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The Arts

Music & Emotion

Why do we feel emotion when listening to music? Ben Ushedo goes beyond emotivist and cognitivist approaches to answer this intriguing question.

“Music can make me feel tense or relaxed; it can disturb, unsettle me, and startle me; it can calm me down or excite me…”
Jennifer Robinson, ‘Expression and Arousal of Emotion in Music’.

What do music and religion have in common? Like religion, everybody seems to feel qualified to have an opinion on musical taste. The question which this essay addresses is, how is it that music is sometimes able to influence the moods of listeners, generating emotions? The answers proffered to this question are legion, but here they will be approached, in broad strokes, from two perspectives, cognitivist and emotivist. Arguments deriving from both points of view will be critiqued and evaluated to show that music has elements requiring us to go beyond mechanical rules of thumb in understanding musical experience and our subsequent taste and value judgements.

Dispassionate Listening

Cognitivist theory holds that the experience or interpretation a particular musical sound engenders is a result of a conscious process of inference. Implicit in this line of thought is the idea that music has expressive properties which listeners recognise (see Peter Kivy, Music Alone). One theory for instance is that the form of emotional music bears close resemblance to the bodily movements experienced when emotions are aroused. If for instance someone is in an agitated or restless state, she is liable to behave agitatedly or restlessly; and if she does, her body makes agitated or restless movements. Maybe the type of music the form of which can be described as agitated or restless shares this agitated or restless behaviour (see Malcolm Budd, Music and the Emotions). The idea for these cognitivists is that there is a resemblance of music in pitch, volume, rhythm, melody and structure to the natural human expression of emotion in voice, demeanour and behaviour. This explains why, according to some cognitivists, ‘sad’ music tends to be low, soft, and slow, while ‘angry’ music, on the other hand, tends to be high-pitched and loud, with rapid unpredictable rhythms and sharp breaks in melodic contours.

Among contemporary writers Peter Kivy stands out as representative of the cognitivist approach, although he is by no means an extremist. He argues that in characterising a piece of music as angry, joyous or melancholy, it’s not that we are angry at the piece, nor about it; we are instead identifying certain heard qualities of the music. That is, we are moved by the way the piece captures feelings interpreted through the background of our listening experience. Thus, past listening experience is particularly significant in either suppressing or facilitating the tendency of the qualities of the music to arouse the corresponding emotion. A similar point is made by Robinson, that the elements of music contribute to the forming of musical expressiveness in a wider context of meaning. In this regard, a musical element can become emotionally expressive by virtue of some learnt custom or convention of association. One can pick up here an echo of David Hume’s view that some musical qualities are calculated to please and others to displease in line with a “contingent uniformity of human sensibility,” ie that people are culturally taught to react to musical stimuli (see David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste and Other Essays). One fundamental difficulty with the general cognitivist line of thought is that if one pushes it, it may be argued that all humans are biologically disposed to react to music in the same way. But this is obviously not the case, especially if cultural differences are considered.

Aesthetic Responses

According to emotivist theory, music is both a cause and an effect of sentiment. In perceiving music we react to it affectively. Emotivists are persuaded that the direct arousal of emotion, such as being surprised, disturbed, satisfied, relaxed etc by the music, is a clue to its emotional expressiveness. Hence,

“Disturbing passages disturb us; reassuring ones reassure. Passages that meander uncertainly make us feel uneasy… Passages that move forward confidently make us feel satisfied: we know what is happening and seem to be able to predict what will happen next. Passages that are full of obstacles make us feel tense and when the obstacles are overcome, we feel relieved.” Jennifer Robinson, ‘Expression and Arousal of Emotion in Music’.

Although Kendall Walton shares the view that there is a connection between music and the arousal of emotion in a listener, his understanding is that this relationship should not be seen as direct, nor as metaphoric – because the music sounds like something connected with emotion – but in terms of make-believe. To him the way to explain the transition from hearing some music to feeling a particular kind of emotion, say anguish, is to “imagine that in experiencing [the] music I am undergoing an experience of anguish” (Kendall Walton, ‘Pictures and Make-Believe’). Hence, listeners understand a work only if they exercise their own mastery of the rules of make-believe, which map the audible features of music onto make-believe ideas about their experience of emotions of various kinds.

The advantage in the make-believe approach is that it makes it easy to draw a distinction between experience at the level of make-believe and the experience of anguish (say) apart from pure imagination. Moreover, the make-believe account accommodates indefiniteness in the musical expression of emotion; how one musical feature may in different contexts be associated with divergent emotional qualities, even to the same person.

The foregoing notwithstanding, proponents of the emotivist approach are sometimes accused of being victims of the ‘pathetic fallacy’, the fallacy of ascribing human emotions to non-human things, for projecting feelings onto sound.

The Limits of Rationality

As things stand, neither the cognitivists nor the emotivists provide a completely satisfactory answer to our central problem. Their inability to do so might be rooted in the fact that both sets are under the illusion that it is possible to come up with a reductive all-embracing approach which fully accounts for the relationship between music and emotion. Thus, behind the attempt of emotivists to establish how ‘sad’ music can make one sad is the desire to show that listening to music is a completely sublime and emotional activity, rather than an analytic and dispassionate exercise. The cognitivists who on the other hand think that sadness is some kind of property extractable from the music, must fight against allowing emotion distract from intellectually reading the meaning of the music correctly.

Rather than pitch one stream of thought against the other, Francis Sparshott blends them together harmoniously, in his essay ‘Music and Feeling’. In doing so, he develops important insights which are particularly helpful in understanding how and why people decide that one type or example of music is bad and others good. Sparshott is aware that music-making does not arise like a form of mathematics to be worked easily into the fabric of experience. Rather, musical experiences are integrated with social situations and are connected to diverse phenomena.

While not denying that there is a link between music and emotion, Sparshott condemns the tendency in both cognitivist and emotivist theorists to restrict the affective function of music to operating within a simple mechanical system. For him, it is a fact of life that people have rather complex reactions towards events, things and people, which words such as ‘love’, ‘rage’ and ‘hope’ can be used to describe, or for example, ‘annoying’ or ‘adorable’. The field of vision can also be affectual, enabling one to for instance perceive a landscape as gloomy, sinister or peaceful, without the experienced quality being referred to in any verbal identification. All this cannot be understood in terms of some simple (‘mechanical’) stimulus-response system.

Sparshott argues that music is also affectual in the same complex way. In this complex situation the affectual quality of music may at times be ascribed in part to the subjective states of composers, performers or listeners, either inferentially, or as heard character in the music itself. It is sometimes even said for example that the painful quality of a particular piece of music is the outcome of the composer’s pain. But although it is stimulated by an external source, the creation of the emotion itself is within the listener. Moreover, composers, performers and listeners need not always be concerned with the affective aspect of a piece of music; neither is it necessary for identifiable meaning to be assigned to any particular entity within a piece. Yet it remains true that music is a communication system in which performers and hearers are engaged.

These ideas enable Sparshott to articulate vividly how music and feelings can relate to each other. Musical pieces, he says, have affective qualities that can be perceived directly, based on musical intimations heard by people whose ears are attuned to the musical system of meaning being used. This affective quality may be so strong that if a competent hearer is asked to apply one of two contrasting mood-words to it, the hearer will easily be able to comply. Yet one should not suppose that consistency of judgement is expected in all cases.

As to why this perception happens, Sparshott asserts in ‘Music and Feeling’ that “The human animal is uniquely the animal that makes culture, that lives by being prepared constantly to reinvent itself and the conditions of its existence. For such an animal, music, like the arts in general, would be a crucial device to maintain the necessary perceptual acuity, world-making flexibility, and range of emotive resource.”

The source can be further rooted in the sounds which animals and humans use in response to events around them. Thus, vocal music is thought of in terms of an extension of the natural phenomenon of voice as a communicative system, with cognitive/intellectual/linguistic function and affective capacities going hand in hand. The sounds animals make evoke attitudes, feelings, responses; but we humans have the added advantage of the capacity to modulate our speech by linguistic means subject to understanding. This awareness of linguistic meaning can be expected to influence virtually all uses of voice.


One implication of Sparshott’s argument is that a musician is able to emit sounds that are open to interpretation through various culturally-influenced schemes. This explains why

“a musical experience may give rise in some listener to a subjective feeling or emotion. That feeling may or may not be ‘identical’ with, or congruent with, a feeling-tone ascribed to the music. If it is not, the relation may be a matter of psychological causation, dependent on the listener’s personal make-up and history… The listener may (correctly or incorrectly) identify a piece of music as having, or as being meant to have, a certain conventional affective significance,… (or) identify a piece of music as evincing (being caused by, being symptomatic of) a certain feeling or disposition in composer and/or performer.” Sparshott, ‘Music and Feeling’.

If one assumes the accuracy of Sparshott’s insights, one can suggest that whether or not a piece of music is dubbed ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depends a great deal on one’s character, situation, desires and beliefs. This is in keeping with the thought that music has unanalysable elements. These elements are related to diverse psychological structures; they thrive on intuition and taste, affirming the idea that there’s something in the human psyche which needs music rather than language and logic far more than both the cognitivists and the emotivists admit.

© Ben Ushedo 2006

Ben Ushedo MA STL MA studied at the University of Glasgow.

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