Music, Emotion and Language: Using Music to Communicate
Sarah E. Worth
There has yet to be a culture discovered which lacks music. Making music is seen historically to be as fundamental as the characteristically human activities as drawing and painting. Many even go so far as to compare music to language and claim that music functions as a "universal language." But it is rarely the same music, however, that all peoples respond to. What is it that we are responding to when we listen to music? Strictly speaking, music is not a language, (1) because it has neither outside referents nor easily detectable meaning. Ludwig Wittgenstein explains that although we understand music in a similar way as we understand language, music is not a language because we still cannot communicate through music as we can through language. (2) More recently, Susanne Langer argues that although we understand music as symbol, because we are so caught up in seeing symbolic form function like language we tend to want to make music into a language. But, Langer argues, music is not a kind of language (3) because the significance of music lies not in what we traditionally call meaning but rather with the articulation of sound. Langer explains that music, like language, is an articulate form. "Its parts not only fuse together to yield a greater entity, but in so doing they maintain some degree of separate existence, and the sensuous character of each element is affected by its function in the complex whole. This means that the greater entity we call a composition is not merely produced by mixture, like a new color made by mixing paints, but is articulated, i.e., its internal structure is given to our perception. . . .Only as an articulate form is it found to fit anything; and since it lacks one of the basic characteristics of language-fixed association, and therewith a single, unequivocal reference." (4) Thus, although there are similarities in the structuring of both music and language, music does not qualify as a language, and thus could not be considered a universal language.
Aristotle explained 2500 years ago that music is mimetic or imitative. (5) Imitative of what? the harmony of the spheres? the sounds in the world around us? human emotion? To a certain extent all of these are right. What remains the same, however, is the role that emotion plays in the significance of our responses to music. In what follows I will give a brief account of how current philosophies of mind explain that emotion works, how aesthetic responses are said to work in terms of emotion, and finally how music fits into these structures.
In order to understand what the basis is of our emotive responses to music, we must begin with an account of how the emotions work. Aristotle claims in the Rhetoric that each emotion (in order for it to qualify as an emotion) must be attended by a certain pleasure or pain. That is not to say that every person will feel the same pleasure or the same pain with any particular emotion, but if a feeling is to qualify as an emotion it must be attended by some physiological sensation of pleasure or pain. (6) This merely differentiates emotions from feelings or affective responses. It is curious that Aristotle would link a physiological response to emotion, since we tend to think that emotions are fundamentally based in cognition and have no necessary link to physiology, except as a consequence; for example, sadness causes crying. Then again, emotions are very often accompanied by physiological responses. We tend not to think, however, that the physiological responses are required of emotions, or that the physiological responses can in some way determine the emotion. Yet, this is exactly what the James-Lange theory of emotions contends. We do not cry because we are sad, but we are sad because we cry. But we can claim an emotion of sadness, without tears. We can very easily be sad without ever crying. Can I feel sadness without an attendant feeling of pain? At this point, this is likely to depend on one's definition of what sort of attendant pain is under discussion. I may not feel physical pain, but I may claim that the sadness is so strong that I do feel a physiological sense of pain located "in the sadness."
What we need is an object toward which our emotion can be directed. If I cry because a loved one has died, then the loss is the object of my emotion. If I am happy about a promotion at work, then the promotion is the object of my emotion. If I am angry that my dog ate my new pair of shoes, the dog is the object of my anger. If I am sad for no reason, than the sadness would qualify as a feeling rather than an emotion since it has no object. Thus, in order to qualify as an emotion one must have an object at which the emotion is directed.
How is it that we are moved by anything other than an event, object or person that can serve as an intentional object for our emotion? Surely we can claim to have emotive responses to things other than the events that we claim to be intentional objects. When we view a painting, for instance, we are at times reminded of a certain event that produces sadness, and then the painting triggers our sadness. In this case, however, the painting is not the cause of our sadness. The cause is the event that triggered the emotive response. (7) If we see a painting and are moved to tears because of the form or content of the painting then we can say that the object of our sadness is the painting. These two examples seem to have very different bases, however, because there is a certain belief state surrounding the actual event and the response to the painting. Let me explain.
With events that happen "in reality" when we have certain emotive responses, we also have certain belief states surrounding these responses. For instance, if I am angry that my dog ate my new shoes, then I must also believe that she has done so. If I am angry about this, but do not have the accompanying belief that the dog did this, then my emotion is irrational and ungrounded. If I do believe that she did it, then my emotion of anger at least has the beginning of a justification. If I am happy that I received a promotion at work, I must also believe that I have actually received it. The responses, under this view, of fantasy promotions or fantasy lottery winnings, for instance, would not count as emotions per se, but rather only as imaginings. The joy that may result from either fantasy is not a justified emotion. What about "aesthetic emotions?" That is, the emotions aroused by experiencing the aesthetic, whether it be listening to music, viewing a painting or contemplating sculpture or architecture. Are these emotions grounded in a belief? If so, what sort of belief would justify this sort of response?
I begin here with an explanation of representational visual art, move to abstract visual art and then on to my explanation of how music fits into this schema. With mimetic visual art, the most ready example being painting of course, one can view the canvas and identify certain representations of reality and one can identify the representations of the relations between those objects. In Rose Bonheur's Horse Fair, for example, we can easily identify the relative positions of the horses in the painting. We do not believe anything, per se, about the animals, however. We know that it is a painting and we know that the situation is not existent. I should here, however make a distinction between two different kinds of beliefs existential and evaluative beliefs. Existential beliefs are beliefs that a situation actually exists. Evaluative beliefs are beliefs about a situation that concern a set of circumstances within a situation. With Horse Fair, I do not believe that this particular situation exists, but I do have an evaluative belief that there are horses trotting around the picture.
We deal here in the fictitious realm of the characters and the corresponding emotions we have are analogously fictitious. Kendall Walton calls these responses "quasi emotions." (8) Knowingly engaging with the fictitious characters, we respond emotively to the fictional aspect of the presentation. The emotions thus evoked cannot be justified because they lack an existent intentional object and corresponding belief. If we create beliefs for the painting, then we have the correspondingly "quasi" emotion. This in no way detracts from the painting itself, of course, nor the experience. It is just definitional of the kind of emotive response one might have to a representational painting.
The example of emotions directed toward painting seems to drift even further from a justified emotive response when we think of these emotions in terms of abstract art. Generally, there are not even representations of objects that exist in reality in these paintings for us to compare to our reality. The fictionality of these paintings is so much further from our own that we must really stretch in order to say that we can enter into its fictional world. How then can we be moved at all by abstract art? It would seem that we do not have the kinds of emotive responses that we have to reality when viewing abstract art, since there is no object to which our emotion can be directed. Nor is there anything at all to believe or disbelieve. It would seem to be a category mistake to say that we have an emotive response to abstract art because of its lack of belief producing capacity. That is, we cannot say it produces the same kind of justified emotive response as aroused by real events. If we think of Jackson Pollock's Convergence, for example, we may claim to have an emotive response. At what is the response directed, however? the vast size of the piece? what we imagine to be the immense amount of energy that Pollock may have felt in the process of having to involve his entire body in the making of the painting as he swung the paint across the canvas? do we respond directly to the "formal" properties of the painting? Although that may be our best option, it seems rather vague. What exactly are the "formal" properties of impressionistic painting? More importantly, can these really produce any sort of distinct emotive responses in us? If they can produce a response at all, what is the object of the emotion? A problem would seem to arise in that there cannot be an object of the emotive response. But it is not logical to say that we can have an emotive response without an intentional object. When I say that "I am sad about nothing." or that "I am angry for no reason" I am not talking logically.
Absolute music would seem to have the same problem as abstract art: namely, that it has no object at which an emotive response can be directed. Likewise, there is no belief state to have about music in general (I am here speaking only of absolute music). It is a category mistake to say that "I believe in Beethoven's 5th." or I believe that Beethoven's 5th." There is nothing to believe or disbelieve. I can say that I believe that this rendition of Beethoven's 5th is too fast or too loud, or that the oboe is flat, but these are not beliefs about the content of the piece, only about the particular rendition. Also, these kinds of beliefs will only peripherally determine the kind of emotive response one might have to the work. If there really is no belief content to music, however, how is it that we can be moved by it in the same way that we are moved by real events? As it was explained above, we cannot have a justified emotive response without an object at which the emotion is directed as well as some sort of belief about the situation.
We have two options. First, it might be the case that we do not have genuine emotive response to music. Since there is no object at which the emotion can be directed then there is not an option for an emotive response. We might describe our responses as feelings aroused by the music, but they do not qualify as emotions in the terms as defined above. This seems to be a pallid response, however, to the sometimes very strong responses we can have to music. The second option would be that the definition of emotion and emotive response that I used above is not a good definition; at least when it is applied to the realms that lack the requisite belief and object requirements. Perhaps we should use different criteria for emotion when discussing aesthetic responses in general, so that we could include all sorts of aesthetic reactions within the realm of justified emotive response. If this were the case, however, we would be making up new rules to fit the cases that do not comply with the original rules. This also seems unjustified. But how, then, do we account for our seemingly justified responses to music? Is it not uncommon that one will shed tears over Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto? Or even more so at programmatic music like Bruchner's First Symphony that is a representation of the bombing of Dresden? This is not to even begin to mention the effect of music with words has on us. It would seem that according to the justified theory of emotions I suggested earlier, I have no grounds to have an emotive response at all. For I do not have an object at which my emotion is directed and I do not have any relevant existential beliefs about the content of the music. With the example of the Bruchner even, I do not have to believe that this is what it sounded like when Dresden was bombed in order to be affected by the music. I do not have to have any appropriate beliefs at all. Why is it then, that across cultures and across language barriers we consistently respond to music in similar emotional ways? How can it be that we all respond to many of the same musical excerpts or sounds with no seemingly justified response that fits into the schema of justified emotion? It would seem that either an explanation of emotive responses is lacking in the realm of music, or we need to come up with another explanation of how these responses work when they are in reference to music.
As I explained above, Wittgenstein tells us that we understand music and language in similar ways. Although we frequently use understanding language as a framework to compare how we understand music, he suggests that it should really be the other way around. Thus in attempting to understand how we devise a framework for understanding either we should look to music before we look to language. What Wittgenstein explains is that understanding music is more a pure process than coming to understand language because of the latter's complications with outside referents.
With language, we are required to have these outside referents from which we are able to determine meaning and are able to communicate. Music has no such easily detectable referents and thus is disqualified as a language. Anthony Storr even goes so far as to ask what the use is of music. He claims that "music can certainly be regarded as a form of communication between people; but what it communicates is not obvious. Music is not usually representational: it does not sharpen our perception of the external world, nor, allowing for some notable exceptions, does it generally imitate it. Nor is music propositional: it does not put forward theories about the world or convey information in the same ways as does language." (9) It would seem then that we tend to confuse the issue by applying rules to music and claiming that it does not fit into the framework of language. We put music into terms that can only apply to language and of course music comes up short. Music (absolute music) cannot compete with linguistic meaning. But it does not seem fair to condemn it on those bases when we begin to examine its relation to our emotive responses.
As I mentioned above, Aristotle tells us that music is mimetic or imitative. Perhaps the most logical response to this point would be to claim that music is imitative of the emotions directly. We very often seem to have trouble providing words for our emotive responses to various things. If it is the case that Aristotle was right, maybe we have a greater direct connection to music than we do in attempting to put words to our emotions or to our emotive responses to music. If this is the case, music would be mimetic because it directly represents or imitates what is closest to us so close that it cannot even be put into words. And only by music, with its capacity not only to go beyond words, but to exist only beyond words, can provide us with our explanation as to why we respond the way we do to the music. We are further confusing the issue by attempting to package this emotive understanding in terms of language, or in terms of objects and beliefs. Perhaps this is where both music as well as emotion should, as Wittgenstein suggests, be passed over in silence. Or, if I may be so bold as to make an addendum to Wittgenstein's famous remark number seven at the end of the Tractatus, "whereof where we cannot speak, thereof we must pass over in silence or just use music."
(1) This is, of course, a contested claim.
(2) See Sarah Worth, "Wittgenstein's Musical Understanding" British Journal of Aesthetics. 37(158-167) 1997.
(3) Susanne Langer. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953. P.28.
(4) Ibid. p. 31.
(5) Poetics. 1447a.
(6) Rhetoric. 1378a20. "The emotions are all those feelings that so change men as to affect their judgements, and that are also attended by pain or pleasure. Such are anger, pity, fear and the like with their opposites."
(7) The cause and the object of an emotion can be the same thing, but are often times not the same. The object is the thing at which the emotion is directed while the cause is the thing which prompted the emotion. For example, when I am angry because my dog ate my shoes, my anger is caused by the dog, but the object of my anger is my frustration of my wish that my shoes not be destroyed.
(8) Walton, Kendall. Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990. pp. 196, 250.
(9) Anthony Storr. Music and the Mind. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992. p.2.