Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
In one of his famous Harvard lectures, Aaron Copland drew a distinction between the “gifted” (trained and literate) listener and the average auditor. While the expert is busy classifying sounds, determining styles, noting key and tempo changes, evaluating techniques and critiquing the performers, the novice receives the music with less discerning ears and is freely moved in this direction or that. Yet, despite divergences in background and approach, both species of listeners are initially drawn in by music’s emotional force. To quote Copland, music involves everyone on this “primal and almost brutish level.”
Of course, the type and intensity of emotional processing varies depending on one’s level of interest and education. Listeners might detect a general feeling, like joyfulness, or more nuanced shades, like whimsical joy, hesitant joy or effervescent joy. But the fact that emotions are triggered is what unites us all. As Copland put it, “That is fundamentally the way we all hear music—gifted and ungifted alike—and all the analytical, historical textual material on or about music heard, interesting though it may be, cannot—and I venture to say should not—alter that fundamental relationship.”
Still, the question remains: Why are we enticed by musically expressed emotions? We clearly gain something from the experience, but what? One answer comes from Jeremy S. Begbie, a systematic theologian who specializes in the interface of theology and the arts. Despite the relative narrowness of his field, Begbie’s comments apply to music across contexts and genres. And though his theory is but one of several non-mutually exclusive explanations—all of which are provisional—it goes a long way to elucidate our musical affinity.
Begbie contends that emotions sensed in music are less convoluted than those that arise in actual life. At any moment, we might be consumed by a surge of unfiltered emotions. More often than not, these sensations are tangled, transient and confused. Whether they are positive, negative or a mixture of the two, they give us little of the certainty we crave and an abundance of the messiness we don’t.
Herein lies the value of musical expression. Begbie posits that music offers a condensed and concentrated emotional experience. Whereas feelings excited in a given day tend to be unfocused and cluttered, musical passages provide clarity. This is accomplished through three interacting qualities: purity, or the absence of extraneous or distracting sounds; compression, or the focusing of attention on a single activity; and specification, or the elimination of alternative sensations. Begbie likens these three elements to the movements of a dancer, whose gestures are pared down (purity), focused (compressed) and typically unambiguous (specified).
According to some theorists, such bodily behavior is organically embedded and subconsciously perceived in musical phrases. Melodic shapes, appoggiaturas, suspensions, ascending and descending lines, harmonic tensions and resolutions, and other devices represent stereotyped physical movements that correspond to emotional states. The main difference being that musical tools concentrate emotions in a cleaner—and thus more satisfying—way than those experienced in real life.
Critics might object that concentrated emotions are not universally present in music, or that some pieces display waverings and complexities that leave listeners unsettled. A counter-argument would be that emotionally vague music usually lacks wide appeal, and therefore supports rather than challenges the concentration theory. Moreover, Begbie concedes that his analysis is open to revision and does not pretend that it is the only possibility. In any case, the effect is apparent enough to warrant our consideration.
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