Scarlet & Grey
Ohio State University
School of Music


The Problem of Negative Emotions

Notes by Ben Koen


Music 829
April 24, 2001

Jerrold Levinson. (1997). Music and negative emotion. In: Jenefer Robinson (ed.) Music and Meaning. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, pp. 215-241.

Stephen Davies. (1997). Why listen to sad music if it makes one feel sad? In: Jenefer Robinson (ed.) Music and Meaning. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, pp. 242-253.

Colin Radford, (1989). Emotions and music: A reply to the cognitivists. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 69-76.

Negative emotions that are produced through listening to music are considered by most to be a pleasurable, positive, or sought after experience. These articles try to resolve aspects of this seeming paradox. Levinson states, "Why do many sensitive people find the experience of negative emotion through music a rewarding or valuable one." And, "full-fledged emotions...fail to be aroused by music." Levisnon considers a music evoked emotion as a sort of mirror of real a emotion. For example, "what I have called the sadness reaction-is not in truth a case of full-fledged emotion. This is mainly because music neither supplies an appropriate object for an emotion to be directed on nor generates the associated beliefs, desires, or attitudes regarding an object that are essential to an emotion being what it is."

He differentiates the expression of emotion in music from the evocation of emotion by music and sets out to explain why people like the negative feelings that are the produced by listening to music.

Hypotheses: Gurney Psychologist, Edmund Gurney (The Power of Sound, 1880), claimed that music has a "unique 'musical emotion' that is raised in listeners by all pieces of 'impressive' (i.e., beautiful) music, and only by such." However, as Levinson states, "[t]he effects of different sorts of music are too different from one another, and too reminiscent of life emotions..." for music to evoke or express "but one type of emotion, a music-specific, invariably pleasant one."

Hindemith: "There is no doubt that [people] can be profoundly moved by perceiving, performing, or imagining music, and consequently music must touch on something in their emotional life that brings them into this state of excitation. But if these mental reactions were feelings, they could not change as rapidly as they do, and they would not begin and end with the musical stimulus that aroused them..." Levinson continues to summarize Hindemeth by stating that he "claims that musical passages evoke in the listener merely memories or images of emotions that the listener has experienced in the past. It follows that there can be no emotional reaction to music that is not strongly rooted in emotional experience in life." Hence, "listening to music becomes an occasion for a selective tour of one's gallery of emotional remembrances, with some sonata or symphony functioning as guide." Musicologist, Deryck Cooke, contends that emotional responses to music will "linger and develop after the passage is no longer heard" and will contribute to the overall response. Moreover, "our reactions to music do not all consist of memory images of prior experiences, since it appears that music (some music) has the power to make us feel in ways that we simply have not felt before." Finally, the question of the pleasurable-sad paradox remains unanswered by Hindemith's view.

Emotions and Music-emotions: Some contend that real emotions are not evoked by music; rather, musical analogs are generated. These analogs or music-emotions, are representative of real emotions but, as John Hospers states, are "depersonalized" and "abstracted." Hospers claims that a music-emotion, for example, "music-sadness" is decontextualized from life experiences and lacks the "accompanying accidents, or causal conditions which usually bring [the emotion] into being." We should therefore distinguish "the music-sadness which is a happy experience, from life-sadness, which is not."

Levinson states that when the three conditions of being familiar with a musical piece, attention to the music, and "emotional openness to the content of the music," are present, an emotional response that is similar to a real emotional experience is produced through a kind of mirroring or empathetic process. Levinson sees the difference between a music-emotion and a real emotion in the absence of cognitive appraisal-i.e., the music-emotion does not have an object of appraisal at which the emotion is directed.

Levison posits that the idea of rewards are key in answering his initial question. Basically, various self-rewards mediate a passage from a negative emotion to an eventually pleasurable feeling.

Davies states the problem thusly: "if it is sadness that sad music makes people feel, why would they bother to listen to sad music? [or] why would one value being made to feel sad? After critiquing Levinson, Eaton (control theory), and Kivy, Davies suggests that a better question is, why do people concern themselves with music at all?-not necessarily music that evokes sadness. Davies compares the pursuit of understanding art in order to appreciate it more to that of understanding music. A better understanding can lead to better appreciation of the work but does not necessarily lead to positive feelings. The goal is usually better enjoyment of the art or music through heightened understanding. Better enjoyment results in positive and negative emotional responses, not exclusively positive ones. This transforms Davies question into why do we enjoy understanding art if such understanding can result in unpleasant emotional responses? He claims that since we are curious beings, we simply take enjoyment in understanding and since a variety of emotions are a natural part of life, it should not seem strange that we engage in behaviors that evoke these emotions-"We just are like that." He continues to say that the social nature of life which, includes negative emotions, is important satisfying our curiosity and are essential elements that give meaning to life. "There is no gain without pain, as they say. The deepest satisfactions depend sometimes not just on what was gained, but on how hard it was to attain."

Radford's article debates points between cognitivist and emotivist perspectives. In his third point he agrees that "although sad music can make us feel sad, and when it does, it is the focus of our attention, it is not what we are sad about." He continues to say that since there is no object of our sadness, we cannot have reasons that relate to a nonexistent object. So, he states, "The only reason we can give for our feeling of sadness, which is an aesthetic and emotional response have to be cast in terms of the perceived qualities of what gives rise to it, the music." And, "Though the relationship is undeniably causal, it is not just external or brute. We hear the sadness of the music and, if it works for us, we respond with a sympathetic sadness. If it does not work, it will be because it strikes us as, say, maudlin, too plangent, too yearning, etc." How music can evoke a pleasant-sad emotional response and why people would seek a sad emotion in music is not totally resolved. There is some agreement in these articles that the elusiveness of understanding this seeming paradox stems in part from the emotion of sadness being evoked without having an object toward which the sadness is directed.



This document is available at http://csml.som.ohio-state.edu/Music829D/Notes/Negative.emotions.html