Hypothesis: Music Motivates Constancy Of Emotional State

19 February, 2020
I propose that the primary effect of music on emotion is to motivate the listener to maintain a fixed unchanging emotional state, for the duration of the tune (or at least for a substantial portion of that duration).

The Hypothesis

Music motivates the music listener to maintain a constant emotional state.

How long does the emotional state remain constant for?

  1. For longer than it would remain constant if the music wasn't playing.
  2. For a length of time of the order of magnitude of the length of a musical item or some major part thereof.
  3. Perhaps anywhere from 5 to 10 seconds to a minute or so.

Music motivates, but does not compel

Music is an emotional manipulation, but the effectiveness of the manipulation depends on the willingness of the music listener to accept that manipulation.

Fiction vs Non-Fiction

Music is very commonly used in films and television for content which is presented as fictional.

It can be used non-fictional content, ie documentaries, or even news reporting.

However, it is less effective in these situations.

When we watch fiction, we have already decided to accept the fictional reality being presented to us, so that we can experience it as much as possible as if it was real, even though we know it isn't real at all. As a result we are generally happy to accept the emotional manipulation that music provides when it accompanies film or television scenes.

Whereas, when watching documentary content, purporting to tell us some truth about the world, we will be less willing to go along with any form of deliberate emotional manipulation. (Actually that is my personal observation, so your mileage may vary – the reason why some documentary makers make heavy use of music may be because some viewers are willing to accept that degree of emotional manipulation, even when watching a documentary.)

Also, in a fictional film or television program, the content can be contrived so that it is appropriate for the viewers to maintain a particular emotional state over a prolonged period of time. Whereas in real life, or when considering non-fictional content, such contrivance is not possible, or if attempted, it feels too contrived.

Constancy of emotional state => suppression of alternative emotions

In order to maintain a constant emotional state, any thought or feeling that might result in a change to that state must be suppressed or ignored.

For example, a musical item might be a song with lyrics and perhaps a music video, such that it is all about being at a party and dancing and everyone having a good time together.

In real life, one might go to a party, and not fully enjoy it, because life's worries still exist, and they don't go away just because you're at a party.

But in the altered mental state created by a musical item in the context of such a party, one can imagine that all of life's other worries can be ignored, because music provides a strong motivation to maintain that constant emotional state of being happy with the enjoyment of the party. Allowing other worries and concerns to intrude would necessarily spoil the desired emotional constancy.

(I have previously identified this suppressive effect of music in Focus, Opposition And Deletion.)

Constancy is a basic feature of music

We might wonder how it is that music motivates constancy of emotional state.

However, constancy is a very basic property of music.

In particular, music is dynamic, but certain perceived aspects of music remain very constant, usually over a period of time corresponding to the length of the musical item.

Scales, and Regular Beat

Two significant constant aspects of music are:

A scale represents a set of pitch values which exist in the music, such that other pitch values in between those pitch values do not exist in the music. This amounts to a property of any musical item which typically holds true for the duration of the item. (There is more to scales that just a set of permitted pitch values, however the point here is to identify one example of a specific property of musical items which is almost always constant for the duration of any musical item.)

Musical items also have regular beat. Musical items almost always have beats, as defined by notes in the melody and any additional accompaniment. Particular beat frequencies are strongly identified as occurring within the musical item, and other possible beat frequencies do not occur. The strongly identified beat frequencies correspond to the bar length, and the major note length, and usually a few other simple multiples or fractions of those two frequencies (at least this is the case in modern Western popular music, although other forms of music may have variations on this pattern).

Music vs Speech

For both of these properties of music, we can compare music to speech, because speech has melody, and speech has rhythm. But, there are no scales in speech, and speech rhythm does not have the regularity of musical rhythm.

Where the music is constant, speech is not constant.

It is almost as if music is a form of speech, but with an extreme level of constancy.

Other Constancy-Related Aspects of Music

I have identified two properties of music in terms of constancy. It is possible that other properties of music can also be described in terms of constancy, but in ways which are perhaps not as obvious and simple as these two properties. It is perhaps possible that all the features of music that make music musical are actually forms of constancy.

For example, we can consider the phenomenon of the steady crescendo or diminuendo. Also, in modern popular music, various technologies can be used to generate other slowly evolving transformations that have a similar effect. In all these cases, the thing that is constant is the rate of change.

Possibly, music has the effect that it has because perception of the music forces the listener's brain into a state where the brain is more inclined to perceive constant aspects of perceived dynamic phenomena, and this same altered state applies to the listener's perception of their own emotional state.

The Quality of Music, the Quality of Emotion, and the Completeness of this Theory

If you have got this far reading this article, you may be wondering what I have to say here about the quality of emotion as invoked or intensified by different musical items.

For example, considering my example above, only some songs are consistent with the emotional state that arises from being at a party and having a good time and not worrying about anything else.

The hypothesis of constancy does not say anything at all about which musical items are consistent with which types of emotional state.

It follows that simply accounting for constancy does not fully explain all the functions and features of music, and a full theory of music will have to explain why certain types of music are associated with certain types of emotion.

So I do not claim that the hypothesis of constancy constitutes a complete theory of music.

However, I do claim that constancy may be the basic factor underlying the intensity of emotion that music invokes, and also it explains the tendency of music to invoke a particular sustained emotional quality in a manner that temporarily excludes any competing emotional qualities that would apply in any real life situation where such an emotion was being felt.

In other words, music makes it easy to feel that a particular emotion applies, and it allows us to feel that emotion for a sustained period of time, and over that period of time it allows us to feel that only that emotion applies.