In this article, I will leave emotion ungraspable; I do not wish to speak about it definitively. Rather, I would like to focus personally on the relationship, in my life, between music and emotion, blending these two unique realms into one cohabitating discussion. What is emotion? Singularly, I do not know, but combined with music, I do have some feelings…
The secrets behind emotion have been long sought. In 1962, psychologist Robert Plutchik wrote about emotion that “there is serious question about the reliability and meaningfulness of the verbal report. In the history of psychology, it has been pointed out many times that introspecting about our own emotions often changes them.” The emotional appeal of music has been equally enchanting. In ca. 397 C.E., Saint Augustine wrote, “I must testify for myself that when I am moved more by the music than by its meaning, I feel this offense should be punished, and wish I had not listened to the cantor […] But you, Lord my God, hear me, heed, look on with pity, and heal me, before whom I am made a riddle to myself, which is the symptom of my sins.”
And finally, in 2008, scientist Daniel Levitin embraced mystery in his explanation of music:
Scientists are in the business of wanting proof for everything, and I find myself caught somewhere in the metaphorical middle on this issue. As a musician, I’m reminded on a daily basis of the utterly ineffable, indescribable powers of music. […] Our scientific theories have to be able to reconcile this common experience and the strong intuition that music is—dare I say it?—magical.
Emotion—a thing that Robert Plutchik found impossible to scientifically report—is expressed through music in a way that a daring Daniel Levitin called “magical,” and what a conflicted Saint Augustine called a “riddle.” Perhaps “magical” “riddle” is a good working definition for emotion in music. Like Levitin and Augustine, I am baffled too.
In the 1970s, composer John Cage used the weather to describe artistic process, observing that “many composers no longer make musical structures. Instead, they set processes going. A structure is like a piece of furniture, whereas a process is like the weather.” Like Cage’s use of this creative and non-technical definition, I will similarly use the weather as a way to discuss emotion expressed through music. This article will move like weather. And like a forecast, I hope to address what swirls around.
Swirling air represents the meeting of diverse parts. Robert Plutchik acknowledged that there is a difference between “laboratory studies of pure, momentary emotions” and the “persistent mixed emotions of clinical experience.” That is to say, the real-world application of emotion deals primarily in mixtures of emotions, rather than single, pure ones. Weather on Earth is complex, too: a mixing of cold and warm fronts, rainy on some days, stormy on others, partially rainy, partially stormy, partially cloudy, or partially sunny on others still. And there is no piece of music that is all any one emotion either. Good memories can be rendered only partially good through the loss of innocence; many find a deep comfort and contentment in feeling sadness. Emotion in music is an array of moving parts.
Like weather, emotions in music swirl wildly around. As disorienting as this whirlwind may be, we must never forget how fortunate we are to have the skies, the clouds, rain, thunder, lightning, and most importantly, the sun. The sustaining love of the sun is, after all, what makes all of this possible.
Nebulous as my approach may be, I hope this discussion will enrich our understanding of music, emotion, and our own selves. While I do not claim to hold technical qualifications to discuss the weather or emotional psychology, I do intend to write from my own experience, with sincerity and imagination. In the following sections, I will attempt to bring emotions to life, expressed in music, and retold as weather.
Clouds can weigh you down, but they can also help you focus.
Clouds can weigh you down: clouds can make you question the existence of the sun. When I was finishing grad school abroad, I received news from back home that my parents were divorcing. I went into a state of depression. I remember going to the practice room, taking scores out of my bag, placing them on the piano, closing the lid, resting head on my arm, and crying on my own shoulder. I would cry for hours, then pack up and leave, never touching a single key of the piano. I ended up having to reschedule my final degree recital, which in turn (through a string of incidents that would take too much space to describe), led me to an unexpected move back to the United States…
…but clouds can also give you focus: clouds can give you a reason to not lay in the sun. When I moved back to the United States, I was left without a job, without a place to live, and without work. I was still paying rent for an apartment overseas that I was not living in, and I was struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship. I was deeply saddened by the circumstances. But, I met this dark time with fearless abandon, playing as many concerts as possible, and working tirelessly to rebuild my career in a new country. My own disenfranchisement fueled my desire to succeed.
Clouds can weigh you down, but they can also help you focus.
A cloud in the sky can lead to rain. But tears are not just a singular cause-effect; rather, it is the grand accumulation of weight that becomes simply too heavy for a cloud to hold.
I remember the first time I heard my mother sing. She sang “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. I played the chords at the piano while she sang and played the melody with her right hand next to me. I was giving her a piano lesson, and I didn’t specifically ask her to sing, she just did it on her own. My mother brought me to tears because it was a rare joy to hear her shy, untrained voice sing without the least sense of self-consciousness. The song will never again be the same to me.
Rain is a fundamental process to the recycling of the vital element of water. Although rain is the losing of something, we need it to live.
Often before rain is the initial shock of lightning. The electricity of a storm is stunning—when it strikes, we are unable to do anything to counter its intensity. We can’t run towards, nor away, from lightning. Shock is the arrestation of movement, it is a primal reaction to first contact with something mysterious, powerful, and possibly dangerous.
The memory of a performance of a piece I wrote, called Accord, affected me deeply. At the first massive, crashing tone cluster that interrupts the sound of a tuning violin, I witnessed a gut reaction from an audience member in the front row. The listener’s arms, shoulders, and legs seized up, and the head pulled back as the neck tightened. The hands shot up reflexively towards the ears to cover them…
I immediately felt guilt and remorse. I was responsible for this lightning strike. I wrote this gesture in hopes that it would grab people’s attention—and I succeeded—but at what cost? As an emerging composer, I had often strived to grab attention as quickly as possible, and at any cost. It is the treasure hunt for the loudest, fastest, most terrific possible sound. (Or similarly, the softest, slowest one.)
But in this treasure hunt for the most shocking sound, I inadvertently flipped a sonic middle finger to the audience member. Did this terrifying and anxiety-inducing sound make this person into a fan of my music, or new music in general? It is doubtful.
Shock is a powerful element, and it should be used wisely and cautiously. After seeing what my music had done to someone, I vowed to strive to genuinely affect listeners for the better, rather than to use shock as a ploy to garner attention at a most hollow, visceral level.
If lightning is the initial shock of potentially dangerous force, then the storm is the realization of that force. The storm is violent and intimidating. The storm is rain in excess.
But there is little for me to say about storms in and of themselves: I have never used anger as a motivator in listening to or playing music. I personally find within me very little creativity that is fueled by anger. For me, anger is not a profound and sustaining enough emotion to fulfill me expressively as an artist. It is a fleeting sensation that can be understood and referenced, but not used as a building block. Anger is real, but for me, it must ultimately lead to something proud, hopeful, and ecstatic. This is the art I seek. The glorious arrival at “The Great Gate of Kiev” after “Baba Yaga” in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The “Cheerful and Thankful Feelings After the Storm” in the final movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The way Nina Simone completes the second half of the song “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life.” Anger should not go unacknowledged, but it should also be overcome with something more hopeful, peaceful, and productive.
A tornado takes the land and blows it about. A tornado is disorienting, but it can also create bliss.
I, in fact, take pleasure when I am unable to identify the key center, the meter, or the exact instrumentation of a piece of music: Since my career in music relies upon my ability to identify the aspects of music as quickly and efficiently as possible, the moments where I simply do not know give me great joy.
On one occasion, I saw this same joy in a six-year-old student who was having trouble identifying the note A on the keyboard. The student, whom I will call Lance, started on C and counted out loud up the C major scale. “C, D, E, F, G…” And when Lance reached G, he would accidentally go on to “H” and then “I” and then “J.” I stopped him just before the note E became an “L” and told him that the notes on the keyboard reset at “G,” that the next note after “G” is “A.” Perhaps I explained it poorly the first time, because when Lance tried again, he made the same exact mistake, and again, I corrected him. I wanted to let him try as many times as he needed to get it right, but Lance would get it wrong over and over again, always going from “G” to “H” to “I” to “J.” After about 15 minutes of this, I became nervous that Lance would become frustrated with his failures. But he did not. Instead, he grew happier with each try. There was something comforting to his realizing that there were such mysteries that enchant the keyboard of the piano, that after “G” some “magical riddle” occurs, leaving him in a state of wonder. Eventually, I’m sure Lance will learn to not be disoriented by the challenge of moving from “G” back to “A.” And when he does, I hope he finds a new mystery from which to achieve bliss.
Clear Skies (Innocent Love)
I know now that the color blue in the sky is a refraction of the sun’s rays on the dust in our atmosphere. A clear day is really not clear at all—it never was. But I still have the memory of thinking how open and free the world is on a clear day.
The version of Western music that I learned, both academically and casually, was rooted in the glorification of great men, and in my youth, I fell to this template’s allure. I idolized the music of Great Men, and truly, with all my heart, believed they were better-than-human: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Wagner, Prokofiev, Morton Feldman. But, upon closer examination, Bach sounded like a neglectful husband, Mozart seemed like a dysfunctional man-child, Chopin seemed like a caustic friend; Schumann seemed mentally ill, Wagner seemed anti-semitic, and Prokofiev seemed unnecessarily mean-spirited. And, based on some recent allegations, Morton Feldman seemed to be a sexual predator. Evidence shows that all of them were people, for better or worse.
While not a note of their music has changed, the innocent love I once had for these brilliant musical minds can never be regained. My personal overcast—clouds saturated with the knowledge and wisdom of life—have now permanently shrouded the music, re-painting the images of these fallen heroes into a murkier, more realistic, shade of humanity. It is sobering to realize the skies are no longer clear, and that they perhaps never were.
Certainly, Lance can be a lesson to us: While knowledge is power, there is still great bliss in not knowing. Ignorant, innocent love is indeed powerful. But ignorance and innocence are meant to be lost. My perspective on my innocent love is so different from the emotion as I remember it. Now, my past is viewed with the special lens a more informed perspective affords. But my pure feelings of love in the past were important, and they still travel with me.
Innocent love is a type of love you can only have once, and I am thankful for the formative memories it gave me.
The Sun (Sustaining Love)
I love the sun. The warmth of the sun is essential, and we must always acknowledge this. No matter the weather, we rely on the warmth of the sun to survive. The sun is a sustaining love.
My sustaining loves in music are only a handful of composers: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, Schumann, and just individual pieces of Schubert, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and a few others. Contemporary music sustains me in a different way: primarily, it fulfills my personal need for adventure.
As I grow out of innocent love, I am starting to really see the true loves for who they are. Some innocent loves are not sustainable—a bright street light is no star. But, many of the musical loves that sustain me now were once innocent loves too: Not all innocent love is ignorant.
The sun is the mightiest source of inspiration. No matter the weather, we can always say, “Thank goodness for the sun.” And thank goodness for emotions. And thank goodness for music.
Rain (Tears) continued
Briefly revisiting the rain, I would like to highlight some of the musical moments in my life that have brought me to tears—a necessary physical overload of emotion.
There are so many more that have faded with time. But, at least the ones I remember can be recorded. There is a beautiful, sustaining love that runs through all of these memories—perhaps this is why I remember them, and perhaps this is why they made me cry.
- The first time I ever heard an orchestra live: An open rehearsal of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier
- The funeral service for my childhood friend, Shumie, who committed suicide. I do remember music, but I don’t remember what it was.
- I was taking a piano lesson with my teacher in grad school, and had just broken up with my significant other.
- I was in a practice room, playing a section of Jerome Kitzke’s Sunflower Sutra. It was the section titled “Canticle for Mary.”
- After finishing the first run-through of my debut album, Rounded Binary.
- The first time I heard my mother sing, singing “Across the Universe” by The Beatles.
- Later, in private, after playing for my fiancee’s mother who was dying of cancer. We played and sang “Let It Be” by The Beatles.
…I have just said the unspeakable. I have shared my deepest emotions with a general public. Does this make you uncomfortable? Why? Are we, as a culture of humans, unable to plainly and unapologetically articulate our emotions with one another? Within the arts, the domain charged with expressing the beauty in humanity, why is this such a challenge? What is this barrier, and why is it there?
How and why were the sun and the stars in the sky created; how and why are emotions and music what they are? One cannot answer this without asking a more fundamental question about the origin and purpose of human existence. According to Aristotle, “the soul” is “one of the hardest things to gain any conviction about.” Charles Darwin felt that in studying human expression, “close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible.” To Oscar Wilde, “The final mystery is oneself.” The list of brilliant people who were baffled by their own self is long…
The further I discuss this, the more I am baffled by the mystery of emotion, and by humanity itself. There are really no words: while experientially known, these subjects are uniquely ungraspable through discourse. So then, we must be content with beauty that is imprecise—the beauty of weather, the beauty of emotion, and the beauty of the whole of humanity—and humbly appreciate that music can in some ways express it.
1. The Emotions, by Robert Plutchik.
2. Confessions, by Saint Augustine.
3. The World in Six Songs, by Daniel Levitin.
4. In Empty Words, John Cage writes, “Many composers no longer make musical structures. Instead they set processes going. A structure is like a piece of furniture, whereas a process is like the weather. In the case of a table, the beginning and end of the whole and each of its parts are known. In the case of weather, though we notice changes in it, we have no clear knowledge of its beginning or ending. At a given moment, we are where we are. The now moment.”
5. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed writes, “Emotions don’t make the world go round. But they do in some sense go round.”
6. The Emotions.
7. In De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle writes, “In general, and in all ways, it is one of the hardest of things to gain any conviction about the soul.”
8. In The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin writes, “The study of Expression is difficult […] When we witness any deep emotion, our sympathy is so strongly excited, that close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible.”
9. De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde.