This perception is part of our broader tendency to personify the things we experience. We are, for example, more likely to notice how weeping willows look like sad people than how they resemble frozen waterfalls. Similarly, we detect in music a dynamic character relating to our own expressive behavior. This is true of all music, be it concrete or abstract, tonal or atonal, formal or informal.
Sounds are instantly anthropomorphized upon reaching our ears. To use a generic illustration, Western music expresses graveness through patterns of unresolved tension, minor tonalities, bass timbre, downward sloping lines and so on. Of course, our responses to music are largely learned: cultural insiders and outsiders are not likely to have identical reactions (nor can we expect all members of a music-culture to react in precisely uniform ways). But once we are trained to associate certain sounds with certain feelings—a process that begins in the womb—our perceptions are more or less set for life.
Appearance emotionalism can also take on a visual dimension. In such cases, not only is music felt as a sensual phenomenon, it is also likened to imagery expressive of that phenomenon. For instance, a song might be heard as a racing antelope, meaning that it exudes excitement. If it is heard as a gathering storm, it inspires trepidation. If it sounds like a rainbow, it stirs a sense of awe. In this respect, stating that music resembles something visible is basically the same as acknowledging that it feels a particular way. And the reason both music and images are so readily compared to emotions is because they exhibit emotive qualities we perceive in ourselves.
This is not to say that we simply project our humanness onto the music. Its emotionalism exists independent of our listening to it. Rather, we are the receivers of music’s expressive content. Exactly how this information is interpreted varies from person to person and culture to culture; but it is universally felt as analogous to human emotions.
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