Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Since at least the Romantic period, musicians and theorists have argued that musically expressed emotions cannot be fully or adequately conveyed in words or rational concepts. Instead, music is understood as a mode of communication that bypasses ordinary language and speaks directly to the ineffable realm of the “inner life.” This emotional conveyance is typically regarded as both cultural and highly personal: conventions within a music-culture determine the generalized impressions of musical qualities, such as mode, pitch range, and tempo, but specific interactions between those qualities and the listener are not predetermined. A wide and highly variable range of factors, as unique as the listener herself, fundamentally shapes the experience.
Deryck Cooke’s influential treatise, The Language of Music (1959), proposes a more systematic approach. Through an examination of hundreds of examples of Common Practice tonality (Western tonal music since 1400), Cooke developed a lexicon of musical phrases, patterns, and rhythms linked to specific emotional meanings. In his analysis, recurrent devices are used to effect more or less identical emotional arousals, thus yielding a predictable, idiomatic language.
This theory, while helpful in identifying and organizing norms of Western music, has been criticized for omitting the role of syntax. There might be a standard musical vocabulary, but without rules for arranging constituent elements into “sentences,” there can be no consistent or independent meanings. For even the most over-used idiom, the performance and listening contexts ultimately determine the actual response.
This observation casts doubt on another of Cooke’s central claims. If, as Cooke argued, musical elements comprise a precise emotional vocabulary, then a composer can use those elements to excite his or her own emotions in the listener. This is achievable in emotive writing, such as a heartfelt poem or autobiographical account, which uses the syntactic and semantic structures of language to reference ideas, images, and experiences. However, because music lacks these linguistic features, direct emotional transmission is hardly a sure thing.
Philosopher Malcolm Budd adds an aesthetic argument to this criticism. By locating the value of a musical experience in the reception of the composer’s emotions, the piece loses its own aesthetic interest; it becomes a tool for transmitting information, rather than an opening for individually shaped emotional-aesthetic involvement. According to Budd, Cooke’s thesis, which he dubs “expression-transmission theory,” misrepresents the motivation for listening: “It implies that there is an experience which a musical work produces in the listener but which in principle he could undergo even if he were unfamiliar with the work, just as the composer is supposed to have undergone the experience he wishes to communicate before he constructs the musical vehicle which is intended to transmit it to others; and the value of the music, if it is an effective instrument, is determined by the value of this experience. But there is no such experience.”
The enduring appeal of musical language is its multivalence. Idiomatic figures may be commonplace in tonal music, but their appearance and reappearance in different pieces does not carry definite or monolithic information, whether from the composer or the vocabulary employed.
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