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Emotion and Meaning in Music

Emotion and Meaning in Music

by Leonard B. Meyer

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"Altogether it is a book that should be required reading for any student of music, be he composer, performer, or theorist. It clears the air of many confused notions . . . and lays the groundwork for exhaustive study of the basic problem of music theory and aesthetics, the relationship between pattern and meaning."—David Kraehenbuehl, Journal of Music


"Altogether it is a book that should be required reading for any student of music, be he composer, performer, or theorist. It clears the air of many confused notions . . . and lays the groundwork for exhaustive study of the basic problem of music theory and aesthetics, the relationship between pattern and meaning."—David Kraehenbuehl, Journal of Music Theory
"This is the best study of its kind to have come to the attention of this reviewer."—Jules Wolffers, The Christian Science Monitor

"It is not too much to say that his approach provides a basis for the meaningful discussion of emotion and meaning in all art."—David P. McAllester, American Anthropologist

"A book which should be read by all who want deeper insights into music listening, performing, and composing."—Marcus G. Raskin, Chicago Review

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University of Chicago Press
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Phoenix Bks.
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New Edition
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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Emotion and Meaning in Music

By Leonard B. Meyer

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1956 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-52139-8



Past Positions as to the Nature of Musical Experience

Composers and performers of all cultures, theorists of diverse schools and styles, aestheticians and critics of many different persuasions are all agreed that music has meaning and that this meaning is somehow communicated to both participants and listeners. This much, at least, we may take for granted. But what constitutes musical meaning and by what processes it is communicated has been the subject of numerous and often heated debates.

The first main difference of opinion exists between those who insist that musical meaning lies exclusively within the context of the work itself, in the perception of the relationships set forth within the musical work of art, and those who contend that, in addition to these abstract, intellectual meanings, music also communicates meanings which in some way refer to the extramusical world of concepts, actions, emotional states, and character. Let us call the former group the "absolutists" and the latter group the "referentialists."

In spite of the persistent wrangling of these two groups, it seems obvious that absolute meanings and referential meanings are not mutually exclusive: that they can and do coexist in one and the same piece of music, just as they do in a poem or a painting. In short, the arguments are the result of a tendency toward philosophical monism rather than a product of any logical opposition between types of meaning.

Because this study deals primarily with those meanings which lie within the closed context of the musical work itself, it is necessary to emphasize that the prominence given to this aspect of musical meaning does not imply that other kinds of meaning do not exist or are not important.

On the contrary, the musical theory and practice of many different cultures in many different epochs indicates that music can and does convey referential meaning. The musical cosmologies of the Orient in which tempi, pitches, rhythms, and modes are linked to and express concepts, emotions, and moral qualities; the musical symbolisms depicting actions, character and emotion, utilized by many Western composers since the Middle Ages; and evidence furnished by testing listeners who have learned to understand Western music—all these indicate that music can communicate referential meanings.

Some of those who have doubted that referential meanings are "real" have based their skepticism upon the fact that such meanings are not "natural" and universal. Of course, such meanings depend upon learning. But so, too, do purely musical meanings—a fact that will become very clear in the course of this study.

Others have found the fact that referential meanings are not specific in their denotation a great difficulty in granting status to such meanings. Yet such precision is not a characteristic of the non-musical arts either. The many levels of connotation play a vital role in our understanding of the meanings communicated by the literary and plastic arts.

Both the importance of such referential musical meanings and the difficulties encountered in attempting to base an adequate aesthetic upon them are discussed in chapter viii. For the present we must set them aside and simply state that it is not this aspect of meaning which will primarily concern us in the course of this study. For an adequate analysis of the problems involved in the meaning and communication of the referential content of music would require a separate study of its own.

Let us now make a second point clear, namely, that the distinction just drawn between absolute and referential meanings is not the same as the distinction between the aesthetic positions which are commonly called "formalist" and "expressionist." Both the formalist and the expressionist may be absolutists; that is, both may see the meaning of music as being essentially intramusical (non-referential); but the formalist would contend that the meaning of music lies in the perception and understanding of the musical relationships set forth in the work of art and that meaning in music is primarily intellectual, while the expressionist would argue that these same relationships are in some sense capable of exciting feelings and emotions in the listener.

This point is important because the expressionist position has often been confused with that of the referentialist. For although almost all referentialists are expressionists, believing that music communicates emotional meanings, not all expressionists are referentialists. Thus when formalists, such as Hanslick or Stravinsky, reacting against what they feel to be an overemphasis upon referential meaning, have denied the possibility or relevance of any emotional response to music, they have adopted an untenable position partly because they have confused expressionism and referentialism.

One might, in other words, divide expressionists into two groups: absolute expressionists and referential expressionists. The former group believe that expressive emotional meanings arise in response to music and that these exist without reference to the extramusical world of concepts, actions, and human emotional states, while the latter group would assert that emotional expression is dependent upon an understanding of the referential content of music.


The present study is concerned with an examination and analysis of those aspects of meaning which result from the understanding of and response to relationships inherent in the musical progress rather than with any relationships between the musical organization and the extramusical world of concepts, actions, characters, and situations. The position adopted admits both formalist and absolute expressionist viewpoints. For though the referential expressionists and the formalists are concerned with genuinely different aspects of musical experience, the absolute expressionists and the formalists are actually considering the same musical processes and similar human experiences from different, but not incompatible, viewpoints (see p. 39).

Broadly speaking, then, the present investigation seeks to present an analysis of musical meaning and experience in which both the expressionist and the formalist positions will be accounted for and in which the relationship between them will become clear.

Past accounts given by the proponents of each of these positions have suffered from certain important weaknesses. The chief difficulty of those who have adopted the absolutist expressionist position is that they have been unable to account for the processes by which perceived sound patterns become experienced as feelings and emotions. In fact, strange as it may seem, they have generally avoided any discussion of emotional responses whatsoever. These shortcomings have led to a general lack of precision both in their account of musical experience and in their discussions of musical perception.

But, at least, the expressionists have recognized the existence of problems in their position. The formalists, on the other hand, have either found no problems to recognize or have simply turned the other way, seeking to divert attention from their difficulties by attacking referentialism whenever possible. Yet the formalists are faced with a problem very similar to that confronting the expressionists: namely, the difficulty and necessity of explaining the manner in which an abstract, non-referential succession of tones becomes meaningful. In failing to explain in what sense such musical patterns can be said to have meaning, they have also found themselves unable to show the relation of musical meaning to meaning in general.

Finally, this failure to explain the processes by which feelings are aroused and meanings communicated has prevented both groups from seeing that their positions should make them allies rather than opponents. For the same musical processes and similar psychological behavior give rise to both types of meaning; and both must be analyzed if the variety made possible by this aspect of musical experience is to be understood.

Readers familiar with past studies in the aesthetics and psychology of music will perhaps note that much of the earlier work in these fields is not discussed in this study and that many traditional problems are ignored. This neglect stems from the conviction that the assumptions and orientation of this literature have proved sterile and are today untenable. Since this literature has been explicitly and cogently criticized by such writers as Cazden, Farnsworth, and Langer, only a brief comment on these earlier assumptions seems necessary here, in the hope that the position of this book will thereby be clarified.

The psychology of music has, since its beginnings, been plagued by three interrelated errors: hedonism, atomism, and universalism. Hedonism is the confusion of aesthetic experience with the sensuously pleasing. As Susanne Langer writes:

Helmholtz, Wundt, Stumpf, and other psychologists ... based their inquiries on the assumption that music was a form of pleasurable sensation.... This gave rise to an aesthetic based on liking and disliking, a hunt for a sensationist definition of beauty.... But beyond a description of tested pleasure-displeasure reactions to simple sounds or elementary sound complexes ... this approach has not taken us....

The attempt to explain and understand music as a succession of separable, discrete sounds and sound complexes is the error of atomism. Even the meager achievement which Mrs. Langer allows to studies of this kind must be still further depreciated. For the tested pleasure-displeasure reactions are not what most of the psychologists tacitly assumed them to be: they are not universals (good for all times and all places) but products of learning and experience.

This is the third error, the error of universalism: the belief that the responses obtained by experiment or otherwise are universal, natural, and necessary. This universalist approach is also related to the time-honored search for a physical, quasi-acoustical explanation of musical experience—the attempt, that is, to account for musical communication in terms of vibrations, ratios of intervals, and the like.

These same errors have also plagued music theory. Attempts to explain the effect of the minor mode of Western music, to cite but one example, in terms of consonance and dissonance or in terms of the harmonic series have resulted in uncontrolled speculations and untenable theories. Even those not thus haunted by the ghost of Pythagoras have contributed little to our understanding of musical meaning and its communication. For, on the whole, music theorists have concerned themselves with the grammar and syntax of music rather than with its meaning or the affective experiences to which it gives rise.

Today we are, I think, able to take a somewhat more enlightened view of these matters. The easy access which almost all individuals have to great music makes it quite apparent that a Beethoven symphony is not a kind of musical banana split, a matter of purely sensuous enjoyment. The work of the Gestalt psychologists has shown beyond a doubt that understanding is not a matter of perceiving single stimuli, or simple sound combinations in isolation, but is rather a matter of grouping stimuli into patterns and relating these patterns to one another. And finally, the studies of comparative musicologists, bringing to our attention the music of other cultures, have made us increasingly aware that the particular organization developed in Western music is not universal, natural, or God-given.

Evidence as to the Nature and Existence of the Emotional Response to Music

Any discussion of the emotional response to music is faced at the very outset with the fact that very little is known about this response and its relation to the stimulus. Evidence that it exists at all is based largely upon the introspective reports of listeners and the testimony of composers, performers, and critics. Other evidence of the existence of emotional responses to music is based upon the behavior of performers and audiences and upon the physiological changes that accompany musical perception. Although the volume and intercultural character of this evidence compels us to believe that an emotional response to music does take place, it tells us almost nothing about the nature of the response or about the causal connection between the musical stimulus and the affective response it evokes in listeners.


From Plato down to the most recent discussions of aesthetics and the meaning of music, philosophers and critics have, with few exceptions, affirmed their belief in the ability of music to evoke emotional responses in listeners. Most of the treatises on musical composition and performance stress the importance of the communication of feeling and emotion. Composers have demonstrated in their writings and by the expression marks used in their musical scores their faith in the affective power of music. And finally, listeners, past and present, have reported with remarkable consistency that music does arouse feelings and emotions in them.

The first difficulty with this evidence is that, taken at its face value, without benefit of a general theory of emotions as a basis for interpretation, it yields no precise knowledge of the stimulus which created the emotional response. Because music flows through time, listeners and critics have generally been unable to pinpoint the particular musical process which evoked the affective response which they describe. They have been prone, therefore, to characterize a whole passage, section, or composition. In such cases the response must have been made to those elements of the musical organization which tend to be constant, e.g., tempo, general range, dynamic level, instrumentation, and texture. What these elements characterize are those aspects of mental life which are also relatively stable and persistent, namely, moods and associations, rather than the changing and developing affective responses with which this study is concerned.

Much confusion has resulted from the failure to distinguish between emotion felt (or affect) and mood. Few psychologists dealing with music have been as accurate on this point as Weld, who notes that: "The emotional experiences which our observers reported are to be characterized rather as moods than as emotions in the ordinary sense of the term.... The emotion is temporary and evanescent; the mood is relatively permanent and stable." As a matter of fact, most of the supposed studies of emotion in music are actually concerned with mood and association.

Taken at face value the introspective data under consideration not only fail to provide accurate knowledge of the stimulus (music) but they cannot even furnish clear and unequivocal information about the responses reported. For several reasons the verbalizations of emotions, particularly those evoked by music, are usually deceptive and misleading.

Emotions are named and distinguished from one another largely in terms of the external circumstances in which the response takes place. Since, aside from the often fortuitous associations which may be aroused, music presents no external circumstances, descriptions of emotions felt while listening to music are usually apocryphal and misleading. If they are to be used at all, they must be analyzed and considered in the light of a general theory of the relation of musical stimuli to emotional responses.

Second, a clear distinction must be maintained between the emotions felt by the composer, listener, or critic—the emotional response itself—and the emotional states denoted by different aspects of the musical stimulus. The depiction of musical moods in conjunction with conventional melodic or harmonic formulas, perhaps specified by the presence of a text, can become signs which designate human emotional states (see pp. 267 f.). Motives of grief or joy, anger or despair, found in the works of baroque composers or the affective and moral qualities attributed to special modes or ragas in Arabian or Indian music are examples of such conventional denotative signs. And it may well be that when a listener reports that he felt this or that emotion, he is describing the emotion which he believes the passage is supposed to indicate, not anything which he himself has experienced.

Finally, even where the report given is of a genuine emotional experience, it is liable to become garbled and perverted in the process of verbalization. For emotional states are much more subtle and varied than are the few crude and standardized words which we use to denote them.


Excerpted from Emotion and Meaning in Music by Leonard B. Meyer. Copyright © 1956 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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