Is the Idea of ‘Musical Emotion’ Present in Classical Antiquity?

In: Greek and Roman Musical Studies
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This article investigates to what degree the concept of ‘musical emotion,’ a term coined by contemporary psychology, can be traced in antiquity. Hence, it is necessary to begin by clearly defining ‘music’ and ‘emotion,’ in both ancient and modern understandings. The distinctions between ‘musically induced emotions’ and ‘musical emotions’ strictly speaking, and between the ‘referentialist’ and ‘absolutist’ (or ‘cognitivist’) school in music psychology structure the question. While most ancient theorists believe that the impact of music on the passions (παθήµατα) is of pedagogical or therapeutical relevance as it is able to create ethos in the human soul through mimēsis, others, similar to the cognitivists, limit its effect to (aesthetic) pleasure. Emotions unique to music are not explicitly discussed by the ancient theorists, although an indirect acknowledgment possibly exists in form of metaphorical descriptions of musical experiences, a certain notion of specifically musical pleasure, and the idea of music’s magical power.

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  • 7

    See e.g. Kivy 2007; Patel 2008, 86.

  • 24

    Konstan 2006. By comparing catalogs of ‘basic emotions’ in multiple authors and analyzing the examples given especially in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Konstan holds the various sociological milieus responsible for the differences in the emotional vocabulary. For instance, the pre-Hellenistic Athenian society “understood emotions as responses (. . .) to actions, or situations resulting from actions, that entail consequences for one’s own or others’ relative social standing” (id., 40) as opposed to an individual ‘inner state’ (id., 31), which would be the prevalent aspect in defining emotion during Hellenistic or even modern times.

  • 37

    See Barker 2005, 33-47; 120-8; Pelosi 2010, 68-113.

  • 41

    Bonds 2014, 17, draws the lines in a different way, between Orpheus and Pythagoras, by stating that they “embody two fundamentally different perspectives on music that together circumscribe the foundation of Western attitudes toward the art. As a musician, Orpheus demonstrated music’s effect; as a philosopher, Pythagoras explained its essence.” As intriguing as this might at first sound, when Bonds later (p. 22) asserts that “Pythagoras’s explanation of music’s essence was at the same time an explanation for its effect, as realized through the skill of Orpheus,” this relationship of “mutual reinforcement,” his initial distinction does not seem to be as fruitful as the one presented here, which focuses on what kind(s) of effect music can have at all.

  • 42

    Meyer 1956, 1-3; the author notes that this distinction is not the same as “formalist” and “expressionist,” because among the latter, there are “absolute expressionists” who believe that an emotional response to music functions without reference to extra-musical realities, and “referential expressionists” who “would assert that emotional expression is dependent upon an understanding of the referential content of music” (id., p. 3). Reviews and assessments of the most important theories offer Budd 1985 and Davies 2010.

  • 43

    E.g. Kivy 1990, 171: “Being moved by music and the descriptions we give of music in emotive terms—sad, hopeful, happy, angry, and the like—are independent phenomena, related only in the sense that I might be aroused to ecstasy by the beauty (say) of a particularly anguished passage in a musical work;” and 194-5: “Music alone is about nothing at all, and the inference from its sadness or joy, tranquility or turbulence, to its ‘aboutness’ a false one. (. . .) The expressive properties of music alone are purely musical properties, understandable in purely musical terms.”

  • 52

    See Kaimio 1977, Rocconi 2003, and the synopsis of terms in Kramarz 2016, 65-136.

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