Music and the History of Emotion

By Michael Spitzer, University of Liverpool

They say you should write the book you want to read. I wanted to read a book which recounted the musical history of love; of nostalgia, joy, wonder, jealousy, boredom, hope, rage, disgust, melancholy, depression, panic. It’s such an alluring proposition, why had nobody ever done it? About ten years ago, when I began sketching the book which has just been published (A History of Emotion in Western Music: A Thousand Years from Chant to Pop, Oxford University Press, 2020), I never imagined that such a project was feasible. The showstopper seemed to be an objection eloquently raised by another recent book, Patrik Juslin’s excellent Musical Emotions Explained (Oxford University Press, 2019). Juslin contended that ‘historical changes in expression are mostly beyond the scope of a psychological analysis because we cannot collect empirical data from events that occurred in the distant past’ (p. 138). To write a history of emotion, you would surely need to interview listeners who are no longer alive. Or would you?


My hunch was that you could do this from the perspective of the musical language itself, what musicology calls ‘style’. The glory of music studies – compared even with literary studies – is music’s spectacularly technical, systematic, and precise language, notated in scores which have survived many hundreds of years. Musical language has an emotional character by analogy to, say, the expressions in the faces of Giotto’s angels or Michelangelo’s sculptures. The best-known examples of such emotional icons in music are Adele’s much noted appoggiaturas (what Renaissance music called ‘pianti’ [= plaints, or tears]); the shark theme in Jaws, a figure of fear which also crops up in Schubert and Bruckner; or the joyful trumpet fanfares in much Baroque music, such as the opening of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Similarly, the funk groove in Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy in Love’ enacts what music theorists call a ‘participatory’ rhythm, which turns out to be typical of a lot of love music (it’s even found, once you translate between styles, in the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations). As with the representation of human faces, the emotional character of musical material evolves, reflecting the mindsets, emotional communities and emotives of different historical periods. So my book does what it says on the tin. It presents a history of basic and complex emotions in music from Gregorian chant circa 1000 through the great Western composers (Hildegard of Bingen, Machaut, Josquin, Monteverdi, Bach to Boulez), including contemporary popular music and jazz (Radiohead, Muddy Waters, video-game music), in dialogue with the great philosophers of emotion (Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza), and framed by an original theory of how musical emotion works.

Superficially, my book might remind you of Deryck Cooke’s 1959 effort, The Language of Music, the first extended essay at a cross-historical typology of musical emotions. Whilst the book never found acceptance in mainstream musicology, it still enjoys a ghostly after-life in philosophical aesthetics as a convenient punching-bag, full of easily knocked-down straw-man arguments about musical emotion. The tragedy was that the baby was thrown out with the bathwater: there had always been a grain of truth in Cooke’s insights. The chief problem was that he identified emotional categories solely with melodic profile, whereas psychologists like Juslin have shown how they emerge from the interaction of many parameters (dynamics, tempo, texture, timbre, etc.). Another limitation was an almost total lack of analytical methodology or intellectual framework, epitomising English ‘gentlemanly amateurism’ at its worst.  All that notwithstanding, Cooke’s ideas were sound that (pace Hanslick and Leonard Meyer) music could express different emotional categories; and that they do apply across history. But how do we show that?

Collage of photos from Adele concert
“Memories of last night’s @adele concert at @rogersarena. Unforgettable. #adele #25 #19 #bucketlist” by Cathy Browne. Licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

To renovate Cooke’s insight for a modern age I accessed the wealth of psychological, philosophical, and indeed music-theoretical research that has been conducted since his time. I also proposed an original theory of how musical emotion works, to pull all the strands together, based on an idea so simple it can be expressed in a couple of sentences. Musical character is its fate and listening for the emotion involves two bites of the cherry. Our first bite tastes the emotion encapsulated in the musical material (its ‘character’); our second bite chews over the emotion unfolded by the musical process (its ‘fate’). This principle was first discovered by the Stoics more than two thousand years ago. It is the origin of the modern appraisal theory of emotion in the work of Richard Lazarus, Phoebe Ellsworth, and Keith Oatley, among others. In the first half of my book, the theoretical scene-setting, I construct an appraisal theory for music by synthesizing a number of elements which haven’t been put together before. ‘Persona theory’ – which views the musical work as the actions, gestures, and motions of an imaginary human person within a virtual environment – is the dominant theory in music aesthetics. Its most sophisticated version, in my view, is Charles Nussbaum’s The Musical Representation. Nussbaum helped me to see musical forms as symbolic emotional behaviours. I fleshed out this theory with the psychologist Nico Frijda’s notion of ‘action tendency’. Thus one’s immediate perception of a musical work expresses its action tendency, subsequently unfolded by the music’s emotional behaviour. My last major borrowing is psychologist Galen Bodenhausen’s theory of ‘processing styles’. I propose that one can hear sadly, happily, and fearfully, indeed in many emotional styles. Much of Part I of my book is devoted to showing how emotional categories are not static, fixed labels, but rich and complex worlds. Part II of the book then charts the historical evolution of these worlds, including many emotions which are historically highly specific: medieval humility, and amour courtois; Beethovenian glory; Berlioz’s ennui; Boulez’s schizophrenia; the American ‘cool’ instantiated in different flavours by Aaron Copland, John Cage, and Miles Davis.

My history of emotion is ‘a’ history, not ‘the’ history. There is enough emotion going on in the first thousand years of Western music to fill many libraries, hence a single volume is hopelessly inadequate. It’s a start, and indeed, to voice a question I pose in my Introduction, ‘why not?’

Michael Spitzer is Professor of Music at the University of Liverpool. He leads the Department’s work on Classical music. A music theorist and musicologist, he is an authority on Beethoven, with interests in aesthetics and critical theory, cognitive metaphor, and music and affect. Professor Spitzer was President of the Society for Music Analysis for many years, and also chairs the Editorial Board of Music Analysis journal. He founded the series of International Conferences on Music and Emotion, and organised the International Conference on Analyzing Popular Music (Liverpool, 2013).

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