Music, Emotion and Language: Using Music to Communicate

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There has yet to be a culture discovered which lacks music. Making music is seen historically to be as fundamental as the characteristically human activities as drawing and painting. Many even go so far as to compare music to language and claim that music functions as a "universal language." But it is rarely the same music, however, that all peoples respond to. What is it that we are responding to when we listen to music? Strictly speaking, music is not a language, (1) because it has neither outside referents nor easily detectable meaning. Ludwig Wittgenstein explains that although we understand music in a similar way as we understand language, music is not a language because we still cannot communicate through music as we can through language. (2) More recently, Susanne Langer argues that although we understand music as symbol, because we are so caught up in seeing symbolic form function like language we tend to want to make music into a language. But, Langer argues, music is not a kind of language (3) because the significance of music lies not in what we traditionally call meaning but rather with the articulation of sound. Langer explains that music, like language, is an articulate form. "Its parts not only fuse together to yield a greater entity, but in so doing they maintain some degree of separate existence, and the sensuous character of each element is affected by its function in the complex whole. This means that the greater entity we call a composition is not merely produced by mixture, like a new color made by mixing paints, but is articulated, i.e., its internal structure is given to our perception. . . .Only as an articulate form is it found to fit anything; and since it lacks one of the basic characteristics of language-fixed association, and therewith a single, unequivocal reference." (4) Thus, although there are similarities in the structuring of both music and language, music does not qualify as a language, and thus could not be considered a universal language.

Aristotle explained 2500 years ago that music is mimetic or imitative. (5) Imitative of what? the harmony of the spheres? the sounds in the world around us? human emotion? To a certain extent all of these are right. What remains the same, however, is the role that emotion plays in the significance of our responses to music. In what follows I will give a brief account of how current philosophies of mind explain that emotion works, how aesthetic responses are said to work in terms of emotion, and finally how music fits into these structures.

In order to understand what the basis is of our emotive responses to music, we must begin with an account of how the emotions work. Aristotle claims in the Rhetoric that each emotion (in order for it to qualify as an emotion) must be attended by a certain pleasure or pain. That is not to say that every person will feel the same pleasure or the same pain with any particular emotion, but if a feeling is to qualify as an emotion it must be attended by some physiological sensation of pleasure or pain. (6) This merely differentiates emotions from feelings or affective responses. It is curious that Aristotle would link a physiological response to emotion, since we tend to think that emotions are fundamentally based in cognition and have no necessary link to physiology, except as a consequence; for example, sadness causes crying. Then again, emotions are very often accompanied by physiological responses. We tend not to think, however, that the physiological responses are required of emotions, or that the physiological responses can in some way determine the emotion. Yet, this is exactly what the James-Lange theory of emotions contends. We do not cry because we are sad, but we are sad because we cry. But we can claim an emotion of sadness, without tears. We can very easily be sad without ever crying. Can I feel sadness without an attendant feeling of pain? At this point, this is likely to depend on one's definition of...
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