On Counterfactual Emotions

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I spend quite a lot of time thinking about emotions - not just because I am a musician (though that is the context for a lot of my thinking), but also because I am a human being. Our discourses about emotion often couch it in opposition to thinking, as irrational, as something natural rather than cultural. You see this whether emotion is regarded as a Good Thing or Not To Be Trusted - whether a celebration of expressive authenticity or an unruly intrusion into a well-ordered life, emotion is attributed to the body, not the mind.

And there are, it is true, certain base emotions that appear cross-culturally, and which seem to be instinctual: joy, fear, anger, grief. But to classify our entire emotional lives in that way just seems like an excuse to avoid reflection: ‘Oh it’s just how I feel’ may sound like an assertion of freedom, but it is in some ways as closed-minded as insisting on a stiff-upper lip.

It is in this context that I have been mulling over the counterfactual emotion: an emotional state that is predicated on something not being the case. These are clearly felt experiences (when I start naming them, you will feel empathy for them), but they rely on declarative knowledge to be generated. They cut right across the distinction between emotion and reason: they are emotions that arise from reason.

There are more of these that you’d think when you start listing them. Here’s a starter pack:

  • Regret: punishing oneself in hindsight, felt in proportion to the rareness of the wrong decision (common mistakes invoke less regret)
  • Poignancy: ‘What if?’ ‘If only...’ (‘Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?’); again, strength of the emotion involves an intuitive calculation of probability
  • Relief: an anticipated bad thing didn’t happen
  • Triumph: felt in inverse proportion to the probability of winning - easy victories are celebrated much less than winning against the odds
  • Nostalgia: a remembered (or imagined) past is idealised in contradistinction to the present
  • Ambition: an triumphant future state imagined contra to the present

Do you see what I mean? They conform to the generalisation that emotions are experienced quite clearly as either positive or negative, but they are nonetheless complex both in circumstances that give rise to them and the felt states they produce. They rely on our imaginations and memories, shifting back and forward in time, and they rely on our understandings of the likelihood of the events to which they respond. They can only exist within the matrix of enculturated experience.

Which is of course why stories are so evocative. Narrative is all about crafting an imagined passage of time over which events happen that allow us to respond with these intuitive judgements. Story-tellers carefully structure their accounts to control the strength and flavour of emotional response on the way through, and the counter-factual responses are the ones that bind the story together. They make us compare back and imagine forward, turning a sequence of moments into a meaningful shape.

So, of course, we’re all now thinking about how this works in music. All that stuff about structure and narrative, yes we do that. And song lyrics can tell us about the past and the future. But, notes and rhythms - music without words - they tend not to be factual, so can they actually be counter-factual?

Expectation-realisation models of musical meaning help us here to an extent. There is a strong resonance between L.B. Meyer’s contention that the strength of a musical emotion is proportional to the surprisingness of the musical gesture and the Daniel Kahneman notion of System 1 intensity-matching that got me into thinking about these things. Likewise, the sense that you only get the impact of the musical meaning if you are familiar enough with the genre you are listening to that you can pick up how it conforms to, deviates from - plays with - its norms echoes the way that the counter-factual emotion relies on your understanding of the situation in which it rose.

The question here is really only how does music do this, not whether it does. I say this with confidence because I have listened to the symphonies of Sibelius. I am not sure that I have felt ambition whilst listening to them, but I have certainly felt all the others on my list.

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