Tag Archives: Emotions

Musical Aesthetics

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Aesthetics is classically defined as the study of the beautiful in art. Thomas Henry Huxley, a Victorian biologist best remembered as “Darwin’s bulldog,” set the definition as a list: a beauty in appearance, visual appeal, an experience, an attitude, a property of something, a judgment, and a process. This expanded meaning touches on the original Greek aisthesis, which deals with feelings and sensations. Aesthetics, in this sense, is not limited to the thing itself, but rather is a holistic term encompassing the focal point—the object, performance, atmosphere, etc.—and the experience of and response to that focal point.

However, Huxley’s elucidation, like many others, suffers from an over-emphasis on beauty. While aesthetic engagement often involves perceptions of beauty, this is not the only (or even foremost) criterion of artistic merit. Art can be aesthetically satisfying without necessarily being “beautiful” in the conventional sense of eliciting pleasure.

Applied to music, aesthetics might be conceived as the relationship of music to the human senses. Rather than judging whether or not a composition is beautiful, or why one piece is more beautiful than another, attention shifts to the interplay between musical stimuli and the interior realm of sensations. The onus of appraisal moves from the cold tools of theoretical analysis to the auditor.

For some thinkers, this is the only appropriate location for aesthetic assessment. Nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued that music taps into channels of pure emotions: “Music does not express this or that particular and definite joy, this or that sorrow or pain, or horror, or delight, or merriment, or peace of mind; but joy, sorrow, pain, horror, delight, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without accessories, and therefore without their motives.” T. H. Yorke Trotter, founder and principal of the Incorporated London Academy of Music, echoed Schopenhauer in a 1907 lecture, stating that, while other art forms awaken ideas and images that act on the feelings, music directly stirs “dispositions which we translate by the vague terms, joy, sadness, serenity, etc.”

In this revised view, aesthetic value does not depend on the micro or macro features of a piece, per se, but on how one responds to those features. Emotional arousals are instant aesthetic judgments. It is no accident that the perceived qualities of a piece or passage mirror the responses induced: joyful, mournful, serene, and so forth. The intensity of the emotion might separate one piece from another, but the immediacy of the music—as Schopenhauer and Yorke described it—seems to defy such classifications. Among other things, integrating (or equating) aesthetics with emotions underscores the subjectivity of the topic, and highlights the interconnectedness and simultaneity of stimulus, experience, and evaluation.

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

Music to the Rescue

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Jerry Goldsmith, a top film composer of the second half of the twentieth century, regularly worked on projects unworthy of his artistic expression. His filmography includes over two hundred titles, along with a hefty body of television work. Much of it is stale genre fare: thrillers, westerns, maritime adventures, and war movies. According to Mauricio Dupuis, author of Jerry Goldsmith: Music Scoring for American Movies, “It is almost proverbial, among enthusiasts of this composer and the applied cinematic genre in general, to consider Goldsmith a rare example of talent and technical ability frequently applied to projects lacking in ideas.”

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a case in point. Somewhere between mediocrity and a critical failure, the thinly-scripted and over-budget 1979 film famously strayed from the character-driven saga of the original series. It is a meandering attempt to hybridize Star TrekStar Wars, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even the costumes are a bland shadow of their former selves. Director Robert Wise—legendary for helming The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music—admitted, “Thank goodness we had Jerry’s score…He really saved us.”

Film music accomplishes a number of aims: establishing atmosphere, setting a mood, building anticipation, amplifying gratification, aiding characterization, shaping narrative, unifying images, and so forth. A well-written score (or well-constructed compilation score) naturalistically undergirds and interacts with the visuals and non-musical sounds. On screen as in life, music is interwoven into human experience, at times underscoring activities, and other times transcending them.

Just as a thoughtful score can “save” a lackluster scene, good music can mitigate a less-than-spectacular day. “Good” is used here in the utilitarian sense of serving a need or function; or, as Baruch Spinoza wrote, “By good I mean that which we certainly know to be useful to us” (Ethics IV, Definition 1). A soundtrack for film or daily life is essentially Gebrauchsmusik: music for a purpose outside of the music itself. When the action is intrinsically compelling, good music enhances it. When events are droll or disappointing, good music provides a ray of light. The latter might be called “Gebrauchsmusik plus,” with the effect surpassing the reality of the moment.

University of Groningen researchers Jacob Jolij and Maaike Meurs touched on this in their 2011 study, “Music Alters Visual Perception.” They found that emotional stimuli, like music, influence not only how listeners feel, but also how they see the world. When music stimulates something positive within, the world tends to improve accordingly. (Of course, the opposite is also true.) A favorite song on the radio can temporarily brighten a slog in heavy traffic; a well-chosen playlist can ease the toil of washing dishes. And, as Jerry Goldsmith often discovered, incidental music that exceeds the quality of a film can improve the cinematic experience.

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

Fleeting Effect

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

By the evening of December 30, 1862, Confederate and Union armies were positioned for battle in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. They were so close to one another that bugle calls could be heard from the opposing camp. Just before tattoo—the bugle signal for lights to be extinguished and loud talking and other disturbances to cease—army bands from each side began playing their favorite tunes. The music carried over the wintery air. “Yankee Doodle” from the North was answered by “The Bonnie Blue Flag” from the South. “Dixie” from the South was replied with “Hail Columbia” from the North. The back-and-forth culminated with the rival bands joining together in “Home, Sweet Home,” a song dear to soldiers on both sides. Thousands of homesick voices rose above the blaring brass instruments. It was a poignant reminder of their shared American culture and shared humanity. Then the music stopped. The men went to sleep and rose the next morning to slaughter each other. Of the major battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Murfreesboro (a.k.a. The Battle of Stones River) had the highest percentage of casualties on both sides.

This episode is a stark illustration of music’s fleeting effect. Music is rightly called the most emotional of the arts. In a matter of seconds or less, it can transform the listener’s mood and demeanor. The animosities of warring factions can be disarmed, their sentiments united, and their pulse-rates joined as one. But music’s intoxicating potential lasts only as long as the stimulus itself. Once the sounds evaporate, behaviors generally return to their pre-music-influenced state. As Susanne K. Langer observed in her landmark treatise, Philosophy in a New Key, “the behavior of concert audiences after even the most thrilling performances makes the traditional magical influence of music on human actions very dubious. Its somatic effects are transient, and its moral hangovers or uplifts seem to be negligible.”

Langer’s observation, along with the Civil War example, contrasts with claims prominent in the eighteenth century. Books such as Richard Brocklesby’s Reflections on Ancient and Modern Musick (1749) came with bold subtitles, like “Applications to the Cure of Diseases.” Modern thinkers and researchers refrain from claims that music somehow permanently impacts temperament or disposition. This is why, for instance, music therapy (both active and receptive) tends to be periodic and ongoing, and is typically administered in conjunction with other therapeutic and medicinal treatments.

None of this challenges the fact that music is strongly connected to feelings. If anything, the fleetingness of music-induced sensations sustains our attraction to the art form. It is largely why we return to the same music again and again, and long for musical interludes in our busy lives. These brief mood changes and moments of escape play a revitalizing role, temporarily recharging or redirecting our emotions without causing lingering distractions.

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

Between Reason and Monsters

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In 1799 Francisco Goya published “A Collection of Prints of Capricious Subjects.” The eighty etchings and aquatints, known as Los Caprichos (caprices, folios), criticized the “multitude of follies and blunders common in every civil society” and particularly in Goya’s native Spain: superstitions, arranged marriages, corrupt rulers, powerful clergy, etc. The forty-third print is among the artist’s most enduring images. Entitled “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (“El sueño de la razón produce monstruos”), it shows an artist (possibly Goya himself) asleep at his drawing table. He is surrounded by bats, owls, and a wide-eyed lynx—ominous creatures in Spanish folklore. A mysterious figure lurks in the center, staring directly at the viewer.

On first impression, the illustration seems to be an endorsement of rational thought: when logic lies dormant, the world becomes demon-haunted (to paraphrase Carl Sagan). But this is only part of the meaning. A caption accompanying the print warns, “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.” Pure rationality and pure irrationality are both dangerous. Reason without emotion is too dull and heartless to adequately address basic human and societal needs. Emotion without reason gives rise to all sorts of prejudices and harmful fantasies. When held in harmonious balance, passion and intellect create life-affirming art.

Goya’s rejection of absolute rationalism marked a transition from the Enlightenment to early Romanticism. While not denying the value of science and social reforms, he reclaimed emotions as an authentic and positive force.

Romantics would further the cause, placing knowledge and wonder, history and mythology, order and spontaneity side by side. Their idealization of expression stirred them to especially grand appraisals of music, which E. T. A. Hoffmann called “the most romantic of all the arts—one might say the only purely romantic one.” This belief owes largely to the balance Goya advocated. In most of its incarnations, music is both quantifiable and unquantifiable. Its raw materials and construction are open to theoretical and scientific analysis, but its evocations are almost by definition non-rational. Most important, its expressiveness is born from its structure.

As a visual artist, Goya might have objected to the musical bias of many later Romantics. After all, the counter-requirements of heart and mind are found in every art form to a greater or lesser extent. At its best, art is a reminder of what makes us human: form and feelings, function and purpose, reason and emotion.

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

Sacred Trash

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Kitsch is an unavoidable topic in literature on the arts. Presented as the enemy of aesthetics, it typically receives the most derogatory terms an author can muster. Theodor Adorno, for instance, called it “sugary trash.” In contrast to the truly artistic, which possesses a sacred and transformative otherness, kitsch is dismissed as mechanical, superficial, and false. It sacrifices subtleties for watered-down textures, and avoids complex expression for one-dimensional emotionality. Its propagators are scorned as insincere profiteers, and its lack of nuance is condemned as borderline unethical.

Like most things in the experiential world of art, kitsch is more readily recognized than explained. What seems to define it is a combination of simplistic sentimentality and a concomitant reliance on clichés. These, the critics charge, are the ingredients of “poor taste.” However, in practice, candidates for the ignoble label are not cut and dried. The clearest examples are those that embrace their own kitschiness, like garden gnomes and the untold assortment of Hello Kitty products. There are also playful debasements of high culture, like the cottage industry of Shakespeare kitsch, and excessively agreeable religious art, like Precious Moments illustrations.

Things get hazier when artistic displays straddle the invisible line between authenticity and mass appeal. Classical music critics habitually look down on composers with populist tendencies, sometimes resorting to the “k” word. Their targets include such luminaries as Puccini, Meyerbeer, Telemann, Vivaldi, and even Tchaikovsky. In each case, the supposed kitsch quality stems from a perceived lack of depth: the music is passively received, easily digested, and built upon stereotyped emotions. In other words, it is penalized for its popularity. The extreme of this view is found in Clement Greenberg’s 1939 essay, “Avant-garde and Kitsch,” which declared that figurative painting had outgrown its expressive potential, and was doomed to repeat phony sentiments and hackneyed messages.

Whatever merit there is to Greenberg’s assessment, one thing is clear: a wide chasm exists between the cultural critic and the average person. In the decades since his essay, not only has figurative art retained its attraction, but there is also a movement to synthesize highbrow and lowbrow art. Museums have exhibits of comic book drawings, world-class orchestras play concerts of movie scores, “artsy” directors make blockbuster films, and easy listening records from the 1950s and 60s have found new audiences.

These increasingly common occurrences are eroding the very concept of kitsch. The acceptance of “lesser” art into “legitimate” spheres signals a reevaluation not only of the works themselves, but also of the sentiments they evoke. An intense response to a saccharine love song or a generic landscape painting need not be trivialized or bemoaned. From a functionalist standpoint, where the value of an artwork belongs to the beholder, the evaluations of cultural critics rarely matter. Instead, the fact that their opinions often contradict general feelings is, in a practical sense, evidence that they are wrong. What they call “sugary trash” can be someone else’s sacred treasure.

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

Responding to Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A woman is seated in the balcony section of an opulent concert hall. As the orchestra plays, she takes in a deep breath, her eyes well up with tears, and she sways ever so slightly from side to side. Her counterpart in West Africa is enraptured in a drum-induced spirit possession, dancing ecstatically to the complex rhythms and perpetual melodies. In each case, the woman is exceptionally moved: her response exhibits a degree of emotion reserved for only certain members of society. Not everyone is able or willing to respond gushingly to orchestral music. Not everyone is capable of going into a trance or contacting spirits. In these disparate settings, the women are acting out the socialized behaviors of the hyper-musically attuned.

It is tempting to judge the effectiveness of music by the appearance of those who experience it. The dancer’s kinetic gyrations seem more intense than the mostly internalized feelings of the concertgoer. Likewise, pulsating beats seem more viscerally charged than the subtleties of a symphony. If physical display were a measurement of proclivity, we might conclude that one continent (Africa) is more musical than the other (Europe). But are these simply variable reactions to the power of music?

Missing from the surface assessment is an appreciation of cultural specificity. Judith Becker makes this point in Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion, and Trancing. Without conflating wholehearted listening and ecstatic dancing, she identifies the “limited universals” underlying each experience, including emotional arousal, cessation of inner language, and the loss of a sense of self. Just as the music varies, so do the listening contexts and expected outcomes. Yet beneath the diversity are similar physiological and neurological effects.

Precisely how one responds to music is determined through a three-stage cognitive-bodily process. The first is universal: the automatic deciphering of musical sounds. The second is cultural: learned responses to specific musical sounds. The third is individual: the degree to which a person enacts learned responses to specific musical sounds. Although these stages occur simultaneously, there is a clear progression from general to individual. Beyond the first—the ability to detect humanly organized sounds as music—are two increasingly subjective filters: cultural and personal. Culture sets the guidelines as to how one responds to sounds, and the individual tends to act within those guidelines. Sure, one’s tastes and disposition can put his/her response outside of the norm; but as a rule it is difficult to transcend or discard the range of socially acceptable reactions.

Returning to the comparison above, the weeping classical music fan and the possessed dancer can be grouped in the upper limits of their respective music-cultures. They are the deep listeners of their societies. Their expressions are intensely personal yet unequivocally cultural. The manifestations differ, but the level of emotion is essentially the same.

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

Beauty Before Content

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“I take satisfaction in belonging to a species of creatures with the ability not only to conceive and perform, but also respond appreciatively to such a work.” This declaration comes from Nelson Edmondson’s thoughtful essay, “An Agnostic Response to Christian Art.” Edmondson, an emeritus professor of art and art history at Michigan State University, is the agnostic in the title. The “work” he is referring to is any classic of Christian art, graphic or musical. His attraction to such pieces, despite his lack of faith and regardless of his artistic ability, is a hallmark of our species. We need not be wrapped up in an artwork’s message or subject matter to be moved by it, or to appreciate the skill involved in its creation. Intellectual investment can deepen our involvement, but absence of commitment does not eliminate our emotional susceptibility. To a great extent, the meaning of the work is secondary to its aesthetic force.

If any example proves this point, it is the confession of evolutionary biologist and self-professed “militant atheist,” Richard Dawkins. Dawkins recalls an appearance he had on Desert Island Discs, a British radio show. When asked to choose the eight records he would take with him on a desert island, he included “Mache dich mein Herze rein” from J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion. “The interviewer was unable to understand how I could choose religious music without being religious,” Dawkins recalls. “You might as well say, how can you enjoy Wuthering Heights when you know perfectly well that Cathy and Heathcliff never really existed?”

The beauty of Bach’s oratorio does not spring from the text, but from his own musical imagination. In Bach’s time and place, the church was the only institution that could have supported an opus of such grandeur. The words, culled from the Gospel of Matthew and librettist Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici), provided Bach a platform upon which to apply his genius. But financial source and linguistic ingredients should not be confused with inspiration. There are numerous cases of composers jumping between sacred and secular subjects, and rarely do they make discernable distinctions. Bach can be grouped among them. Their style, passion, and approach remain virtually the same. Moreover, there are some composers, like Ralph Vaughan Williams, who suspend their own agnosticism to sincerely and convincingly set religious words to music.

More important, our response to these creations is not determined by their ideational content. The music or visual art tends to hit us before we realize what it conveys, and even after we recognize the image or implication, we can stay enthralled. The same occurs when we gravitate to a pop song. The lyrics might be repugnant, imbecilic, or otherwise offensive (if they are intelligible at all), but the music still moves us.

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