Tag Archives: Expression

Gestural Aesthetics

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Gestures should be minimized during training in order to heighten awareness of interior, involuntary muscular movement.” Thus reads the entry on “Gesture” in Cornelius L. Reid’s A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology. As a Western vocal pedagogue, Reid was ever concerned with the aesthetic standards and norms of European classical music. His recommendation is in keeping with a long-held view that music should speak for itself. An early example comes from Franchinus Gaffurius’ Practica musicae (1496). The chapter on “How a Singer Ought to Behave When He Performs” warns that an “extravagant and indecorous movement of the head or hands reveals an unsound mind in a singer.”

These rules of conduct have been reiterated in various ways within the “proper” world of European classical music. However, they do not apply to the opera subgenre, where theatrics are essential, or to many music-cultures outside the classical sphere. A global view of gestural aesthetics would place subdued movement alongside two other options: ritualized gesture and free bodily expression.

The union of gesture and melody is normative in many cultures. Melodic knowledge is embodied in gesture, such that one reinforces the other. For instance, Hindustani khyal singers incorporate stereotyped and quasi-spontaneous hand motions resembling the tracing of lines in space. Mothers in rural Uganda sing and sway ritualistically during pregnancy. In these and other public and private settings, vocal action is “co-performed” with bodily action. It would be improper and unnatural to sing the repertoire without the accompanying physical display.

In the less regulated arenas of popular music, there is an array of genre/style-specific singing movements, both spontaneous and choreographed. These include rock and roll gesticulations, punk aggression, pop diva arm flails, funk dancing, and many others. Audiences expect such exhibitions, which provide a visual analog to the audible content. The absence of visceral antics would be perceived as inauthentic.

The three gestural options—minimal, ritual, and freewheeling—engage musical expression in different ways. For the classical purist, expression is housed in the music alone; unimpeded inward focus is central to a song’s interpretation. In settings where gestures are traditionalized, song and movement act as mutually reinforcing modes of expression. In the heterogeneous realm of popular music, movements are employed to complement and enhance musical expressiveness. The contrasting conventions also imply differing ideas of what constitutes music—specifically, music as sound, sound plus choreography, or sound plus free (or seemingly free) bodily expression. What is crucial in all cases is that the performance conforms to expectations.

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

Scripted Thoughts

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A song consists of words set to music for the purpose of being sung. This definition is so basic that it hardly needs mention. What is perhaps less obvious is the power that language exerts on the music to which it is set. Lyrics give musical sounds a specific character, turning a notoriously abstract art form into a delivery system for potential crystal clarity—potential because, depending on the subject’s accessibility and the intelligibility of the language, a song can approach a level of directness rarely achieved in other modalities.

To be sure, lyrics can at times seem superfluous, regardless of how poorly or finely crafted they are, or how well or badly they merge with the music. For some people, the words are merely a doorway into a musical experience, and have little attraction in and of themselves (I tend to fall in this camp). Songs are also multidimensional artifacts, saturated with cultural assumptions, subject to critical judgment, and filtered through personal lenses. Moreover, each individual has heard songs wearing different sets of ears, sometimes gravitating toward the words and other times not. Still, despite this diversity of engagement, the greatest strength of song remains its capacity for clarity.

Lyrics have a distinct advantage over other types of linguistic expression. The placement of words in musical confinement yields many clarifying constraints and devices, including: metered stanzas that regulate the number of syllables; recurring phrases that eliminate ambiguity; familiar idioms and clichés that provide instant messages; choruses that reiterate central themes; poetic tools like rhyme, assonance and alliteration, which help weed out extraneous language. Of course, some songs employ these elements better than others, and there is room for nuance and creativity (and miscommunication), even with these controls. But, taken as a whole, songs are uniquely adept at compressing, containing and conveying streamlined concepts.

This unclutteredness runs counter to the human condition, which condemns our minds to endless and often-disjointed thoughts. True, most of us can steer ourselves into clear thinking when needed; but it is impossible to harness the mechanism at all times. The thought motor is always running, even in our sleep.

I’m reminded of a scene in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, when Mrs. Pefko complains to Dr. Breed, “You scientists think too much.” “I think you’ll find,” replied Dr. Breed, “that everybody does about the same amount of thinking. Scientists simply think about things one way, and other people think about things in others.” This is the blessing and burden of our species.

Songs embody the elusive ideal of lucidity. They are neatly packed containers, carefully arranged and efficiently delivered. They are, in short, the opposite of wandering words.

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

The Myth of the Gift

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A person exhibiting talent in the arts is often said to possess a “gift.” Though usually said with kind or neutral intentions, this phrase can have a negative impact on both the “gifted” and the less impressive majority. For the owner of artistic talent, the term “gift” is, at best, a reminder of the role of heredity in creative excellence. Darwin set the framework for this now-obvious observation, surmising that his daughter Annie’s aptitude for the piano was passed on from her musical mother. True, inborn capacities and innate dispositions can pre-condition people for imaginative exploration. But this is a relatively small ingredient. As any prodigious artist will attest, time, energy, passion and practice play a far greater role than mere genes. To overlook all of that work (10,000 hours worth by one popular estimation) and reduce it to a “gift” is tantamount to an insult. The impact is compounded when aptitude is identified as “God-given”—a label that erases human agency, hereditary or otherwise, from the equation.

This (mis)conception can also be discouraging for those who admire the über talented and don’t feel particularly talented themselves. If they have not been blessed, then why bother with artistic pursuits? Again, this places too much focus on native talent, which is, in the strictest sense, an impossible concept. Whatever influence genetic factors have in determining one’s artistic aptitude, artistry is not something one can excel at without having to learn it. Finely honed skills and effortless performances are the product of copious study, instruction, refinement and repetition. This is equally true for the highly educated and informally seasoned, whose learning process is called, perhaps overstatedly, “self-teaching.”

Recent studies in psychology show that even “super-skills,” like perfect pitch and lightening-fast manual dexterity, are not inherited advantages, but the result of training. The myth of the gift crumbles further. According to psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, author of landmark papers on this topic, people thought of as “gifted” share three distinguishing traits: They balance practice and rest over long periods of time; their practicing is driven by deep passion and interest; they redirect adversity into success.

The last point is easy to overlook. A finished product does not reveal what took place behind the scenes. For every masterful painting, virtuosic performance or architectural marvel, there are countless failed visions and discarded projects. But, rather than insignificant inevitabilities, these failures, false starts and dashed ideas are the foundation upon which great creations arise. Quality comes from quantity.

Master author Ray Bradbury, no stranger to trial and error, put it thus: “A great surgeon dissects and re-dissects a thousand, ten thousand bodies, tissues, organs, preparing thus by quantity the time when quality will count—with a living creature under the knife. An athlete may run ten thousand miles in order to prepare for one hundred yards. Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come. All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favor of the concise declaration” (“Zen in the Art of Writing,” 1973).

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

Funktionslust, Birdsong and Beauty

Jonathan L. Friedmann, PhD.

Ethology, the biological study of animal behavior, concerns itself primarily with uncovering survival advantages in animal activities. Balancing a desire to find purpose in animal behavior and avoid the sin of anthropomorphism, ethologists refrain from ascribing emotions or extraneous pleasures to non-human species. What appears to the untrained observer as a creative act or outpouring of feeling is reduced to a survival impulse or an instinctive behavior. It is, of course, wise to keep from seeing too much of ourselves in other animals. Our tendency to anthropomorphize everything around us says less about reality than it does about ourselves. Yet strict adherence to the ethologist’s code can create undue distance. As Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson asks in his controversial bestseller, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals: “If humans are subject to evolution but have feelings that are inexplicable in survival terms, if they are prone to emotions that do not seem to confer any advantage, why should we suppose that animals act on genetic investment alone?”

This question is all the more penetrating given the impressive spectacles exhibited by many species. A gibbon swinging fervently from branch to branch, a dolphin thrusting itself out of the water, a cat hunting backyard critters for sport. The German language has a word for such behavior: funktionslust, meaning “pleasure taken in doing what one does best.” This, too, is thought to be adaptive. Pleasure derived from an activity increases an animal’s proneness to pursue it, thus increasing the likelihood of survival. A gibbon who spends extra time swinging in the trees is better fit to flee leopards and snakes when they attack.

But is that all there is to it? Masson points out that a loving animal (again, a controversial concept) may leave more offspring, making lovingness a survival trait. But the same animal may also provide excessive care to a disabled (and therefore doomed) offspring, exposing itself to hazards in the process.

The presumed practicality of funktionslust is further challenged by the performance of songbirds: the roughly 4,000 species of perching birds capable of producing varied and elaborate song patterns. To the standard scientist, the sounds these birds produce—no matter how inventive—serve the basic purposes of establishing territory and advertising fitness to potential mates. But some researchers argue that survival alone cannot account for the amount or variety of imitation, improvisation and near-composition evident in birdsong, nor the seemingly arbitrary times and circumstances in which the songs are often heard.

David Rothenberg and other birdsong experts see this music-making as approaching pure funktionslust, or pleasure derived from a native ability exceeding any evolutionary purpose. In his book Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song, Rothenberg proposes that songbird patterns rival human music in terms of structure, aesthetics, expressiveness, interactiveness and extra-practical life enhancement. A philosopher and jazz clarinetist who “jams” with songbirds in the wild, Rothenberg has been accused of the double infractions of anthropomorphism and evaluating birdsong with the bias of a musician. In his defense, he concedes that birds, not people, are the arbiters of their own songs, and only they can know what their repertoires mean to other birds. But he calls it art nonetheless, quoting Wallace Craig: “Art is a fact and after all it would be rather ridiculous from our evolutionistic ideology to deny the possibility that something similar may occur in other species” (“The Song of the Wood Peewee,” 1943).

Following this argument, we might deduce that songbirds experience beauty in their songs. This proposition harmonizes with the work of Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art who posits an evolutionary basis for the human perception of artistic beauty (The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution). Dutton identifies Acheulean hand axes as the earliest hominid artwork. Prevalent from 500,000 to 1.2 million years ago, these teardrop carvings have been located in the thousands throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. This sheer number and the lack of wear on their delicate blades suggest they were not used for butchering, but for aesthetic enjoyment. Indeed, they remain beautiful even to our modern eyes. The reason for this, explains Dutton, is that we find beauty in something done well. We are attracted to the meticulousness and skill evident in the axes. They satisfy our innate taste for virtuosic displays in the same way as well-executed concertos, paintings and ballets. Beauty is in the expertise.

If this attraction existed among our prehistoric ancestors, why not in songbirds? Taking funktionslust in a logical direction, might we assume that songbirds sing for the joy of it, and that their skilled displays feed aesthetic yearnings of other songbirds? These questions point to a possible compromise, in which animal behavior retains its evolutionary explanation and art finds evolutionary justification outside of the drive to survive.

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

Concentrated Feelings

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.

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

Heart Song

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The heart and mind are in some ways theoretical constructs. Though both can be located within physical space—the chest and cranial cavities respectively—they have deeper significance in metaphysical discourse. The heart is not just a vital organ pumping blood around the body. In Western and some non-Western cultures, it is the seat of passion, empathy, love, conviction, intuition and emotional impulses. The mind is not just the locus of high-level cognitive activity—consciousness, perception, memory, etc. It is viewed as somehow separate from the brain (and physical existence in general). In popular usage, the mind represents self-awareness and intellect, which are considered distinct from the emotion-based attributes assigned to the heart.

Whether rational and emotional states can truly be separated is a subject of ongoing debate. Judgments, convictions, sensations and decision-making derive from a mixture of thoughts and sentiments. Feelings inform cognition; cognition informs feelings. Nevertheless, the heart and mind remain useful (and inescapable) metaphors for a complex entanglement of functions and traits.

A case in point comes from Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967), an influential twentieth-century composer, ethnomusicologist and educator. Kodály spent his early career on the Hungarian countryside collecting phonograph cylinder recordings. From that experience, he concluded that human beings have two native tongues. One is the language spoken at home. The other is folk music. Verbal communication is the language of the mind: the principle medium of thought and sensory processing. Folk music is the vocabulary of the heart: a storehouse of emotions and longings.

Rather than getting bogged down in ambiguities surrounding what is and what is not folk music, we can broaden Kodály’s comment to include all music that is “indigenous” to an individual. Most of us possess an assortment of musical selections that are folk-like: they capture our spirit, embody our history and encapsulate our identities. Hearing or performing them helps ground us in our pasts, situate us in our surroundings and remind us of who we are. To use a symbolic term somewhat analogous to the heart, a personal soundtrack is the record of one’s soul. In a pre-rational yet undeniable way, it puts us in contact with our interior selves.

Of course, the impact of such music is not purely emotional or otherwise ineffable. It stirs memories, images and ideas—things usually ascribed to the mind. This demonstrates the difficulty of demarcating between feelings and thoughts (heart and mind). The notions, imagery and recollections aroused by our favorite music tend to be feeling-laden: they are attached to sentimental moments in our lives, and inspire emotionally infused concepts and mental pictures.

This brings us back to Kodály’s observation. Whatever standards are used to identify music as “folk,” the qualifying sounds typically evoke regional and/or ethnic pride, rich communal associations, and the shared sentiments and experiences of a specific population. All of this constitutes a multi-layered heart—one comprised of nuanced and particularistic feelings. It is not an unthinking seat of emotions; it has an identity. These aspects are easily adapted to individual playlists. Like the “people’s music” of a culture or subculture, personally meaningful pieces forge a connecting line to one’s inner life. They speak the language of the heart.

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

Audible Analogies

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.

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

Boundaries of Freedom

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

All music exists within parameters. To be recognized as this or that type of music, it must exhibit identifying markers related to rhythm, harmony, voicing, instrumentation, chord progressions, melodic design and the like. The boundaries that define a genre serve as both constraints and catalysts. As the musician bumps up against the borders, he/she is forced to pursue novel approaches and devise novel solutions. The same occurs when one works in a genre-fusing medium, like folktronica, or in a genre purportedly free of boundaries, like free jazz, which, in rejecting the strictures of bebop, arrived at its own structures of composition. To borrow an analogy from educational theorists Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, music materializes inside a petri dish, where the context and raw ingredients are fixed, but the end result is organically grown.

New music emerges from a tension between rules and the freedom to act within those rules. Controls and regulations provide the impetus for exploring creative options and devising innovations. This is a dynamic familiar to any game, be it football, Monopoly or musical improvisation. With basic guidelines and basic tools, the imagination is equipped to soar.

Composer Frederick Jacobi (1891-1952) embraced this view. In his day, Jacobi was among the most popular and respected figures in American classical music. He was especially noted for incorporating ethnic influences into his works, first drawing from Native American sources and later from his own Judaic roots. In both cases, he aimed to preserve characteristics of the folk material while upholding essential conventions of classical substance and form. With these dual restraints, Jacobi wrote numerous groundbreaking works, including Indian Dances (1927-28) and Shemesh (1940).

In 1948 Jacobi was invited to address the first convention of the United Synagogue of America and Cantors Assembly of America (both of Judaism’s Conservative movement). His topic was nationalism in the arts. He described challenges a composer faces when striving to balance individual creativity, ethnic ties and universal outlook. He warned against relying too heavily on folk material, yet stressed the importance of fusing one’s artistic voice with that material. Specific to Jewish music, he emphasized conserving age-old synagogue customs, such as cantillation, motivic patterns and prayer modes. The most intriguing part of his presentation was this comment: “The surest way to kill whatever originality one possesses within himself is to try to be original.”

What Jacobi meant by this is that originality requires limits. Unbounded expression is not only an impossible goal, but also an unmotivating concept. Musical avenues are not discovered or invented so much as they cultivated (as in the petri dish). New works are formed from existing materials and within existing confines, and new genres are really divergent genres: they consist of sounds derived from established sounds. As with a schoolyard game or ethnically informed classical piece, the rules are not to be broken. They are the stuff upon which creativity thrives.

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

Is It Musical?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

British mathematician Alan Turing (1912-54) was among the first to propose that computer programs would someday simulate human creativity. He argued that the hardwiring of computers and human brains were essentially the same, and that the “thought processes” of both could be reduced to mechanical calculations. This concept of disembodied cognition gained enthusiastic support in the initial wake of the computer revolution. Among other things, it spurred predictions that programs would be able to compose pieces and improvise jazz in a way indistinguishable from human musicians. Some even anticipated a machine that would match Bach or Beethoven.

These conjectures failed to recognize the embodied nature of the musical arts. Phrasing is structured on patterns of breathing. Articulation and tone length are imitative of language. The functional morphology of hands informs the range of a musical line. The emotional mind directs melodic movement. Many of us intuitively discern human performances from computer-generated music, even when a digital creation uses samples from live instruments. Our humanity detects the unhumanity of the piece.

Computers cannot, by themselves, generate the musical in music. They may excel at translating a sequence of symbols into audible information, but they do not grasp or communicate structural or affective musical meanings. They produce precision without spirit.

In a similar fashion, human performers can be judged by their musicality, or the feeling they bring to a given piece. As listeners, we make connections between the music we hear and extra-musical images, ideas and sensations, such as drama, poetry and passions. If we do not sense these layers in a performance, we withhold the label of musical. An assiduous player can master instrumental technique and conquer challenging literature. But unless something of that person’s interior life is heard, the playing will come across as dull or dry. This is largely what sets impassioned artists like Jascha Heifetz apart from many other skilled musicians.

In contrast, popular singers often lack the dexterity and tone quality typically looked for in Western music. If assessed exclusively for their voices, they would be deemed mediocre or worse. However, they possess what might be called a musical soul. Their innate sense of sound—and their sense of self projected in that sound—is both palpable and seductive. Their instruments may not be conventionally beautiful and their music may not be objectively artful; but their presentation is thoroughly musical. Singers fitting this description include icons such as Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin.

Impressive range and technical acumen do not always amount to musical music. Meticulous performers who convey little emotion are akin to exacting computers: the notes are polished and the passages precise, yet the essence is wanting. In the end, it is difficult to articulate or quantify exactly what this essence is. But we know it when we feel it.

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

Expressing Expression

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The popular appreciation of music as a language beyond words has origins in nineteenth-century German Romanticism and its unrestrained obsession with the expressiveness of musical sound. While composers of the genre were busy expanding the emotional dimensions of their craft, poets were writing about music with equal sentimental effusiveness. The expression heard in the works of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms inspired poets like Tieck, Schlegel and Heine to pour out laudatory verses proclaiming music’s unsurpassed ability to convey true feeling. To the poets, music was the embodiment of expression itself—their most venerated aesthetic principle—and they regularly infused their poems with musical references in hopes of harnessing that emotive power. Their ethos is captured in a quote from E. T. A. Hoffmann: “Music is the most romantic of all the arts—one might almost say, the only entirely romantic one.”

The view of music as a transmitter of emotions spread throughout Europe and influenced other fields. Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher and biologist, concluded that “primitives” developed the capacity for music specifically as a means of communicating their state of being. This anthropological assumption, while a product of its time, had many antecedents. The ancient Greeks, for instance, devised a musical system comprised of modes intended to evoke or intensify particular reactions. Other societies past and present possess a similar (if not as systematic) awareness of music’s potential to penetrate and manipulate our inner lives. Nonetheless, the exuberance with which Romantic-era writers emphasized and exalted music’s expressiveness has not been equaled.

As an example, here are some of Hoffmann’s comments on Beethoven: “Thus Beethoven’s instrumental music opens us to the monstrous and immeasurable. Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro, closing in on us until they destroy us, but not the pain of unending longing in which every desire that has risen quickly in joyful tones sinks and expires. Only with this pain of love, hope, joy—which consumes but does not destroy, which would burst asunder our breasts with a mightily impassioned chord—we live on, enchanted seers of the ghostly world!”

Embedded in this characteristically verbose appraisal is the contradictory concession that music is “immeasurable” and thus incapable of being justly described in words. Goethe said it best: “Music begins where words end.” Try as they might to explain the sounds and effects, the poets freely admitted that their verse—like other art forms—could only approximate the purity of emotional transmission they felt in music. Theirs was an era when composers and performers greatly expanded the range and intensity of dynamics, phrasing, articulation, tempo, harmony and all manner of musical coloration. Sympathetic feelings aroused in audiences reached unprecedented levels, and it was widely held that the soul of music made contact with the soul of the listener. All of this put music outside the grasp of language.

It is not necessary to adopt the often-exaggerated stance of the Romantics to value music’s emotional impact. Nor must one agree with the view of post-modern detractors, who argue that feelings induced by music are illusory, to acknowledge the limits of musical expression. Still, it is easy to accept the basic Romantic assertion: our emotional responses to music, real or imagined, account largely for our interest in the art form.

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