Revealing The Mystery Of Emotions In Sounds

German theorists say that when we respond emotionally to music we are responding to representations of will


Music lovers don’t need to know why Duke Ellington and Tchaikovsky thrill them while Stockhausen and the Art Ensemble of Chicago leave them unmoved or looking murderously hostile. But links are always there. Whether we like or loathe a musical sound, there’s a reason for our reaction.

Not that we’d be much concerned about how the connections between Cake Walking Babies Back Home, our auditory reflexes, and the tapping of our feet prior to making a spectacle of ourselves on the dance floor translate into scientific exposition.

Wife-and-husband researchers Daniela and Bernd Willimek, in their latest project, further explore the theory of Musical Equilibration, formulated by the latter in 1997. The theory posits that music itself cannot generate emotions directly; rather, such emotions should be understood as a response to “processes of will” encoded in the music. The school and university students chosen to test the theory might have already known that major triads appear positive and affirming while minor ones seem negative. They might not have known why. According to this hypothesis, the volume at which a minor chord is played, for example, determines if the emotion generated is anger or sorrow.

Studies by others had highlighted important factors in responses to music, such as the “brainstorm reflex”, which alerts the listener to potentially important and urgent incidents based on rudimentary acoustic events. Another is the suggestion that we react to musical stimulus as though it had been uttered by a human being. More recent research has found that certain areas of the brain are active while music is being heard. Equilibration applies to the sonic quality of music only, without lyrics or visual images.

The Willimeks, academics from Karlsruhe and Freiburg, believe their theory’s propositions are comparable to a movie buff’s identifying with a protagonist’s “content of will”; in other words, the feelings experienced are not one’s own. The term “will” is familiar to followers of the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. To the former, music was not like the other arts but more powerful for being the essence rather than the “shadow” of ideas.

Processes of will, according to the theory, are denoted by terms referring to tones that tend to change into other tones. They envisage listeners as those mentally able to imagine themselves “influencing” perceived musical events, such as the length (duration) of a musical note. The listener does not experience a leading note as “striving” away but identifies with the will to maintain it. The paper then looks at the origin of leading tones but concludes that there’s no clear answer. It also admits that volume, melody and tempo can play their part.

In a major tonic chord composed of the notes C, E and G, E is the leading tone. The chord is “happy” because the listener identifies with a will that resists a change and is, therefore, an expression of consent or affirmation. In the minor version, with the E flattened, the feeling of consent is exhausted and the listener identifies with the sentiment “No more!” But this verbal phrase, when whispered, sounds sad; when shouted loudly and fast it sounds angry.

The Willimeks go on to show how major chords can also sound sad, and minor ones stimulating, the latter illustrated by Carlos Santana’s Samba Pa Ti. Music-induced feelings of horror, wistfulness and security are also explained in chordal terms. There’s also a section on the so-called “diabolus in musica”, the tritone (for example, the interval between F and B). Because its leading notes cannot be clearly defined, it creates an ambivalence in listeners which is translated into feelings of lurking danger but can be ameliorated by the addition of a note that removes the feeling of uncertainty.

And so on. A word that one struggles to find in research of this sort is “enhancement”. Music appreciation classes are notorious for talking around music in an interesting way but failing to make one enjoy with passion music that one hates. The art critic John Berger claimed that knowing Van Gogh committed suicide straight after painting Wheatfield With Crows enhanced the viewer’s sense of its menacing character. Detractors say the sense was there irrespective of the additional knowledge.

The Willimeks don’t mention jazz specifically but it’s a music in which the polar feelings of depression and high spirits fit the theory. A compendious bibliography does mention James McGowan’s 2011 treatise on the psychoacoustic foundations of contextual harmonic stability in jazz piano (Journal Of Jazz Studies). Equilibration theory adds persuasively to musical knowledge but would be unable to explain why one person needs no encouragement to dance when Cake Walking Babies Back Home strikes up but another groans and remains resolutely seated.

Revealing The Mystery Of Emotions In Sounds: The Theory Of Musical Equilibration, by Daniela and Bernd Willimek. An article in Auditory Perception & Cognition, Routledge. 26 A4 pages downloaded.