Music expresses emotions?

Il corago

Probably most musicians and music-lovers would agree that ‘music expresses emotions’, although each of these three words can be problematised: what kind of music? What do you mean by ‘express’? Whose emotions? What is emotion, anyway? And all of these three concepts – music, expression, emotion – change as we trace them back through history.

Early Music tends to concentrate on precise detail: should we play up or down a semitone from modern pitch, or in-between? Precisely how should we tune a harpsichord for Bach? Which violin-bow or oboe-reed should we use for Handel? These small details are significant – each one is a piece of jigsaw-puzzle which constructs your over-view of a particular repertoire and where it fits in history. But here, I want to ask the big questions, questions about ‘music’, ‘expression’ and ’emotions’, questions that are sometimes missed as we grapple with the minutiae of Historically Informed Performance.

For many musicians today, the first and most important means of ‘expression’ is rubato: vacillating rhythm, playing around with musical time.  Exchanges of views between ‘modern’ and ‘early’ performers tend to focus on vibrato. A blog-posting on early opera begins bravely by noting that audiences value “imagination, innovation, and musical, sensitive interpretations; not what kind of bow is in use”, but fades out with “everyone’s happy to get back to using vibrato now”. So are these today’s priorities for early music: rubato, vibrato and the performer’s happiness?

We know what the priorities were for music and performance at the beginning of the baroque, around the year 1600. According to Caccini’s Le Nuove Musiche (1601/2)

Music is nothing else than Text, and Rhythm, and Sound last of all. And not the other way around!

On performance, many writers, notably John Bulwer Chironomia (1644), cite Quintilian, Cicero and Demosthenes:

What are the three secrets of great performance: Action! Action! Action! 

And summarising the first two strophes of the Prologue to Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), one of the first ‘operas’:

Music comes to you, noble audience, whose importance is too high to be told, to move your hearts.

The historical priorities are Text, Rhythm, Action – and the audience’s emotions. Text (not vibrato), Rhythm (not rubato), Action for the Audience (not how the performers themselves feel).

I’ll try to keep these historical and inspiring priorities in mind as I continue to write, as well as in my research, performance and teaching.

Meanwhile, please join me on Facebook and visit our website . Further details of original sources are on the website, click on “New Priorities in Historically Informed Performance”

Opera, orchestra, vocal & ensemble director and early harpist, Andrew Lawrence-King is director of The Harp Consort and of Il Corago, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotions.


12 thoughts on “Music expresses emotions?

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  9. Isn’t much (if not all) of the meaning we are giving to a sequence of tones purely conventional?
    There might be some sounds in nature which evoke certain feelings. But I am not sure about this

  10. Hello Andrew,
    Thank you for your comment! Let me explain some points and excuse my bad English: We wanted to separate the reactions which come from the music directly and the reactions the music listener makes himself. A major chord can’t express a landscape or a sunset, but everybody can imagine a landscape or a sunset with or without music.
    The music psychologists searched connections between musical elements and feelings and failed for a long time. The problem is that the minor chord mostly sounds sad but sometimes it doesn’t. In the same way the major chord sounds happy, but sometimes it doesn’t: sometimes it sounds very painful. But how is this possible? And this is exactly the point where the science desperates. And this problem stopped the music psychological research for many years.
    The solution: The music and the feelings are not coupled directly. There is something between the music and the feelings: The identification with processes of will. This explanation seems to be very poor and not very meaningful, but it solves the problem. The identifications with processes of will are very intensive and they strengthen the imaginations.
    I hope you can understand what I mean.

  11. Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:

    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:

    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek

    • Dear Bernd Willimek,

      Thank you for your comment. My focus (within the research program of the Australian Centre for the History of Emotions 1100-1800) is on the interplay of music and emotions in Historically Informed Performance. From that viewpoint, the theory you propose (of the listener identifying with ‘volition’) has something in common with the Renaissance Theory of Visions (by which the sounds that the listener hears creates mental visions: it is these visions that stir the listener’s passions). In that the renaissance listener perceives the image for his/herself, there is a certain correspondence with the process of ‘identifying with’ that you describe.In Renaissance theory, these visions work similarly for text and other communicative arts.

      But making the process as specific as ‘identifying with’ and ‘volition’ seems to me rather limiting. For example, music that evokes a landscape can excite an emotional response, yet the listener cannot ‘identify’ with a sunset, nor does a mountain have ‘volition’. In this example, the Renaissance theory seems to describe the process more convincingly.

      Your example of major and minor chords is of course historically and culturally specific. A major triad would have been perceived very differently in the 13th century – as a strong dissonance, a moment of great tension requiring resolution. The listeners’ response to such codes has been conditioned by a life-time of experience of certain musical stimuli, linking those to emotional information received simultaneously by other means. So if we hear a fanfare motiv played on a trumpet, and see an image of a trumpet, eventually that same motiv played on piano will evoke the vision of a trumpet and the corresponding emotional thrill. Again, it seems that the Renaissance theory describes the process well.

      More interestingly, there are emotional responses to sounds that seem not to be linked to such conditioning via musical styles. It might be a mother’s baby-talk that teaches infants the emotional significance of word-less tone-colours and pitch-contours. Consider the multitude of meanings that can be heard in different intonations of “Ah” and “Oh”. Watching the Star Wars films over the holidays, I was struck by how effectively R2D2 and Chewbacca communicate emotions (rather than specifics) by wordless sounds. This phenomenon is used commercially by the designers of the noises that your computer makes to inform you of the progress or failure of its operations.

      So it seems to me that theorising “perception of emotion” as “identification of volition” does little more than re-name the problem. If anything, the renaming excludes many examples that the average listener would consider a vital part of the emotional experience of music. My personal hunch for updating the Renaissance Theory of Visions is by linking it to the (admittedly controversial) theory of Mirror Neurons. As music (or text, or action on stage) creates a certain vision in the mind, mirror neurons might create the corresponding physical responses in the body, so that the emotion is perceived not only mentally, but physically. (The Renaissance description of this has Visions producing Spirits of Passion that interact with the Four Humours, physical liquids in the body – hormones, we would say today).

      I’m interested in your mention of “early music theorists” and “leading tones”. Do you mean modern writers discussing period music, or historical writers discussing music of their own time. My hunch is that this is an 18th-century development that leads (sic) towards new theories of emotional communication in the romantic period. But please tell me more, I’d like to know.

      Thank you again for your comment. Please comment back, and stay in touch!


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