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Music doesn't have to convey an emotion.

So often music is spoken of as the" language of emotion" and people often define the difference between sound and music as the emotion conveyed. But is the emotion what makes it music or is emotion something that becomes associated with it later? Many composers (myself included) write music that explores an idea or concept but has nothing to do an emotional state. Is what they're doing not music then?

  • Oct 9 2012: I can see how a certain piece of music may illicit a some what predictable response. However just because my intent is to compose a sad song does not guarantee it will illicit a sad response from the listener. Therefor emotional perception is left to the hearer.
    • Oct 9 2012: Yes, that's a big part of my point. Thank you.
  • Mats K

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    Oct 10 2012: As a fellow composer I find this topic extremely interesting and I recently asked myself similar questions and came to the conclusion that music is two things. Abstract storytelling and memory triggering.

    Abstract storytelling in the sense that music in and of itself doesn't convey a cohesive or understandable story as a story written with words or lyrics do, since we use words in our language to communicate daily. Therefore abstract storytelling or music is always subject to interpretation. And this is where memory triggering comes into play. Because once people experience music to an activity; movie (dialog that resonates with the audience), club/concert (filled with energetic people), music class or an installation, they immediately establish the music to that activity or multiple (since music is being used in various activities) and therefore apply 'meaning' or words like 'emotion' to a piece of music.

    In other words, it's not music in and of itself that creates emotion, it's when the music is applied to something the listener/viewer resonates with, where the association happens.

    In fact, many film composers use this knowledge to their advantage when scoring a film or any other type of narratives. They know what kind of music people usually associate with a specific type of story or scene in other films and use this knowledge when scoring. And let's not forget the associations the film composers get when watching other films. This is why many film scores sounds "alike". Not because film composers are lazy, but because they know what most people and themselves have already established with other films.
  • Oct 18 2012: There have been a few requests for an example of my music. Here's a soundcloud link.
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    Oct 10 2012: Beauty - and music - is in the eye (ear) of the beholder and can be completely separate from what a composer intended.

    The composer may not have had any emotional input at conception, but the listener will often try to read something into it anyway. It's not unlike viewers of art convincing themselves that they are reading something deep and meaningful into a modern art installation.

    You may well be composing music using objective left-brain thought, but the listener will always try to perceive something within it, with the emotional right-brain.

    What are your thoughts on the wider question of whether anything conceived/composed without emotion at all, can legitimately be called an art form?

    My thoughts are that yes it is, as long as it elicits a genuine emotional response from the viewer/listener.

    As a visual example, the images from the Hubble Telescope are totally objective, yet my response to viewing them is very much emotional.
  • Oct 10 2012: [KC] " Many composers (myself included) write music that explores an idea or concept but has nothing to do an emotional state"

    Seriously? Your own composition does not elicit any feeling in you? Why are you writing music in the first place? Do you suppose that the great JS Bach set out to explore the mathematical relationships between notes and had no idea about the effect which his music would have on other people?

    If there is to be any legitimate claim for the notion that a universal language exists, surely it is music that has to be considered as the prime example of a universal language. I have no idea whether there are people (in national groupings around the globe) who can remain unaffected by listening to a piece of music which resonates with their society.

    What is clear is that music has the power to move large numbers of people, emotionally. They do not have to have a deep knowledge of music to appreciate a well-written piece. Possibly, when a piece is less accessible (Stockausen?) then there will be less instant appreciation of the piece.

    The subtext to your statement that music doesn't have to convey emotion is this: music does not have to convey emotions but it would be unusual if it did not move anyone to feel anything on first listen.
    • Oct 10 2012: Yes, I write music that is not related to emotions what so ever. This is not an unusual thing. Much contemporary music explores ideas and continuums rather than emotion. I do it because I love it. And yes, that is an emotion that I have toward music in general but what I'm talking about is the intent in writing the piece and it's reception.

      Am I bound by what Bach did? He's been dead for almost 3 centuries and baroque culture was vastly different than modern culture. Why should I model my own approach after his when we come from wildly different backgrounds?
  • Oct 25 2012: Apples and oranges...what you write about, be it driven by thought or emotion has a value to the interested, so "how" you individually create has a passion if simply measured by interest. Now if you can down play or hide that energy is one thing, however no doubt, you will ignite an emotional response in others...and if I am correct that is what you with or without emotionally manipulated you are in essence taking whatever you want and creating emotion, some will develop a cry to action other may console.

    Also being that there are folks at every different level of emotions and within the variety are those with strong emotions who are artists and it will drive them and to ask this question would be met with confusion however to those with less they could yes and in everything in life...everything
  • Oct 22 2012: [KC] Accessibility is an excuse for unoriginality

    Seriously? Are you are saying that composers who try to engage with their audiences are unoriginal?

    Clearly, composers of western music are using the notes of a chromatic scale differently to each other and using the same notation system does not carry any implication that they are unoriginal.

    Your use of the term 'unoriginal' in the pejorative sense underpins your position... I translate it as old = bad, and new = good. Accessibility in music is about the connection the piece performed manages to make with its audience. Composers who want to eat are likely to want to compose work that is easily understood. Complexity in music is not necessarily a virtue. Opaque and impenetrable structures, which may require a lifetime of study to enjoy, are not going to appeal to the widest of audiences.

    I can hear some tonality in Stockhausen's work (currently, I am listening to Licht) and while being able to see something of where the composer is taking me (the piece's accessibility?) I am not sure that I would buy this piece of work.

    I don't want to suggest that movement in art should not take place. I do want to say that where the existing audience is not carried forward on the new wave of movement, that the composer has failed to keep the audience interested.
    • Oct 22 2012: You misunderstand what I mean. What I mean is that most composers who take the standpoint of "accessibility is most important" create works that at best are reworkings of music already created. And being accessible is not the only way to engage with your audience. Anytime music is heard the composer is engaging with their audience. The thing is, music is a means of communication. Throughout the years several different languages have been created to communicate certain ideas. But if what you have to say cannot be properly articulated with any already existing language then what do you do? You can change what you have to say, bastardize what you have to say, or use a different, possibly completely new, language. This new language will lead to unfamiliarity for the listener. But unfamiliarity is not a bad thing and shouldn't be treated as such, it should be welcomed. That's something I shouldn't have to go into too much detail about on a TED forum, I'd hope that you get the importance of the unfamiliar from just about any of the talks.
      Now, a given musical language can only say so much. Some can say a lot, some are very limited. Regardless of how much they can say at some point everything will have been said. At that point working within that language cannot be truly original. Since your description of accessibility involves familiarity, it also involves working within a language that the public has been exposed to enough to be familiar with. That's where the unoriginality kicks in, when people start to say what others already have for the sake of accessibility.
      As for your allegations on my musical taste, you're close but wrong. There is no good and bad in art, only subjective levels of interest. When I find something about the music interesting, I engage with it. My personal tastes do tend toward the new, but that's mostly because I've become bored with the old. Study music for four years and you'll start to get a sense of what I mean. cont.
    • Oct 22 2012: cont.
      The "classics" like Mozart and Haydn are no longer interesting to me because I understand them too well. It's just not enjoyable to listen to music I can predict so easily. However, much of the music by J.S. Bach, Johannes Ockeghem, Hugo Wolf, and several others are still very intriguing to me and they're Baroque, Renaissance, and Late Romantic, respectively. I still enjoy their music because there are elements that I don't fully understand and can continue to engage with it in a way I enjoy. I tend to prefer new music because I find the unfamiliarity exciting, I have fun "decoding" a piece that uses a language not before used. That, of course, is a subjective matter and is really mostly unrelated to my philosophy on what new music should do.
  • Oct 19 2012: Thank you Kris. I have listened to the piece carefully. It is a not what I could call music because the cacophony of sounds represented by your composition don't follow musical structures which are known to me. I would have to study far more music and in much greater depth than I have done to be able to appreciate the juxtaposition of sounds which you have created.

    I listen to a variety of musical genres including blues, jazz, ambient, classical, pop and rock. I have a reasonable feel for harmony and experimentation. What I don't have is an ear for unidentifiable noises arranged as a continuum of sound. My predominant emotions when listen to your emotion-free composition were irritation, frustration and confusion.

    Whether you think that this is a useful response to your work or not, is not really the issue. If you write purely for yourself and do not intend any other person to hear your work, then it exists for no other reason than to stimulate you. If you intend to perform your work publicly, I don't think that your work will appeal to the people who are not used to hearing such arrangements.

    I am not an arbiter of good taste and I have made many blunders in my choices over the years. I do think that when we sit and listen to the musical work of other, we come with certain expectations and one of those is to be entertained. I did not find any degree of entertainment in the short clip you have provided.
    • Oct 19 2012: As an experimental composer, I feel that it's actually my role to challenge exactly what you just said. To be honest, you seem to be running on an undefined idea of what music is. Yes, the sounds used hear are highly abstract and have no physical object they're associated with , they're created using synthesis software engines, but with this type of music that's really the idea. This medium was pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer in the 1940's. His music differed from mine in that he used only raw, recorded sounds so they would actually be familiar. However, his music was not meant to be listened to on a sound source basis. He developed a concept called acousmatic listening, where basically the idea is that when you identify a sound as being simply a part of it's source then you miss out on the raw characteristics of the sound that make it come alive musically. So as you were trying to find something familiar you actual missed the point all together, and listening in a way where you're looking for familiarity will limit your ability to appreciate music of any type. In fact, the structure of this piece is quite ordinary, and that's pretty easy to see if you stop listening for familiarity and instead listen to the sounds for what they are on their own. Now as far as familiarity goes at all, if composers only wrote what their audience wanted to hear, only what was familiar to them, then we would still only have chant. It's the role of the composer to create new, unfamiliar music so as to expand the art form and create new sound worlds to enjoy. Much of what you today would call familiar, for example tonality, seemed strange and alien to their original audience but with time they came to make sense of it and it then came to be familiar, after about 100 years or so in the case of tonality. I don't believe I ever said the music is not for others, if I did then I misspoke, the music is meant to be listened to by as many will hear it.
      • Oct 21 2012: [KC] As an experimental composer, I feel that it's actually my role to challenge exactly what you just said.

        I have no argument with this line of thinking.

        [KC] you seem to be running on an undefined idea of what music is.

        I am used to music having some recognisable content. That means recognisable to me. I want to hear notes, harmonies, counterpoint, chords, tempo, structure, dynamic accents, ornamentation and, generally speaking, i want to listen to something that moves me in a manner which I find pleasant.

        I have yet to see anything praiseworthy in Cage's composition, 4' 33". Equally, Schulhoff's In futurum and Klein's Monotone-Silence Symphony leave me similarly unable to appreciate the work of musical composition when it is left as silence. What of greats like Stockausen? I find it difficult to get any sense of the musical scope of his pieces.

        When I look at say... a Jackson Pollock artistic masterpiece, I am left wondering why it is regarded so well when my young child could duplicate the effort involved in flinging paint at the canvas, yet it would not be regarded as a masterpiece. My suspicion is that the emperor really does have no clothes.

        I am leaning towards the notion that if anyone can create the art (music) then its merit is less than if the piece required years of study. I think I could easily create a similar sound to the one which you provided as a link. It should not devalue it but in reality, because I believe that I too can do such a thing, I consider its value to be nominal.

        This is distinct from the separate notion... that introducing an audience to another way of describing or listening to music has no value. Surely it does. I just don't see anything other than an intellectual world of possibilities within your work. I like my music to be more accessible.
        • Oct 21 2012: Accessibility is an excuse for unoriginality. If you think you can make something just like my music then I invite you to prove it. I also invite you to duplicate the genius in form that Pollock creates in his work. You said "if anyone can create the art then its merit is less than if the piece requires years of study" but what you fail to realize is that (admittedly aside from the silence pieces you listed) all the works you discussed does require just that. What you're showing me actually is resistance to putting the effort forth to study and understand them. A great work (of course I wouldn't consider my piece a great work, I still have much to learn) takes time and a fair amount of effort to fully understand it. I find it especially interesting that you mentioned Stockhausen. He was one of the most rigorous composers who ever lived. His approach was so meticulous that scholars find it difficult to study his music because of the intense amount of data involved. No person but he (and I suppose Milton Babbit) could truly create a total serialist work with the level of rigor he did. And I do find his music quite pleasant actually.
        • Oct 21 2012: Now as for the things you listed music should have, the excerpt I posted contains all of them. Anytime sound is created there is a pitch, anytime there are more than pitch sounding at once there is harmony, I utilize timbral counterpoint, it has a tempo, it has a structure (there are two sections, the first is an isolated, drawn out gesture, the second is a three phrase phrase grouping, each phrase ending in a half cadence to prevent a strong sense of conclusion), and if you don't see the dynamic accents you're not really listening. It seems to me that your failure to listen acousmatically and your search for familiar sounds is, as Schaeffer hypothesized, limiting your ability to notice and appreciate these aspects. If a composer only uses familiar things, how can he create music that is truly new and expands the understanding of music in any meaningful way? If we only sit in the realm of the familiar then music will never truly evolve.
  • Oct 18 2012: The problem really is that you're saying "Music requires harmony" and the definition then requires a combination of multiple different sounds. So then an unaccompanied solo isn't music, which I doubt anyone would agree with. So we still need something more fundamental that makes it music.
  • John E

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    Oct 18 2012: I think all music triggers some sort of emotion. I guess it just depends on how you perceive emotion. For example, I don't think emotion from music has to be limited to either a happy or sad trigger or focused around just those two feelings. I personally listen to plenty of electronic based music, most of it is lyric-less and for the most part it doesn't trigger a happy or sad feeling, but rather a feeling of positiveness, awareness, motivation, and deep thought. I listen to this type of music with the intention of it allowing me to sink into a state of meditation. I suppose you can some how lump that into the realm of happiness, but I'm not necessarily happy per se, initially. I may become happy later if it has inspired me to come up with an idea or something creative of that nature. It is a bit ironic though because most of the music I hear and like tends to focus around minor scales which are darker and "sad" sounding, but my emotional state is not.

    What kind of music do you produce Kris?
    • Oct 18 2012: Right now I primarily write electroacoustic music. I'm going to post an excerpt of my latest piece (to be premiered on the 24th) shortly. It's relatively atypical for my music but I think it will illustrate my point. Also, my point is not that it shouldn't be perceived in an emotional sense, that's entirely up to the listener, my point is the intent of the composer does not need to be driven by emotion.
  • Oct 15 2012: Any luck with finding me a piece of music that you have composed, Kris? I don't see us as being equal in this debate if you can talk about something (your own emotionless compositions) that I have never experienced.
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    Oct 11 2012: Is it possible to experience conscious activity without emotion? I think not. Music is the sound track and emotions are the movie. Music must dance with emotion.
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    Oct 10 2012: music is art .A art which sometimes makes you happy and some times emotional even sometimes makes you sad so we can have some emotions having music but it depends its type and your taste/
    nature has also beautiful sound if we want we can have access to that we can listen that.after listening that we can imagine our feelings to nature.
  • Oct 10 2012: Kris, perhaps you are not in touch with your own feelings, your own emotions. Many people block essential aspects of themselves out of fear. Maybe your emotions are perceptible to others listening to your music, even though you may not be aware that you are conveying emotions.
    • Oct 18 2012: No, I feel my emotions just fine. My point is of intent. I do not intend to convey a particular emotion, I intend to engage my audience intellectually. I can't control how they react, but the intended reaction is not one of emotion.
      • Oct 21 2012: Perhaps you intend to convey ideas only and specifically choose to NOT transmit any emotion through the music you create. Suppose people listen to that music and bits of your music trigger emotional responses in the listener. I hope you would not consider that music to necessarily be a failure. I wonder why you care to control the response of listeners. Suppose you just create the music you "feel" like or "think" you want to create and let the listener accept from it whatever the listener selects. Anyway, I personally think the separation you are attempting to create is futile. We are ONE human being. All of our cells and sub-atomic particles interact with each other, work together...etc. Perhaps the thoughts that pop into your head are a function of your emotions. None of us are aware of everything at every moment. For example, some people do not think they are flirting with someone and everyone who observes them in a particular situation sees that person as flirting with that someone. Perhaps the flirting person is flirting and unaware that he or she is flirting, but, people who have no interest in the situation see clearly that flirting is what is happening. Awareness. Lack of awareness. Awareness. People focus on different things.
        • Oct 22 2012: It's up to the listener to react how they see fit. However, it will be difficult to enjoy music I or many other modern composers write from a strictly emotional point of view. What I'm trying to say with this conversation is that limiting music to an emotional experience is an unnecessary limitation. We need a wider lens to view music through. I don't really buy into the notion that all cognitive activity is emotion, but rather I think emotion is a category of cognitive activity. And if we approach music with our full spectrum of cognitive ability we'll be opened up to new aesthetic possibilities that would never occur to, and in fact would probably irritate, a purely emotion minded viewer (as evidenced by my thread with Jeff Cable in this conversation). I posted a link that demonstrates the kind of aesthetic I'm talking about if you don't fully understand what I mean.
      • Oct 23 2012: It's not that people experience music from a "strictly emotional point of view." That's a part of the experience. It is also intellectual, physical, spiritual and more. You seem to be trying to block out the emotional aspect of it. Emotions are good. Emotions are a part of reality of people. Music is a wholistic experience. I see no value in trying to surgically remove one of the best aspects of music, as you seem to be trying to do, Kris.
        • Oct 23 2012: At what point did I say it should be removed? I'm saying that it shouldn't be a requirement as many people think it is. People may experience music in a wholistic manner subliminally but most people consciously approach it in a strictly emotional manner, which limits their ability to fully perceive the music and create new aesthetics. As I said in my last post "if we approach music with our full spectrum of cognitive ability we'll be opened up to new aesthetic possibilities". What I'm saying is we should consciously approach music with every element of our mental abilities.
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    Oct 10 2012: we can divide music into different kinds .there are Slow song Song Lyricut
    and rock ,while i think all kins of them express their certian feelings i dont know whether there is a dofference between feeling and emotion. but i do think that she or he want to express something .
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    Oct 9 2012: Cacophony causes emotions too. But it's not music. Music requires harmony. Causing emotions is not enough.

    Sounds of nature can be harmonious, cause emotions, and called "music". Music does not have to be "designed" to cause emotions.
    • Oct 18 2012: What exactly would you define as harmony?
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        Oct 18 2012: "The combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce chords and chord progressions with a pleasing effect." is the official definition.

        I guess "pleasing effect" is the key word here. It can be sorrow or sadness, but not disgust or repulsion. The thesis remains the same - sounds don't have to be "designed" to have pleasing effect. But the "pleasing effect" seems to be subjective.
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    Oct 9 2012: I have to question your premise in your topic narrative where you say, "Many composers (myself included) write music that explores an idea or concept but has nothing to do an emotional state."

    Emotion and motivation are believed to be (by most experts in the fields of Human Behavior) directly related. So unless you yourself had an "emotional" reason to begin with, you wouldn't be motivated to write the music in the first place. But as others have mentioned here already, there is no guarantee that your music will elicit the same emotional response in the listener of your music.

    One example link explaining the concept is below. There are numerous others you can fine using a GOOGLE search with the search term: "Are emotions and motivation related"

    Or, maybe I'm just misunderstanding your question?

    My primary disagreement with your question is that it is even possible to write a song that would be incapable of producing an emotional response in someone.
    • Oct 9 2012: The motivation for the music is an emotion, yes. But the concept that is explored is not. For example, Jon Christopher Nelson's Objet Sonore/ Objec Cinetique (2007) explores the continuum of stasis and kinesis as it pertains to sound. When I listen to pieces such as this (and I believe most others would as well) I don't feel any sort of sensation I would call an emotion. I am engaged on an intellectual level, yes, and my biological response may behave in similar ways as emotions but my intuition of the experience is not one that I would label an emotion. What I was really talking about is intent though. When I (and other composers in the same vein) compose, I do not try to convey an emotion of any kind. I try to communicate other sorts of concepts that (at least it would seem to me) are not emotions.
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        Oct 9 2012: OK, thanks for clarifying it so I have a better understanding of your position.

        I still think that it is inherently impossible for a human being to not have even a minimal emotional response to a sensory input. All of our primary senses, including hearing, seem to be related to evoking some sort of emotional reaction, if nothing more than to enhance our own survival. It may seem totally logical to attempt to only assess what we hear and try to draw purely rational conclusions about the sensory input, but I don't think that is the way the human brain really works.
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    Oct 9 2012: That's a difficult one. In my opinion, most people recognize "sad music" as such because they have been socially influenced to think so (basically, because of the culture we live in). Now, let's imagine that we played a "sad song" every time our kids felt happy, do you think they would associate that kind of music with a sad feeling? I don't think so. For them it would be the most cheerful music because that happy feeling would be strongly attached to that music. In the same way, if a beloved one died while we are listening to "happy music", we would automatically associate a sad feeling with that kind of rhythm, melody...

    There is a tendency to think that a lively rhythm elicits a happy feeling and a slow rhythm just the contrary, but I don't think it always applies. So, in my opinion, it would be impossible to convey a particular emotion to everyone through music, as we all experience different things throughout our lives.