10. On Emotion and Music

Music is distinct from the other arts in many ways, but in no way more fundamental than in its unique synthesis with the physiology of man. Not only did early man hear the overtone series in every sound he heard and depend on pitch awareness for survival, but recent research has established that every organ of his body produced a specific pitch. In addition, all philologists agree that some form of music, sung vowel-like expressions of basic emotions, preceded the earliest speech and was man’s first form of oral communication. We carry this genetically, as we still invest every sentence we speak with musical contour. There is a long history of the recognition of our bicameral brain and it is the very physiology of the brain that provides music with its great power to express what the rational mind cannot. And this is why the definition of music as a special language for the communication of feelings and emotions is probably the definition most people would understand, even the common uneducated masses.

The earliest documentation we have of conductors is the images we see of them in the tomb paintings of ancient Egypt. They are seen standing, usually in front of a small ensemble of instrumentalists. But what are they doing? The question arises because during this entire ancient period in Egypt there was as yet no notation associated with music. In spite of no notation, Plato wrote in more than one book that Music Education existed and was highly organized during the period of 10,000 years before his time in the fifth century BC — a period of time reaching back to the era of the cave painting in France and Spain!

During the most recent period of ancient Greek culture, the so-called Roman period of 100 BC, there are some fragments of a notation system consisting of letters, but this system makes no account of rhythm. But our conductor of the tomb paintings, 2,000 years before the letter notation could have been giving the beat, which is a large part of what some conductors continue to do today. In the case of one of the ancient tomb paintings, what the conductor was doing was identified in hieroglyph symbols. If all he did was give the beats we might have expected for him to be identified as “giver of the beat.” However, most extraordinary, instead we read “music of the arm!” Not only is that a wonderful description of what even the conductor today should do with his arms, it confirms for us that these very ancient musicians were making music.

We see this ancient conductor frozen in time in the paintings and we wish we could see him move. Over a number of years I have wondered if the movement of his hands and arms had some relationship with the earliest notated church music of Western Europe, the so-called neume notation of the 9th century. Here, in a different hand and ink placed above the Latin text, we see a variety of added marks — dots, lines in various directions, including some with arcs at the top of the line, etc., of which no one knows for sure what they represent. They do not represent pitch or rhythm, so they can hardly represent a real notation of the music. Indeed most scholars have suggested that they are merely a system of mnemonic aids to help the singers remember the music. Willi Apel, in the Harvard Dictionary of Music, for example, wrote:

Evidently these signs served only as a mnemonic aid for the singer who knew the melodies by heart, or for the choir leader who may have interpreted them to his choir by appropriate movement of the hand.

Perhaps another clue to the role of these marks written above the 9th century text meant is found a couple of centuries later in the work of the remarkable early scholar, Roger Bacon (1220–1292), who wrote:

For accent is a kind of singing; whence it is called accent from accino, accinis [I sing, thou singest], because every syllable has its own proper sound either raised, lowered, or composite, and all syllables of one word are adapted or sung to one syllable on which rests the principal sound.

Recently, in looking again at several of these 9th century examples of neume notation, I had a new thought, a possible solution which I have never seen made before in published studies. I noticed for the first time that all these various marks appeared only above vowels and that it follows, therefore, that these marks must be symbols of feelings and emotion which the conductor could communicate to the players. The vowels are fundamental to the expression of feelings. The vowel “o” could reflect surprise, pain, pleasure and more and the hands alone are capable of many examples of silent emotional communication. Also, it is important to recall that the very definition of music is as a means of communication of feelings and emotions, which our other means of communication, speaking or writing in a modern language, are very limited in accomplishment.

With the beginning of the Christian Era, the construction of concert halls, private and public concerts of art music, together with popular music and sung poetry, all continued, although one would never discover this in reading typical music history texts which describe the Middle Ages. There was however a new development which had far reaching consequences in music practice. The new Christian Church, consumed with the desire to rid Western Europe of all things “pagan,” took a very strong stand against all expression of emotions. Emotions, the Church fathers proclaimed, were the path to sin. St Basil even proposed that the proper Christian should not even laugh — because nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus described as laughing.

Therefore it followed that when the church mathematicians were charged with the creation of a new system of notation, needed to speed up the training of boy singers, they were told not to have any symbols which expressed feelings and emotion. And not only were they successful in designing such a new kind of notation, devoid of symbols of emotion, but today, a thousand years later, we still have their notational system which has not a single symbol which expresses any feeling or emotion in notation!

The Church recognized only the rational side of man and when the first important music treatises began to appear they followed this same line. As a result, when the first universities began to be established, music was placed in the faculty of mathematics and all music courses were taught by, and music treatises written by, mathematicians. This association of music with math and Reason, rather than with emotions and the experiential side of man, remains very much a part of music instruction to the present day. Modern music schools continue to teach a great deal of math. Rhythm, for example, is taught exclusively as arithmetic, resulting in the inability of our students to feel rhythm?

It was only the rediscovery and publication of the ancient Greek treatises which led to the rejection of the old Church nonsense about music and restored an understanding of the true nature of music. It was this Renaissance movement which we call Humanism. We might let a definition by Galilei, in 1581, very similar to the one we have given above, represent this broad and powerful return to the values of the ancient Greeks. “True music,” he wrote, has a primary purpose “to express the passions” and, secondarily, “to communicate these with equal force to the minds of mortals for their benefit and advantage.” Certainly in no medieval music treatise does one find a statement such as this one by Martin Luther, “Only music deserves being extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.”

The university treatises of the Renaissance still speak of music as being math, but here and there a writer lets down his academic guard and reveals a world of change. Heinrich Glarean, in his Dodecachordon (1547), for example, a treatise heavily focused on the technical aspects of music, nevertheless reveals the depth of emotion he himself experienced as a listener of actual performance. He mentions hearing an Elegy of Magdalene, by Michael de Verona, which he heard as,

possessing great emotion and innate sweetness and tremendous power, so that one really believes he hears the weeping of a woman … At the end, through a certain confident hope, it rises so magnificently and is lifted to the heights with such tremendous exultation, and then again, as if wearied and self-reproachful for immoderate joy, it falls back into deep and customary weeping.

Of all the periods of music history, none has been more inaccurately portrayed by musicologists than the Renaissance. Music history texts give the impression that Church music was Renaissance music, whereas in fact there was a great deal more than that. A composer such as Machaut would have been utterly astonished if he could have known that he would be remembered today for his Church music, an insignificant proportion of his music upon which he placed little value in comparison to his love songs. It is also because scholars concentrate only on Church music, and we never read that the people who actually knew Leonardo da Vinci considered him the greatest musician they knew. And why have these same books kept from us descriptions of such powerful performances of art music as that by Francesco da Milano in 1555?

He made the very strings to swoon beneath his fingers and transported all who listened into such gentle melancholy that one present buried his head in his hands, another let his entire body slump into an ungainly posture with members all awry, while another, his mouth sagged open and his eyes more than half shut, seemed, one would judge, as if transfixed upon the strings, and yet another, with chin sunk upon his chest, hiding the most sadly taciturn visage ever seen, remained abstracted in all his senses save his hearing, as if his soul had fled from all the seats of sensibility to take refuge in his ears where more easefully it could rejoice in such enchanting symphony.

Who has ever read a description of listeners of Renaissance church music which compares with that? The truth of the matter is that the Church polyphony, upon which our modern music history texts are based, was music heard by the actual people living during the Renaissance as being already old-fashioned and scholastic. This was because this music was composed upon principles of mathematics, and not of feeling. For example, Pontus de Tyard, a member of the group of French poets known as the “Plaiade”, observed,

Music’s purpose seems to be that of setting the word in such a fashion that anyone listening to it will become impassioned and carried away by the mood of the poet. The musician who knows how to deploy the solo voice to this end best attains his goal, in my opinion. Contrapuntal music most often brings to the ears only a lot of noise, from which you feel no vivid effect.

Similarly, Zarlino wrote,

Even in our times we see that music induces in us various passions in the way that it did in antiquity. For occasionally, it is observed, when some beautiful, learned, and elegant poem is recited by someone to the sound of some instrument, the listeners are greatly stirred and moved to do different things, such as to laugh, weep, or to similar actions … If such effects were wrought by music in antiquity, it was recited as described above and not in the way that is used at present, with a multitude of parts and so many singers and instruments that at times nothing is heard but a jumbled din of voices and diverse instrumental sounds, singing without taste or discretion, and an unseemly pronunciation of words, so that he hears only a tumult and uproar. Music practiced in this way cannot have any effect on us worth remembering.

It was in the Renaissance, then, that Europe began to rediscover the fundamental role of the emotions in music. The story of the Baroque Era is one of an obsession for emotions in music by both composers and philosophers alike. Again, the view of the Baroque given us by musicologists over the past hundred years is so incomplete, and therefore misleading, that many musicians today do not even think of Baroque music as being emotional at heart. Many musicians have been misled by their teachers into thinking of Baroque music as math, now called counterpoint and functional-bass chord progressions.

But the better Baroque composers never talked like that! Cavalieri, in the preface to his La rappresentatione di Anima (1600) says his goal is to “move listeners to different emotions, such as pity and joy, tears and laughter.” And Caccini, in his Le Nuove Musiche, wrote that the goal of his solo songs was “to move the affect of the soul.” Speaking of his Il Gran Tamerlano (1706), Scarlatti relates that he tried to achieve, “naturalness and beauty, together with the expression of the passion.” And Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote, “It appears to me that it is the special province of music to move the heart.”

We might also add that in his biographical work, Ehrenpforte (Hamburg, 1740), in reference to a person who had claimed both a goal of making “music a scientific or scholarly pursuit” and an association with J. S. Bach, Johann Mattheson adds that Bach certainly did not teach this man “the supposed mathematical basis of composition.” “This,” Mattheson testifies, “I can guarantee.”

With the arrival of the period we call the Baroque composers and music theorists became obsessed with emotions, something which typical music texts fail to acknowledge. One can get a glimpse of this new wide interest in the famous “Harmonie universelle” of 1636 by Marin Mersenne (1587–1648). He finds emotions associated with the five senses, with color and even with individual vowels. He finds much interest in Harmony and wonders why ancient music did not use the interval of the Third. He notices that the pitch fa followed by mi is very pleasing, but played together is disagreeable.

Melody, Mersenne finds, melodies are as varied as the emotions themselves. In an observation which is of great interest he mentions something which Praetorius discussed in more detail, that the singer of a song was allowed to make the first pitch any one he desired, to effect the desired emotion. Instead of the written first note, the singer could sing one a second, third and even a fourth higher [try this with some melody and notice the difference in the emotional quality which results!]

Regarding the affect on the listener, he was disappointed to find that French melodies lacked the depth of other cultures and often seemed satisfied with merely “tickling the ear”. The value of instrumental music he felt was to join and perfect the body and spirit in emotions. He refers to the already common experience that certain kinds of emotions in instrumental dance music had great influence on health and suggests that if this could be developed it might result jn saving much money which now went to doctors.

With regard to music education he has noticed that Music can affect Manners and he states very clearly the obvious truth, not quite understood even today, that Music can be only judged by hearing.

In general, the music theorists of the Baroque enthusiasm was for writing of the “affections” and the “passions.” It was now very clear that the composer was driven by emotions, and not by mathematics. Charles Butler wrote, in 1636,

Good composing is impossible unless the Author, at the time of Composing, be transported as it were with some Musical fury; so that himself scarce knoweth what he doth, nor can presently give a reason for his doing.

Angelo Berardi wrote in 1681 that “Music is the ruler of the passions of the soul.” Even Marin Mersenne, who attempted in the first volume of his great encyclopedia to explain all of music by mathematics, was later forced, in his most concise definition of music, to admit that song,

is a derivation of the voice, or of other sounds, by certain intervals either natural or artificial, which are agreeable to the ear and to the spirit, and which signify joy, or sadness, or some other passion by their movements.

It is at this time also that we find philosophers focusing on the emotions when writing of the purpose of music. Even that left-brained, mechanically obsessed, Descartes, in his definition of music, had to admit, “The basis of music is sound; its aim is to please and to arouse various emotions in us.”

William Temple emphasized the genetic universality of the emotions in music.

The powers of music are either felt or known by all men, and are allowed to work strangely upon the mind and the body, the passions and the blood; to raise joy and grief, to give pleasure and pain, to cure diseases and the mortal sting of the tarantula; to give motions to the feet as well as the heart, to compose disturbed thoughts, to assist and heighten devotion itself.

Seventeenth century poets also frequently wrote of the emotions in music. A remarkable example is Dryden’s A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1687. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, “What Passion cannot Musick raise and quell!,” he presents a remarkable survey of the emotional qualities which he associates with various musical instruments. It is imagery worthy of Berlioz,

“The TRUMPETS loud clangor
Excites us to arms
With shrill notes of anger….
The soft complaining FLUTE
In dying Notes discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whispered by the warbling LUTE.
Sharp VIOLINS proclaim
Their jealous pangs, and desperation,
Fury, frantick indignation,
Depth of pains, and height of passion….”

But the real evidence for the consuming interest in the emotions among Baroque musicians is found in the contemporary descriptions of their performance. To begin with singers, Severo Bonini has left this description of the singing of one of the first opera composers,

A much learned singer and composer was Signor Jacopo Peri, who would have moved and brought to tears the hardest heart by singing his works.

And consider the range of emotions mentioned by Christoph Bernhard, in his singing treatise of 1649,

In the recitative style, one should take care that the voice is raised in moments of anger, and to the contrary dropped in moments of grief. Pain makes it pause; impatience hastens it. Happiness enlivens it. Desire emboldens it. Love renders it alert. Bashfulness holds it back. Hope strengthens it. Despair diminishes it. Fear keeps it down. Danger is fled with screams. If, however, a person faces up to danger, then his voice must reflect his daring and bravery.

Tosi, although writing a treatise on vocal technique, was never so passionate as when he spoke of “heart.”

Oh! how great a master is the heart! Confess it, my beloved singers, and gratefully admit, that you would not have arrived at the highest rank of the profession if you had not been its scholars.

A manuscript by Diderot describes the nephew of Rameau as an amateur singing in a café,

While singing fragments of Jomelli’s Lamentations, he reproduced with incredible precision, fidelity, and warmth the most beautiful passages of each scene. In that magnificent recitative in which Jeremiah describes the desolation of Jerusalem he was drenched in tears, which drew their like from every onlooker. His art was complete — delicacy of voice, expressive strength, true sorrow … Worn out, exhausted, like a man emerging from a deep sleep or a prolonged reverie, he stood motionless, dumb, petrified. He kept looking around him like a man who has lost his way and wants to know where he is. He waited for returning strength and wits, wiping his face with an absent-minded gesture.

The most dramatic descriptions of Baroque performers are those of violinists, such as this performer heard by a French critic in 1702,

an ecstatic who was so carried away with the piece that he was playing that he not only martyred his instrument but also himself. No longer master of his own being, he became so transported that he gyrated and hopped around like someone overcome by a demon.

The critic, François Raguenet, describes another:

The artist himself, whilst he is performing it, is seized with an unavoidable agony; he tortures his violin; he racks his body; he is no longer master of himself, but is agitated like one possessed with an irresistible motion.

If there is still a reader anywhere who is under the impression that baroque music was mechanical and boring, perhaps this eyewitness description of the famous Corelli, playing his violin, will make him wonder if he has been misinformed.

I never met with any man that suffered his passions to hurry him away so much whilst he was playing on the violin as the famous Arcangelo Corelli, whose eyes will sometimes turn as red as fire; his countenance will be distorted, his eyeballs roll as in an agony, and he gives in so much to what he is doing that he doth not look like the same man.

Some accounts by contemporary listeners suggest an emotional impact much greater than we might experience in hearing the same music today. The English actor, Betterton, found,

Purcell penetrates the heart, makes the blood dance through your veins, and thrill with the agreeable violence offered by his Heavenly Harmony.

And consider the impact of mere incidental music in a play, as recalled by Pepys, in a February 27, 1668, entry in his famous Diary.

What did please me beyond anything in the whole world was the wind-musique when the Angel comes down, which is so sweet that it ravished me; and indeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it make me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife; that neither then, nor all the evening going home and at home, I was able to think of anything, but remained all night transported, so as I could not believe that ever any music has that real command over the soul of a man as this did upon me; and makes me resolve to practice wind-music and to make my wife do the same.

One vivid portrait of an attentive audience is found in a description of a performance of Handel,

The audience was so enchanted with this performance, that a stranger who should have seen the manner in which they were affected, would have imagined they had all been distracted.

Such a description of the distracted minds of the listeners was also mentioned in 1690 by James Talbot, who found the Sarabande soft and passionate in character, “apt to move the Passions and to disturb the tranquility of the Mind.”

Finally, there is this rather remarkable advice to the listener by Rameau, himself famous during his lifetime as a theoretician,

Often we think we hear in music only what exists in the words, or in the interpretation we wish to give them. We try to subject music to forced inflections, but that is not the way to be able to judge it. On the contrary, we must not think but let ourselves be carried away by the feeling which the music inspires; without our thinking at all, this feeling will become the basis of our judgment.

The strong focus on the emotions demonstrated in Italian opera helped prepare the melodically expressive music of the Classic Period. Equally significant was the influence of the Enlightenment which encouraged even the Catholic composers to write music which expressed their own feelings, instead of thinking of themselves as surrogates for God. Thus in Friedrich Marpurg’s view in 1750, “The composer’s task is to copy nature … to stir the passions at will … to express the living movements of the soul and the cravings of the heart.”

Now, in expressing emotions, the composers no longer sought the exaggeration of the Baroque, and Italian opera in particular, but instead sought to express more natural and true emotions. Thus, Mozart, describing his “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail “ for his father, wrote,

Now, as for Belmonte’s aria in A major, do you know how it is expressed — even the throbbing of his loving heart is indicated — the two violins in octaves … One sees the trembling — the wavering — one sees how his swelling breast heaves — this is expressed by a crescendo — one hears the whispering and the sighing —which is expressed by the first violins, muted, and a flute in unison. Nothing could be more definite than that.

And it is no surprise to find Mozart complimenting Mlle. Weber’s singing, by remarking that her singing “goes to the heart.”

From this time until the 20th century, no one questioned the fact that the paramount role of music was to express the emotions. When Beethoven finished his “Missa Solemnis,” he wrote on the score, “From the heart, may it go to the heart.” Subsequent composers clearly made the expression of emotions through music their credo. Consider the following,


Music is to me the perfect expression of the soul.


The prevailing characteristics of my music are passionate expression, intense ardor, rhythmical animation, and unexpected turns.


A long time ago I decided that my universe will be the soul and heart of man.


I should compose with utter confidence a subject that set my blood going, even though it were condemned by all other artists as anti-musical.


What is best in music is not to be found in the notes.

Paul Dukas:

Be it laughter or tears, feverish passion or religious ecstasy, nothing, in the category of human feelings, is a stranger to music.

Max Reger:

Music, in and by itself, should generate a flow of pure emotion without the least tinge of extraneous rationalization.


Music, I feel, must be emotional first and intellectual second.

Frederick Delius:

Music is an outburst of the soul.

Because it was so evident that the purpose of music was to express emotion, over a long period of time some philosophers had been speaking of music as an actual language of the emotions. Already in the 16th century, Martin Luther had observed, “Music is a language of feelings without words.” Subsequent philosophers in France, Descartes, Chénier, Nodier, Chabanon, De Vismes and J.-J. Rousseau in particular, began to speculate on the possibility of an international language based on music which might replace traditional languages. The extraordinary attempts of Jean-François Sudre to realize this dream with his “Langue Musicale Universelle” had no successor, with the exception of Wagner, who almost certainly found his leitmotif concept here.

Some other familiar persons commented on the idea of music as a language, among them,


People usually complain that music is so ambiguous; that it is so doubtful what they ought to think when they hear it; whereas everyone understands words. With me it is entirely the reverse. And not only with regard to an entire speech, but also with individual words; these, too, seem to me to be so ambiguous, so vague, and so easily misunderstood in comparison with genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words. The thoughts which are expressed to me by a piece of music which I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary too definite.


Music is a means of communicating with people, not an aim in itself.

Edward MacDowell:

Music… is a language, but a language of the intangible, a kind of soul-language.


Music is the speech of Passion.


It is a truth forever, that where the speech of man stops short, there Music’s reign begins.

Hans Christian Anderson:

Where words fail, music speaks.

Leo Tolstoy:

Music is the shorthand of emotion. Emotions which let themselves be described in words with such difficulty, are directly conveyed to man in music, and in that is its power and significance.

Bruno Walter:

At no time and in no place has music been merely playing with sounds. The vibrations themselves which we perceive as musical sounds are not exclusively material in nature — affective elements are active in them, lending inner meaning and coherence to the sound phenomenon: only thus can the successive and simultaneous arrangement of notes become a musical language whose eloquence speaks to the human soul.

Comments regarding emotions and music by 19th century performers are also very numerous. Among them we find,

Clara Schumann, on Brahms,

It is really moving to see him sitting at the piano, with his interesting young face which becomes transfigured when he plays.

Arthur Rubinstein:

When I play, I make love — it is the same thing.

Listeners during the nineteenth century had become fully conditioned to hear music as a synonymous expression of feeling. From an endless supply of possible quotations, consider only these two remarkable testimonies to the experience of hearing the music of Mozart.


Here are things which can bring tears to our eyes. I will only mention the adagio of the D minor string quintet. No one else has ever known as well how to interpret so exquisitely in music the sense of resigned and inconsolable sorrow. Every time Laub played the adagio I had to hide in the farthest corner of the concert-room, so that others might not see how deeply this music affected me.

Soren Kierkegaard:

I am in love with Mozart like a young girl. Immortal Mozart! I owe you everything; it is thanks to you that I lost my reason, that my soul was awestruck in the very depths of my being … I have you to thank that I did not die without having loved.

Three thousand years of experience were not enough to discourage radical new departures during the 20th century. One new school of composers championed “objective” music, which had never ever existed before. Their credo was that music can be understood only as C#’s and Bb’s, and some significant voices attempted to make their case.


I consider that music is, by its very nature, powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. … If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion, and not a reality.


Music cannot express the composer’s feelings.

Actually, of course, such composers as Stravinsky and Hindemith wrote some very emotionally expressive music, their above comments notwithstanding, for the simple reason that they could not avoid being human, that is, sharing the universal emotions of all mankind. For the most part, however, the composers of “objective” music found their greatest admirers and followers only among the academic community and not among the general public, who never responded as it did for traditional music. For the general public there is not a single work from this school which communicates as directly as the weakest Beethoven symphony.

We might include under the caption of “objective” music a considerable amount of educational music. Perhaps a more accurate caption might be “the publisher’s objective” music, for this music often seems “constructed to measure” and not inspired. Why, we wonder, would we wish to give children music which is not inspired?

The twelve-tone school was, of course, a return to math, in so far as the process was concerned. This school is now completely dead and nearly forgotten. It lasted exactly as long as the Classic Period, which produced numerous masterpieces which will be performed forever. How many compositions from the seventy-five years of twelve-tone music will be performed forever? One can count them on one hand.

Another significant new influence of the 20th century has been the recording industry, which has made technical accuracy a higher goal than feeling. The impact of this influence can be clearly seen in the criticism of the later recordings by Karajan. Peter Davis, in New York Magazine, called Karajan, “master of the recorded cult which has purged the spirit from the music.”

Some fear bands have been similarly influenced, resulting in concerts which are characterized by great demonstrations of technical skill and precision but lacking in genuine feeling.

A great deal of additional material on this subject can be found in my 8 volumes of Aesthetics in Music.