Music! Passion! Excitement!

(Original posting 10/23/2017) Well, actually, no. This post is about philosophy and history, but then, you wouldn’t have read this far if I’d used that title, now would you? At least this post does discuss emotions and music, so at least there’s that much to look forward to! Anyway, this is the second in an undetermined quantity of posts where I’m using y’all as guinea pigs to practice answering the essay questions in my comprehensive exams coming up next week. Today’s topic is:

The History of the Music Communication Debate

From ancient times, music’s ability to influence our hearts and minds has been noted. This is illustrated in a story that was popular from the time of Greek amphitheaters through Italian opera, the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Orpheus employs his musical skills to charm Hades into releasing his wife, Eurydice, from the underworld. People have debated how music is able to affect the human body for nearly as long as this legend has existed.

Plato and Aristotle proposed two versions of what is now called the arousal theory. Plato said melodies contained properties, or dispositions, with the power to arouse emotions by imitating or representing speech and exclamation. Aristotle’s version was that music portrayed emotions which caused the listener’s emotions to move in sympathy with the music.

These theories were picked up again nearly two thousand year later in the late Renaissance. The Florentine Camerata, a kind of arts board formed ca. 1600, sought to revive Greek drama in a new art form called opera. The Camerata designed to employ the arousal theories of  music to affect the emotions of opera’s audiences. In 1649, Rene’ Descartes, in his “The Passions of the Soul’, proposed a physiological means of how the arousal theories work. He claimed that the human body possessed a system of vital spirits which could be stimulated by resonant types of music to align in such a way as to produce the experience of six basic emotions. Composers took up this idea to write opera music which they thought aligned with these spirits so as to stimulate desired emotions in their listeners. This came to be known as “the doctrine of the affections.”

This state of understanding lasted until the 19th century. In 1819, Arthur Schopenhauer wrote “The World as Will and Idea” in which he defined music as an art form which best represented the “cosmic will,” and thus might be as expression of human will as well. As such, he proposed that emotion moved from the listener into the music rather than vice versa. Thus, music has representational power to express emotion but has no power to arouse emotion. In other words, emotion in music is a perceived property of the music. This was a revolutionary moment, the first revolution in music philosophy, resulting in a tremendous increase in the prestige of instrumental music.

The second revolution came a few decades later with Eduard Hanslick’s. “The Beautiful in Music.” He claimed that instrumental music as an art cannot either arouse or represent basic emotions in any artistically relevant way. Rather, he proposed a cognitive theory of the emotions; for a person to experience an emotion they must have a belief that can cause such emotion. Hanslick said absolute music cannot create this belief. In support, he argued that since people don’t agree on what emotion they experience from a particular piece of music then the music doesn’t produce any emotional experience at all (argument from disagreement). Hanslick’s theory had the affect of fossilizing music philosophy for the next 100 years.

This changed in 1942 with a third revolution upon the publication of Susan Langer’s, “Philosophy in a New Key.” She proposed that music is iconically symbolic, or “isomorphic” with emotions. In other words, music sounds the way emotions feel. However, antagonists pointed out that there was no meaning convention for Langer’s icon concept, rendering it absurd. However, Langer’s writing moved the source of emotions from the listener back into the music.

A fourth revolution then followed, which was a general consensus as the twentieth century progressed that we experience emotions in music as perceptual properties of the music itself, similar to our experience of color and taste.

​So, in 2,500 years we haven’t really moved very far. Plato saw music as having properties that arouse emotional responses. 20th Century philosophers viewed music as having properties that the listener perceives as emotional in quality. The listener has moved from a passive position to an active one. Yet, still the contemporary philosophy doesn’t seem to capture how we actually experience music. Perhaps Eduard Hanslick was on to something when he said, music is a language that can’t be translated into any other language, since we seem to be unable to describe in words how music actually works.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *