Notes on sounds and tones

Is music expressing or evoking emotion?

Igor Stravinsky: “Expression has never been an inherent property of music” (© Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)

To say that classical music is capable of expressing powerful emotions sounds like a statement of the obvious. Music-lovers, including the writer of this column, talk about their favourite pieces in terms which presuppose this to be so. What could be clearer than that the stately progressions and eloquent falling sevenths in Elgar’s Nimrod, say, denote nobility and sacrifice, which make the piece ideal for the restrained sentiment of Remembrance Sunday? For many watching the annual Cenotaph ritual, the rendering of this composition by a military band represents the patriotic apogee of the occasion.

The fact that Nimrod encapsulates the mood of those who mourn and remember implies that there is something inherent in it which expresses that ambience, and that we who listen are responding to its especial character. Indeed one could go further and, like musicologist Deryck Cooke in The Language of Music, say that certain melodic shapes, intervals or harmonies so closely and invariably express a corresponding mood as to justify the conclusion that a given musical element contains a specific emotional charge. It follows that whenever we hear that element, we respond predictably. For example, Cooke argues that a two-note falling semitone phrase “gives the effect of a burst of anguish”, and that “this is the most widely used of all terms of musical language; one can hardly find a page of ‘grief’ music by any composer of any period without encountering it several times”. Among the instances he cites are the opening of Mozart’s 40th symphony, and the group of suffering or hate motifs associated with the Nibelungs in Wagner’s Ring cycle.

As those familiar with the Enigma variations will know, the reference to Nimrod above is a trick. We have the composer’s own account of what he was trying to convey in this piece: it has nothing to do with valiant hearts and Flanders fields, but rather “the record of a long summer evening talk, when my friend [August Jaeger] discoursed eloquently on the slow movements of Beethoven”.

We may have collectively induced ourselves to associate the piece with a certain type of occasion and hence become persuaded that it expresses congruent emotions, but in this instance we are demonstrably adrift of what Elgar himself imagined. Perhaps we should therefore hesitate before assenting to the statement that music expresses precise or identifiable emotions. Perhaps we are using a form of shorthand which begs a whole series of questions.

Representing the contrary view, here is Stravinsky in his autobiography:

Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality.

The illusion is indeed a prevalent one, if that is what it is.

In order to work out whether Cooke or Stravinsky is correct, or whether the truth lies elsewhere, we need to take a step back. According to many philosophers, physical objects possess primary and secondary qualities. The primary qualities refer to properties which exist independently of anyone’s perception of them, so that this Greek temple (say) is rectangular, whether anyone sees it or not; no one can plausibly argue otherwise. An example of a secondary quality is colour: the fact that the temple is grey is a property of the temple, but it is secondary because greyness is something that is produced only when its primary qualities interact with the senses of an observer. This much is reasonably straightforward. But what sort of property does the observer ascribe to a temple when he says that it is beautiful? The answer identified by Hume is that beauty belongs to the sentiment of the spectator and (unlike colour, let alone shape) is not a property of the temple at all; it may be provoked by the temple, but it exists purely in our minds.

If this is true about the Parthenon, it would seem to follow that were we to describe certain music as beautiful, this would not refer to anything actually in the music, but only to our reaction to it. (We are also more likely to argue about which pieces of music are beautiful than which temples are grey.) Can music nonetheless express emotions, which are par excellence mental states which exist only within human beings and which are not properties of notes, staves or scores? No one would dispute that music can evoke emotion, but that is not the same as expressing it. In the former case the emotion is in us, not in the music.

In an attempt to sort this out, one must turn to the wisdom of Sir Roger Scruton (whose recent death has caused such widespread sadness), in particular the longest and most important (if also the least read)  of his books, The Aesthetics of Music (1997). This huge treatment attempts nothing less than a complete philosophy of music, a subject which the author (who was also a composer and pianist) knew from within. It poses intriguing questions which the ordinary music lover may pass over: what are we doing when we listen to music; why do we listen; what are we getting out of it? 

In a markedly original piece of philosophical analysis, Scruton goes back to the beginning, and examines what sound is, and what distinguishes sound from tone, the latter term being used to describe the sound of music. (In German, the word Ton means both tone and note, and Tonkunst—literally  the art of tones—is an archaic word meaning music.) He takes the distinction between primary and secondary qualities and applies it to events. Primary events in the physical world (a glass breaking or a triangle struck, each producing vibrations in the air) produce sounds audible to the human ear. These sounds, like the greyness of the temple, are secondary events; but they do not constitute music. It is only when sounds become tones that music emerges:

A tone is a sound which exists in a musical “field of force”; this field of force is something that we hear when hearing tones. When we hear music, we do not hear sound only; we hear something in the sound, something which moves with a force of its own.

The transformation from sound to tone is accomplished within the act of hearing and may have no independent reality. It points to the fact that music exists in the realm of intentionality and purpose.

Music is therefore made by humans alone. As Professor Robert Grant has pointed out in his essay on Scruton’s The Aesthetics of Music, birds do not make music when they sing any more than hyenas laugh because they have a sense of humour. To talk of the music of birdsong is to employ a metaphor, namely (in Aristotle’s definition) to apply a term or phrase to something which is known not to exemplify it. Metaphor is fundamental to music.

A set design for the “Queen of the Night” scene in “Die Zauberflöte”, by Giuseppe Quaglio, c.1795 (©INTERFOTO/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

One of the strangest yet most irreducible aspects of our listening to music is the fact that we create a virtual sound space in which the notes are heard. Take, for example, our sense of up and down, of higher and lower notes—as illustrated by the Queen of the Night’s arias in Die Zauberflöte. Nothing is more basic than our sense of music rising and falling, of its moving from one level to another. In fact, there is nothing in the music which requires us to describe high notes as high and low notes as low. We could equally well call high notes low­—and the ancient Greeks did. The idea that we have of the movement within music is itself a construct. In each case, we are using a metaphor to describe a physical event which consists simply in the vibration of sound waves. Although less easy to verbalise, the same is true of the ways in which we characterise or respond to a particular pattern of notes, whether successively (a melody) or simultaneously (harmony); likewise the times at which these notes are uttered (rhythm). Onto the prosaic fact of the nature and frequency of sounds’ physical pitch and the silences between them we heap all sorts of other metaphors: we talk of music soaring or plunging, a striving melody, a piercing harmony or a syncopated rhythm. In doing so we create a space in which the notes belong, and in which they have relationships with each other. These connections are not in the notes; they are perceived by us. To return to Nimrod, you will not find a falling seventh anywhere in the score: you will just see a succession of crotchets: E flat, F, D, E flat etc. The rest is happening inside your head.

Just as Kant said that we cannot conceive of objects without situating them in a spatial frame, and psychologist Julian Jaynes pointed out that we cannot think of time other than spatially (so that 1066 in our mind’s eye is either to the left of or above 1914), so too we situate what we hear as music in the dimensions of virtual space. In a literal sense, sounds do not occupy space; we create that space. Scruton argues that metaphor is an indispensable explanation of the way in which we hear music:

One and the same experience takes sound as its object, and also something that is not and cannot be sound—the life and movement that is music . . . The metaphor cannot be eliminated from the description of music, because it defines the intentional object of the musical experience. Take away the metaphor, and you take away the experience of music.

The experience of music is therefore somewhat like the experience of beauty: an animal can see the properties of a Greek temple and hear the sounds that constitute music. Only human beings can see the temple as beautiful, and hear the sounds as music.

The problem of locating emotion within music is compounded by the fact that pure music is abstract: it does not refer to or describe anything. As Oliver Sacks wrote in Musicophilia, music “has no concepts, makes no propositions; it lacks images, symbols, the stuff of language. It has no power of representation. It has no necessary relation to the world.” We have no difficulty in locating the emotion within a van der Weyden Deposition, because the painting is representational; we find sadness in facial expressions or gestures of hand. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of drama and fiction. Nonetheless, and despite the difficulty of identifying how it could be that music actually expresses emotion, there is a wide consensus not only that it does, but also that certain music has a specific emotional content. The finale of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony may not make us experience joy if we ourselves are feeling gloomy, but in our less analytical moments we persist in feeling that the piece itself expresses joy. This is an illusion, but the question remains why it is such a powerful one. Two answers suggest themselves.

The first is that, as already implied, we tend to confuse music’s power to express emotion with its power to evoke emotion. The almost boundless human capacity to establish associations, typically of a non-verbal nature, between unrelated objects operates powerfully in the musical field. The associations are strengthened by inherited cultural conventions which we may imbibe subconsciously. We are used to the fact that drooping figures in the minor mode have for centuries been deployed in order to convey grief, and so when for the first time we hear a piece with these musical characteristics, we make the conventional association. (This is incidentally one answer to Cooke’s doubtful claim that the music is itself expressing grief.)

‘Music is obviously expressive, and the expressive qualities of a work of music form the most important part of its content; but it expresses nothing except itself’

If we ask what exactly is funny in a humorous piece by Haydn, we may find that it is the confounding of expectations, or a self-mocking absurdity in the music, both of which remind us of the techniques of good joke-telling. Schubert’s song Der Neugierige concerns the young lover in Die schöne Müllerin asking a question to which he longs to know the answer: does she love him? The song’s introduction imitates the inflections in human speech of question and answer. A more complex example is provided by Schopenhauer’s uncheerful view that “the essence of a human being consists in the fact that his will strives, is satisfied and strives anew, [that] the absence of satisfaction is suffering and the absence of a new desire is empty longing.” The philosopher himself drew the analogy between this state of affairs and music’s tendency to depart from the tonic (home) key, to visit different keys and dissonances and then to wind back to the tonic. Wagner was inspired by Schopenhauer’s philosophy to write an opera which depicted a longing so extended and unrequited that it could only be conveyed in music by an almost infinitely-delayed resolution to the tonic. The result was Tristan und Isolde. These and countless other cases exemplify the role of association and therefore metaphor in music. Music’s expressive power is revealed in its ability to summon these metaphors from us, and to persuade us that they fit exactly. It is a mystery that they fit. But the mystery is immovable.

The second explanation for the illusion that music expresses specific moods is to recognise a distinction between transitive and intransitive uses of the word “express”. Music is obviously expressive, and the expressive qualities of a work of music form the most important part of its content; but it expresses nothing except itself. A sensible teacher may urge a pupil to play a passage more expressively, but does not go on to indicate what is to be expressed, any more than a composer needs to write more than “espressivo” in the score. The question what is expressed by the music is in the end answered by pointing to the particular work in all its complexity, and saying “this”. The description of the expressive content in a piece of music is simply a description of the music. It is an attempt through metaphor, to identify what we hear when we hear with understanding.

In the case of classical music, the informed and attentive listener will derive more pleasure from what he hears than the beginner. A grasp of the structure of the piece, for example, conveys more information and therefore enables him to hear more of what the music expresses. It is unthinkable that one could have a complete experience of the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica or Brahms’s fourth symphony without understanding the astonishing architecture of these pieces. Of the latter, Scruton writes:

The effect is one of the most powerful in all romantic music, of tragic feeling that is nevertheless utterly controlled, and utterly in control. And that is the meaning of the music: the aural presentation of a sincere and solemn gesture—the gesture which never betrays itself as a pretence, which never stumbles, as it unfolds with unanswerable authority the complete motive to action, and the justifying narrative which brought it into being. The listener is presented with an instance of human integrity, in which a life is concentrated in a timeless instant.

The great triumphs of music involve a synthesis whereby a musical structure, moving according to its own logic, compels our feelings to move along with it, and so leads us to rehearse a feeling at which we would not otherwise arrive. Thus we reach the ideal state envisaged by Eliot, in which “You are the music while the music lasts.”

If all art constantly aspires to the condition of music (as Walter Pater argued), it is because music achieves the greatest possible distance from the explicit statement, while still inviting us to enter into its expressive content. If this is so, the formalist Stravinsky may have over-reached himself in claiming that “Expression has never been an inherent property of music”. On the contrary, the expressive power of music is one of the main reasons why we listen to it.

The other reason is that music, much more than any other art form, is bound in time, yet makes us forget any sense of time other than that which it creates in the trans-ient moment of its own existence. This too is a mystery, and one which corresponds to the ephemerality of the human condition itself. The final words of Scruton’s very last article (in the Christmas Spectator) were these: “Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.” It is moving to discover that this was no recent thought. Over 20 years earlier, in his great exploration of why it is that music matters, he wrote this about the second subject in the first movement of Schubert’s string quartet in G, D887:

You are being led by the most natural means to enact the lightness and wonder of life just at the point where you should recall it—the point at which fear and foreboding threaten to become morbid. This sympathetic response to the music is also an emotional education: you are rehearsing something that it is very hard to feel—the impulse to selfless gratitude for the gift of life, in full awareness that the gift will soon have vanished.

We must be grateful for the continued existence of Roger Scruton’s writings at least, and console ourselves with the thought that, as with Proust’s Bergotte:

all through that night of mourning, in the lighted shop-windows, his books, arranged three by three, kept vigil like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.