The Concept Of "Musical Emotion"

8 April, 2024
Music is an example of the perception of one thing X giving rise to the perception of another thing Y, where X is the sound of the music, and Y is "musical emotion".

"Musical Emotion"

After writing a LinkedIn post Is Music an Illusion?, I decided to google for that exact question. I wanted to find out who else had already asked it, and what ideas they had about possible answers.

One thing that turned up was the paper Is Musical Emotion an Illusion? by Muk-Yan Wong.

Seeing the title, with its use of the term "Musical Emotion", and reading the paper, I realised that this was a better way to state the question that I was trying to ask.

In other words, it's not really the music itself that is the illusion, because there is nothing false about our perception of the sounds of the music, rather it is the consequent musical emotion which is the illusion.

Perceiving X as Y

In considering the possibility that music might be an illusion, I had come up with the basic idea that music is a specific example of a more general concept of the perception of X giving rise to the perception of Y, where Y is something different from and not obviously related to X.

In the case of music, X is the sounds of the music, and Y is the emotional quality that one perceives and feels when listening to the music.

But what is the precise perceptual relationship between music and emotion?

We can say simple things like:

Music expresses emotion.

Such a statement implies that the "emotion" expressed by music is just the same as the kind of emotion that we feel when we are actually emotional.

However, subjectively we are aware that musical "emotion" is not quite the same thing as "real" emotion, even though we still have a strong feeling that there is definitely something emotional about the feelings that music generates.

Philosophers have attempted to nail down exactly what the difference is (between "musical" emotion and "real" emotion), and they argue about whether it is even legitimate to use the word "emotion" when talking about the effects that music causes.

My own view on this question is that we should not require that this problem be completely solved before attempting further analysis and research into the relationship between music and emotion.

Instead, I would prefer just to use the term "musical emotion" to refer to whatever it is that music causes us to feel or perceive when we listen to music.

The use of the word "emotion" highlights the fact that there is definitely something emotional about this effect, to the extent that it is not at all obvious why the sounds of music should cause such an effect.

And the use of the word "musical" implies an important caveat, an acknowledgement that we realise that the emotional effect generated by music is not quite the same thing as actual emotion.

Having determined what the term "musical emotion" does and doesn't imply, it is now straightforward to describe the perception of music in terms of abstract X and Y:

Music is an example of the perception of X giving rise to the perception of another thing Y, where X is the actual sounds of the music, and Y is musical emotion evoked by the music.

Illusion versus Communicative Meaning

Describing music in terms of this more abstract X/Y concept gives us something to compare music to.

That is, we can consider the set of all such X/Y pairs that we know about, and we can look at various aspects of those X/Y pairs, and we can perhaps classify them into different groups according to various criteria, and we might then be able to determine which of those groups music belongs to.

As it happens, there is one particular aspect that divides all such X/Y pairs into two major groups, which is that, for each X/Y pair, one or the other of the following two assertions holds:

Meanings have exactly one function, which is to support communication.

If we assume that this classification should also include music, then we must conclude that either:

If the second option is the correct one, then all those people who said things like "Music is a language" or "Music is the universal language" are not actually wrong.

However, in practice, the evidence for music being a form of communication is rather weak.

It is true that when music is performed to an appreciative audience, it feels like some kind of powerful emotional communication is happening.

But, music is not used as a practical form of communication. Music is never used in normal conversation as a means of communicating anything.

The implication is that although music can feel like it's a kind of communication, this feeling is itself just part of the illusion.

I give other reasons to favour illusion over communicative meaning in my article Illusion versus Meaning, including:

Replacement vs Addition

There is a second classification which can be applied to X/Y pairs, which is whether the perception of Y replaces the perception of X, or whether the perception of Y is additional to the perception of X.

To put it another way, is X perceived as Y, or is X perceived as X + Y?

In the case of music, the perception of musical emotion (Y) is additional, because we still perceive the sounds of the music (ie X).

In principle, combining this classification and the illusion/meaning dichotomy would result in 2 × 2 = 4 possible groups altogether.

However we can also observe that for X/Y pairs where Y is the meaning of X, the perception is almost always additional.

For example, a piece of paper with some pencil marks on it (X) can be "seen" as a dog (Y), because it's a picture of a dog. A picture counts as meaningful communication because both the illustrator and the viewer have a shared understanding that the picture represents the thing that it is a picture of, ie that the meaning of a picture of a dog is "a dog".

But, our perception of the dog does not prevent us from perceiving the presence of a piece of paper with pencil marks on it.

Whereas with illusions it can go either way – in some cases X is not perceived at all, and the person experiencing the illusion only perceives Y, in other cases the person perceives both X and Y.

So in the case of music, identifying it as being in the "additional" group does not by itself resolve the question of whether music is meaningful or illusory.

However it could be instructive to compare illusions where there is replacement and those where there isn't replacement, and this may shed some additional light on the nature of music as an illusion, if indeed music is an illusion.