Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Sadness of Music

I read it so long ago that I have no idea of the source, but there is this anecdote about Schubert that is rather interesting. Once, at one of those famous 'Schubertiad' salons that used to be popular in Vienna, Schubert was approached by a listener who asked, "why is your music so often sad?" Schubert replied, "madame, all music is sad!"

This brings me to an article I just read in the New York Times about a new scientific study of music called "Why We Like Sad Music." It actually makes a stab at answering the question, which puts it a bit above most of these fumble-fingered 'scientific' studies. Here is how the study is introduced:
 SADNESS is an emotion we usually try to avoid. So why do we choose to listen to sad music?
Musicologists and philosophers have wondered about this. Sad music can induce intense emotions, yet the type of sadness evoked by music also seems pleasing in its own way. Why? Aristotle famously suggested the idea of catharsis: that by overwhelming us with an undesirable emotion, music (or drama) somehow purges us of it.
But what if, despite their apparent similarity, sadness in the realm of artistic appreciation is not the same thing as sadness in everyday life?
Yes, as a matter of fact, there has been discussion of this in the literature. The philosopher Peter Kivy long ago proposed that, since the emotions we purport to hear in music do not have objects as real life emotions do, they are not 'garden-variety' emotions at all, but something else. I would very simply say that what we hear in music are uniquely musical moods and since we cannot translate them directly into language, we end up making up a lot of metaphors and so go astray. While oversimplified, that pretty much resolves the issue in my view. But let's see what our researchers came up with. Here is the abstract summary of their study:
In general, sad music is thought to cause us to experience sadness, which is considered an unpleasant emotion. As a result, the question arises as to why we listen to sad music if it evokes sadness. One possible answer to this question is that we may actually feel positive emotions when we listen to sad music. This suggestion may appear to be counterintuitive; however, in this study, by dividing musical emotion into perceived emotion and felt emotion, we investigated this potential emotional response to music. We hypothesized that felt and perceived emotion may not actually coincide in this respect: sad music would be perceived as sad, but the experience of listening to sad music would evoke positive emotions. A total of 44 participants listened to musical excerpts and provided data on perceived and felt emotions by rating 62 descriptive words or phrases related to emotions on a scale that ranged from 0 (not at all) to 4 (very much). The results revealed that the sad music was perceived to be more tragic, whereas the actual experiences of the participants listening to the sad music induced them to feel more romantic, more blithe, and less tragic emotions than they actually perceived with respect to the same music. Thus, the participants experienced ambivalent emotions when they listened to the sad music. After considering the possible reasons that listeners were induced to experience emotional ambivalence by the sad music, we concluded that the formulation of a new model would be essential for examining the emotions induced by music and that this new model must entertain the possibility that what we experience when listening to music is vicarious emotion.
In order to solve the problem they postulate a distinction between felt emotion and perceived emotion. I'm not that crazy about this distinction for a couple of reasons: one is that for reasons I mention above, I don't think music depicts emotions at all, but uniquely musical moods. The other reason is that the distinction appears unfounded and arbitrary. What could it possibly mean to 'perceive' music as sad, but experience it as 'positive'? This seems incoherent. If you are going to base your whole study on a distinction this iffy, then I suggest you first need to make a pretty good argument for the distinction being meaningful.

Here are my thoughts on 'sad' music. First of all, all the excerpts they chose for the study are from the Romantic era. This makes sense as certain features of Romantic music tend to be described in language as 'sad', hence the Schubert anecdote as Schubert was one of the earliest composers of Romanticism in music. Romantic music, by means of characteristic handling of melody, harmony and rhythm, works to send the listener inside themselves, into a kind of Romantic trance. This is often, for lack of a better word, described as 'sadness'. We do find examples from other eras of intense musical expression that could be, in language, described as sad. A famous example could be the Lacrimosa from Mozart's Requiem, which has a particularly intense and haunting effect:


Sad? Well, you certainly might seize on that word to attempt to describe the effect of that music, but it is not a garden-variety sadness because it has no object. You are not sad about anything. Your dog hasn't died and your wife/husband hasn't left you. Indeed, this music could equally or better be described as exhilarating or moving or sublime or haunting! What I felt at my mother's funeral was sadness. What I feel listening to Mozart is fundamentally different--a uniquely musical mood, not an emotion at all.

If we wanted to go at this a bit differently we might say that there are three categories of emotion-like feelings:

  1. Actual garden-variety emotions which are defined as feelings that have a particular object. We are sad about something; we love or hate someone or something, we are joyful because we got the raise/promotion and so on.
  2. Chronic feelings such as states of depression that are not related to real world situations or events but are possibly due to a brain chemistry imbalance.
  3. Musical moods that are the effect of listening to music. These include moods similar to melancholy or joy or anger because different kinds of music evoke different moods and energy levels, but they are only analogous to real emotions. What they really are are crafted musical moods.
What I feel when I get that big check and what I feel when I listen to Bach's Magnificat are really fundamentally different things though we might well use the word "joy" to describe both. I think that the whole perceived problem here is just one of language. We don't have words to accurately describe what we hear when we listen to music so we fall back on metaphor and analogy. Music can create effects that we perceive as analogous to joy or sadness, but are actually quite different from them.

So that's my theory. Now let's hear some of that Bach Magnificat:


4 comments:

Shantanu said...

I think music lets us regard an emotion from very close, rather than feel it ourselves. It's like feeling sympathy or compassion, closely related to a moral fervour. It might be programmatic, which means the sympathy is directed at actual suffering, or it might me just because of the mood. It's about the pictures music creates in our mind, it's like reading a story. Films are unsuccessful in this sense because they provide images which are too specific and rigid, literature is better, but music is flexible to our distortion, and we can imagine a lot with music playing.

Of course, not everybody has that bent for meditation and fantasy, so they use music for other ends like relaxing. Mediocre music offers only a first level of experience, which is immediate and temporary. It serves a singular purpose. But good music enchants you, pulls you, gathers you in ways which are sometimes hard to pin down. This is when it becomes human, offering as much as a real person would. That is music at maximum power really.

I thought about this when listening to the Grosse Fuge. It's not beautiful, it's not sad, it's not lyrical, it's not grand, it's not even that complex, but it somehow gets across that unique position of being human, which is ...

I'll stop here. But this is that kind of post really.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for another very thoughtful comment!

I'm not sure I feel that music is similar to a moral fervor, but perhaps there is a connection. Hume seems to have thought that aesthetic and moral intuitions are related.

Right about the Grosse Fuge: it is pretty hard to say what it is making us feel, but it certainly is doing something! Just impossible to put into words.

Rickard Dahl said...

I think there are four broad ways people think when listening to music (this applies mainly to classical music, I guess popular music might need different categories):
1. Emotions, ofc how deep those emotions are depends on how the listeners can relate the music with feelings at the moment or with events in their lives.
2. Scenery/descriptions/story, this one is especially true for music that accompanies threatre (i.e. opera or ballet), film music, TV music & video game music. But ofc there's music specifically meant to tell a story, show a scenery etc. by itself (tone poems or works with more specific titles for instance). Ofc people might think of scenery when listening to music that doesn't really refer to a scenery.
3. Technical/compositional/historical, by this I mean: Listening to admire the playing or getting ideas how to play it (for example if the person listening wants to learn the piece). Or listening for the purpose of analysis, maybe score reading. Or finally to listen from the hisorical perspective (trying to understand why it sounds this way, how it relates to composer's life or the society around him/her).
4. And finally: Just enjoying the music because it sounds good (or listening to it eventhough it sounds bad).

The fourth way is most common for me. I just enjoy listening to the music because it simply sounds good (or bad sometimes).

Anyways, these four categories are ofc a oversimplification.

Bryan Townsend said...

Just getting to think about your comment now. I think what you are describing are "modes of listening" rather than something inherent in the music, though of course different kinds of music might inspire different modes of listening. How we listen when we are sitting in an ear training class being asked to take down a passage in dictation and how we listen when we are relaxing after dinner and how we listen when we are out at the club dancing are all quite different...