Musical Emotion and Musical Culture

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Further to my post last month exploring the way musical genres carry with them characteristic patterns of feeling, I came across a rather wonderful project to chart emotions that have words in other languages but not in English (hat tip to Sarah Foster for the link).

A century ago, Saussure gave us the idea that it's not just the signifier (the perceptible signal) that is generated within the system of a particular language, but also the signified (the mental image the signal evokes). There are things that you can say in one language that you can't say in another. As the Italians put it: traduttore, traditore.

But this chart reminds us that this is not just a cognitive matter - there are experiences and internal responses that are distinctive to the world created and maintained by a language. So this is why any particular type of music feels increasingly expressive the more you spend time with it.

Now, when I was a student learning about the baroque 'doctrine of affections', the idea that particular emotions were codified with particular musical gestures was portrayed as a somewhat mechanistic and artificial approach to musical emotion. But this of course is to look back at that earlier era through the lens of an essentially Romantic aesthetic that sees emotion as spontaneous and individual, subjective and authentic.

But just because Romantic musical gestures are wilder and more colourful doesn't mean that they're not a shared cultural product. If they didn't draw on a common currency of meaning, they would make no sense.

(Indeed, one of the difficulties art music of the 20th century ran into was that the progressive shedding of conventionalised patterns in the compositional process led to a progressive loss of widely-shared patterns of response from audiences. This resulted in some mind-bendingly exquisite music, but also a layer of esotericism* that kept casual listeners at bay.)

The Romantics mistrusted the idea of conventionalised codes of musical meaning because they were worried that these would betray the individuality of emotional response. And indeed there are pieces of music that fail to move because they are too obvious in their gestures, too blatant - their musical cliffs are too close together.

But it seems to me that when musical emotion works well, it's when the shared patterns of feeling within the style are deployed so as to deliver both that sense of recognition that arises from common experience, and that sense of surprise or revelation that comes from individuality of expression. Musical delight is a response that says, 'Well I wouldn't have thought of that, but I know exactly what you mean'.

* Is esotericism a word? I don't believe I have used it before, but it says exactly what I mean here.

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