I submitted my last ever assignment for undergraduate coursework here this afternoon, and, like everyone else who’s done the same, felt deflated rather than exhilarated. I have pretty much been staving off depression only through the adrenaline rush of constantly approaching deadlines, and now I have to find other ways of inducing that adrenaline rush. By way of tidying up my brain, let me expel some ideas left over from my much-missed coursework.
One thing that struck me as I was writing my philosophy of music final paper was a particularly weak argument made by Stephen Davies against the possibility that the expression of emotions in music is done through an abstract symbol system in which certain emotions are conventionally linked to certain musical features. Davies refers to such theories of how emotions are expressed in music as semiotic theories. His objection to them is that they do not fit the phenomenology of listeners’ experiences of emotions in music:
Registering music’s expressiveness is more like encountering a person who feels the emotion and shows it than like reading a description of the emotion or than like examining the word ‘sad’. While the dinner bell might, through association, lead us to salivate, we do not think of it as tasty. By contrast, we experience the sadness of music as present within it. Emotion is transparently immediate in our experience of music and our awareness of its expressiveness is not separable from, or independent of, our following the music’s unfolding in all its detail. moreover, the listener’s connection is not with some general, abstract conception of the emotions but with a specific and concrete presentation.*
Earlier in the same book, he puts the point more pithily: “The emotion is announced through the music rather than described by the music.”
The thing about this argument that makes it absurdly weak, to me, is that there is a too obvious objection to it. Language is an abstract symbol system, yet we do have phenomenological experiences with language akin to those we have with emotions in music: we do sometimes feel, for certain words or phrases, that they announce as well as describe their referents. The most obvious candidates are onomatopoeic words. But even words that have no phonetic relations to their referents can often be so strongly associated with a particular mood or atmosphere that we seem to immediately get a “feel” of their referents when we hear or read those words. “Library”, to me, is an example of such a word: I get an immediate rush of bookish mental associations and their attendant feelings when I hear the word. “Forest” is another. All the emotion words have the same kind of effect. It certainly doesn’t feel as though the word “sad” is merely a symbol for something lying outside itself — to me, at least, the word “sad” comes with its own halo of phenomenological effects associated with sadness. I suspect that when one is familiar enough with a word, then the associations with the word simply come with the word every time we hear them, without our having to feel that we need to expend extra “effort” in looking “outside” the word to spot things associated with it. In short, an unnatural symbol system can come to feel natural with enough acculturation. If such phenomenological experiences are possible with known abstract symbol systems, then Davies’ objection to semiotic theories of emotions in music is toothless.
*Stephen Davies, Themes in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 175.