Saturday, January 3, 2015

Music and Mood

I've talked quite a bit about how music does not communicate what we might call "garden variety emotions". The reason is that emotions like anger, hate and love have objects, whereas musical expression does not. We are normally angry AT someone ABOUT something and the same applies to hate and love. Music does however have expression that we can attempt to describe with all sorts of adjectives: fleeting, jagged, smooth, flowing, pulsating, charming, ethereal and on and on.

What I don't think I have talked about is how our moods might affect things like how we hear music and what music we might want to hear. I think that we often like to find music to either suit our mood, or change our mood or interact in some other way with our mood. We even talk about "mood music" as if there were only one kind of mood! Then there is that famous Glenn Miller tune that purports to put you "In the Mood":

This won't be a scientific survey, of course. I'm not a big fan of that approach and I don't have a research grant anyway.

People have puzzled over what seems to be the odd fact that listeners are attracted to "sad" music. I don't think that music itself is sad as this is another emotion that normally has an object, but music can certainly be drooping, languid and chromatic. Why the appeal, then? We might postulate an Aristotelian type of theory where listening to "sad" music when you are sad provides a catharsis. Does listening to sad music purge the emotion of sadness? Perhaps, but it might also be the case that what music does is organize our moods. The important thing about music is that it is an organization of what might otherwise be chaotic expression. Music makes melancholy beautiful and hence bearable. It lends energy to joy, delight to the ordinary and so on. Of course I am only talking about good music here. Mediocre and poor music does none of these things, which is exactly why we would judge it mediocre and poor.

When we choose a piece of music to listen to, that choice reflects something about us. I like to explore music I don't know because curiosity is one of my most powerful passions. Another person might prefer the familiar because that reinforces the mood that they like to feel. Adolescents like very rambunctious music because it suits their raging hormones. Those seeking spiritual transcendence seek out music, whether by Pärt, Gorecki, Bruckner or Mahler, that reflects that need.

You might want to conclude at this point that, as there are billions of listeners and millions of pieces of music, that there is a perfect piece for each mood of each person. I certainly hope not, as that leaves we composers with nothing left to do! An argument for aesthetic relativity could begin with the observation that different people have different moods and needs and this is why there are different kinds of music. This is certainly true, but I think it would be a bridge too far to draw an extreme relativistic conclusion from it.

I don't like to make a statistical argument, but the number of people that have derived deep enjoyment from the music of Bach over the last three hundred years is far greater than have derived the same from the music of Johann Friedrich Fasch. Unfortunately that same argument would lead us to the conclusion that the music of Jay-Z is even better than that of Bach, at least recently.

Perhaps we could slice the salami a bit thinner and observe that there are some genres and types of music that, while very popular, have some significant limitations and there are others that are more aesthetically broad. Then, within each genre we might notice that some pieces and some composers tend to be more successful and expressive than others. Not everyone will agree with this argument, but I guess I will just have to live with that. As Bertrand Russell famously observed, talking about the same problem in ethics "I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don't like it."

I originally started thinking about this post musing about how sometimes in the evening the perfect music to listen to might be a symphony by Bruckner with its long, autumnal mood. So let's end with the Symphony No. 9, the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein:

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