Feeling Voices

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The emotional pull of music is its first, strongest and most universal effect. It is the primary reason for music’s inclusion in a staggering assortment of human activities, and the common denominator for listeners of all levels of education and expertise. If music were divested of its emotional attraction, it would soon fall out of usage. Yet, as widely attested as this observation is, it remains unclear precisely how emotions are musically aroused.

There has been no shortage of proposed explanations. From the moment people began thinking about music, the connection between emotion and sound has been a foremost area of interest. Some older ideas have survived the rigors of modern research and continue to hold sway. One such theory was introduced in the writings of Charles Darwin.

In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin wrote, “when the voice is used under any strong emotion, it tends to assume, through the principle of association, a musical character.” Vocalization patterns change depending on the vocalizer’s emotional state. Gloominess is matched by slow and hesitant speech in the lower register. Cheerfulness is partnered with loud and rapid speech in the higher range. Anxiety has its counterpart in uneven spurts of trembling speech. We intuitively recognize underlying moods from the rhythms, timbres and contours present in the expression of these and other states.

Sometime in the distant and unrecorded past, these qualities migrated into the musical vocabulary. Gloomy music mimics the lethargic pace of a downhearted voice. Cheerful music replicates the bright tempo of excited elocution. Anxious music mimics the disjointed phrases of a troubled tongue. The sounds remind us of how we communicate during these states. We detect and respond to vocal patterns in the musical presentation.

Compelling though this analysis may be, it is not uncontested. Some detractors, like philosopher Stephen Davies, argue that music’s expressiveness is tied to its replication of physical gestures rather than an essential link to vocal tendencies. Others, like psychologist Vladimir Konečni, contend that music does not directly induce emotions, and that the apparent connection requires more conditioning than Darwin’s theory would suggest.

But empirical evidence has mounted since Darwin’s day. Researchers have conducted controlled experiments that demonstrate the resemblance between vocal tendencies and musical expression. The titles of several research papers indicate the growing attention: “Voice and Emotion” (1991); “Expression of Emotion in Voice and Music” (1995); “Communication of Emotions in Vocal Expression and Musical Performance” (2003); “Emotional Expression in Voice and Music” (2003).

The vocalization theory also resonates on an intuitive level. Once we are made aware of Darwin’s statement, it is hard to ignore the presence of vocal patterns in music evocative of various emotions. We realize how basic the connection is.

By itself, the proposition does not definitively or comprehensively solve the puzzle of why music stimulates emotional responses. It cannot account for all instances or why some musical selections are felt more strongly than others. But it is a valuable aid to our understanding.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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