Music, Emotion and Language: Using Music to Communicate
ABSTRACT: There has yet to be a culture discovered which lacks music. Music is a part of our existence, but we do not fully understand it. In this paper, working in the tradition of Aristotle, Wittgenstein and Langer, I elucidate some of the connections between music and the emotions. Using contemporary philosophy of mind theories of emotion, I explain how we can have a better understanding of our emotive responses to music. I follow the pattern through representational painting and abstract painting to music, and show how each functions as an intentional object for the object of our emotions in response to each art form.
There has yet to be a culture discovered which lacks music. Making music is seen historically to be as fundamental as the characteristically human activities as drawing and painting. Many even go so far as to compare music to language and claim that music functions as a "universal language." But it is rarely the same music, however, that all peoples respond to. What is it that we are responding to when we listen to music? Strictly speaking, music is not a language, (1) because it has neither outside referents nor easily detectable meaning. Ludwig Wittgenstein explains that although we understand music in a similar way as we understand language, music is not a language because we still cannot communicate through music as we can through language. (2) More recently, Susanne Langer argues that although we understand music as symbol, because we are so caught up in seeing symbolic form function like language we tend to want to make music into a language. But, Langer argues, music is not a kind of language (3) because the significance of music lies not in what we traditionally call meaning but rather with the articulation of sound. Langer explains that music, like language, is an articulate form. "Its parts not only fuse together to yield a greater entity, but in so doing they maintain some degree of separate existence, and the sensuous character of each element is affected by its function in the complex whole. This means that the greater entity we call a composition is not merely produced by mixture, like a new color made by mixing paints, but is articulated, i.e., its internal structure is given to our perception. . . .Only as an articulate form is it found to fit anything; and since it lacks one of the basic characteristics of language-fixed association, and therewith a single, unequivocal reference." (4) Thus, although there are similarities in the structuring of both music and language, music does not qualify as a language, and thus could not be considered a universal language.
Aristotle explained 2500 years ago that music is mimetic or imitative. (5) Imitative of what? the harmony of the spheres? the sounds in the world around us? human emotion? To a certain extent all of these are right. What remains the same, however, is the role that emotion plays in the...