Author Topic: July, 2019: Why/how do people emotionally relate to a piece of music?  (Read 527 times)

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sandalwood

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Do you love Beethoven's 6th (or 7th...)? Do you have a genuine emotional relation to it? If you do, is it for the strict musical content of the work or is your emotional response predicated on its historical context, analogous to venerating a sacred relic? What, just assume for a moment, if it  turned out to be a hoax, actually written in 1994 by some skilled jokester?  Would you still love it? Who would seriously consider a  contemporary work written in such an ancient idiom? Is your love, hence, conditional? Not absolutely for the piece itself but only when it is embedded in a certain historical setting? Isn't this a paradox? Could digging under this paradox  bring about some insight into the nature and conditions of emotional relation to a work of music?

« Last Edit: July 02, 2019, 03:17:09 PM by sandalwood »

Michel.R.E

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(Note: I'm going to ignore any theatrical works in my comment, since they rely heavily on the very existence of extra-musical material, and even when divorced from such, retain the connection)

Certain music elicits a physical, emotional response from me, completely divorced from any extra-musical significance the work might have.

A specific part of Une Cantate de Noël by Honegger elicits a VERY strong emotional response from me, I almost invariably burst into tears when listening to it. It's neither "sad" nor really emotionally significant from an extra-musical point of view (ie: the text holds no particular significance for me), it's actually quite joyful, as a matter of fact, MEANT to be a peroration of adoration.
And yet, I burst into tears.

There are the "traditionally sad" pieces of music, like the Adagio from Ravel's piano concerto, the Adagio from Concierto D'Aranjuez, stuff like that. The harmony itself is, I believe, what causes the emotional reaction. Suspensions and resolutions, simple contrapuntal gestures that control the tension and release of "dissonance" within the music, could probably be analyzed, singled out, and "removed" (ie: corrected to remove those particular contrapuntal gestures and leave a simpler harmony) which would alter the emotional impact of the music immensely.

Then there is stuff like the finale of Martinú's Double concerto for strings, timpani, and piano... where the return of the theme of the 2nd movement has an absolutely devastating emotional impact. Again, this can probably be analyzed as partially a tension/release gesture, and partially as an insertion of a highly contrasted moment of music.

Speaking for myself, I think there are only two works that I can honestly say have heavily-emotional impact based upon the "significance" of some non-musical aspect of those two works:

The 2nd movement (Scherzo) of Goldenthal's Fire, Water, Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio has a particular section near the end where the chorus chants (militaristically) the names of combat missions ("operations"), and this builds to a climax... For me, the horror of war it represents is emotionally unbearable.

The other work is Rachmaninov's ultimate work, the Symphonic Dances. The final movement contains a brief theme/motif: a descending 2nd, followed by a descending aug. 4th.  It's been described as an "adieu" gesture inserted by Rachmaninov. This might be apocryphal, but knowing that this is, in fact, his last work makes it bitter-sweet. And I feel terrible tension in my chest every time I hear it.


I have to say though, I tend to react emotionally to works that finish "joyfully"... so Mahler's 2nd symphony finale gets me crying.

I can only speak for myself, and only for the "how" aspect of emotional responses. I think one would need a scientific study, with brain scanning equipment, to really start understanding the physiological "why" of emotional musical response.
« Last Edit: July 04, 2019, 03:56:15 PM by Michel.R.E »
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Patrick O'Keefe

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Those are some very interesting questions: what emotionally draws someone to a certain piece of music, would that person still be drawn to it if it were determined "fake", and what does that say about the love of music for that person.  I suspect it's different of every person.

I've noticed two purely musical features - which I think are completely divorced from historical context -   that provoke a deep emotional response from me.

1. There are certain deceptive cadences that evoke a strong emotion in me.  I'm not aware of an extra-musical influence here, but the only two examples I can think of are both by Mahler.  Even if there is nothing extra-musical involved, it may require the context of Mahler's musical vocabulary.   One of the occurrences is very near the end of Mahler's 3rd symphony right before (what I assume is) the coda.  After some shifting modulations there is "resolution" on a tonicized dominant.  This is finally resolved using a series of suspended chords, but for whatever reason, deceptive cadence fills me with joy.

The other example I can think of is in the instrumental "postlude" of the last song of Kindertotenlieder.   Following a tender choral in the horns the is an unexpected modulation as the celli (I think) enter (quoting the main theme from the last movement of Mahler's 3rd symphony, incidentally).  There is something about that modulation that makes me cry.  Not sadness.  Not relief.   I don't know why.

2. Some imitative counterpoint makes me just plain happy - makes me smile.  This is independent of the musical period - baroque to modern.  Not all of it, of course, but not limited to any period.  For instance, I'm not crazy about much Mozart, but I love his K. 608 Fantasia and his C minor Fugue (K. 426 or 546 - doesn't matter).  I love the 1st 3 movements of Beethoven's 9th symphony but the 4th movement is merely OK ... until the fugatto section.  And I'm transported by the Grosse Fuge.  The 4th movement of Bruckner's 5th symphony.  The 4th movement of Bloch's Concerto Grosso #1.  Many more.  I want to shout for joy when I here them.

So what would happen if I find that the St Anne Fugue was really written by Fritz Kreisler?  I think I would still like it.  I would certainly wonder why he had done it rather than take that skill to write a more modern fugue.

Jerry Engelbach

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Thanks much Reha, for another thoughtful Topic of the Month.

I think it depends on the music.

Remember a little book by Aaron Copland called What to Listen for in Music? In it he succinctly describes how music "works." And he puts it in historical context so it can be appreciated for what was intended by the composer.

This latter introduces a factor that is not inherent in the music itself but depends upon one's level of understanding of it. And it's one that I agree with.

In the course of learning how to appreciate music I've often found it unavoidable to experience extra-musical, emotional reactions. And I'm not referring to "programmatic music," which is deliberately intended to tell a story or paint an extra-musical picture, but "pure" music.

Donald Francis Tovey laid great emphasis what he called drama in music from the Classical Era and later. The development of a theme and its resolution tell a musical — not a literal — story. For example, the dominant-to-tonic closure creates an irresistible emotional reaction, as does evasion of the tonic. In jazz, it's an axiom that the goal of well-played solo improvisation is to tell that kind of musical story.

Well, I think it can be a small step from the statement of that musical story to a person having literal, extra-musical associations with it. Walt Disney's bowdlerization of music in Fantasia — dinosaurs in The Rite of Spring, mythology in Beethovens's Pastoral Symphony — was kind of disgraceful, as afterwards it's difficult for me to get those images out of my head and experience my own images. On the other hand, Mickey Mouse as The Sorcerer's Apprentice was a piece that illustrated a deliberately literal story.

But often I do experience my own images that generate extra-musical emotions. And they're influenced by not just by the sound, but by my knowledge of the composer's life, body of work, and historical era. I can't listen to Beethoven without seeing him sitting in his work-room, desperately trying to get his ideas down on paper before his deafness renders him unable to hear his own work. Or Mozart, feverishly dictating his Requiem (although perhaps I'm influenced by the literary license taken by Petter Shaffer in Amadeus).

I just accept that extra-musical factor whenever it happens to occur. I hope that it increases rather than distracts from my appreciation of the music.

Cheers,
Jer
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sandalwood

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I agree with Michel and Pat in that for me, as well, the emotional power lies intrinsic in the piece itself rather than in its historical significance. I don't mind admitting I'm moved by many historical works, all the way from Renaissance to today. Actually, they probably get sparser as we move close enough to today. So, write another Dido's Lament or Pergolesi's Dolorosa and you can bet you'll make my eyes wet.

My opinion is that, if you choose writing in an ancient idiom, you must do it as good as the best of the ancients, for those are the ones that still manage to move us (some of us, at least) reaching over the centuries; do you think that's easy? ... and while you're at it, why not boost your work with clever touches distilled from all the "inventions" in music since then, like what Grieg, Respighi, Bloch, Prokofiev and many others have nicely done.
« Last Edit: July 07, 2019, 07:54:13 AM by sandalwood »

Tónskáld

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Interesting topic... I've often wondered myself if the same music elicits a universal emotional response. Looks like that isn't the case!

I definitely love crescendos. They're like a swell of floodwaters that often overcome the dam of my emotions. Of course, not every single crescendo sends a shiver down my spine—a lot of it depends on the chords beneath—but they probably "get me" more frequently than any other musical element.

Resolution of dissonance is another emotional trigger. The final notes of Sibelius' 7th symphony (plus the added crescendo) just about undo me every time I listen to it. A lot of Bach's stuff is the same way.

And, of course, the skillful use of melodies can bring on the tears, too. The first time I heard Grieg's piano concerto was a blubber-fest, the way he brings back the middle theme at the end of the finale. Come to think of it, Rachmaninov does the same thing in his last 3 piano concerti, too. Point is there's something about the redemptive quality of those melodies that just overwhelm me.

To date, the piece I have shed the most tears over, and that combines all 3 of these elements, is Sibelius' 5th symphony (revised version)—particularly the final movement. I'm just about useless when listening to it. :'(

If you have other sobworthy recommendations, I'm all ears!!!
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Michel.R.E

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interesting that you mention the Sibelius 7th (one of my favourite symphonies), as the section of that piece that brings me to tears every time is slightly before the end, the long rising progression that culminates in the return of the trombone chorale leitmotif. The second those trombones play, that descending 2nd, the drop and rise of a 4th, then the rising 2nd, and then the resolution on the 3rd of the harmony... *shivers*

https://youtu.be/mafCgCUjtLs?t=1055
« Last Edit: July 08, 2019, 04:07:48 PM by Michel.R.E »
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Tónskáld

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Yes, that part is so rich! And it doesn't help my emotions that it's his last symphony...
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tbmartin

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I'm not sure how to define my emotional connection to music. I'm not even sure I can consistently predict what will hit me, but I know it when it does: Shivers, hair standing up. It's an elusive reaction, and it resents being forced. It may happen for a certain piece of music more consistently than others, but then, it's gone! 

We are complex beings, are we not?
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Patrick O'Keefe

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... It's an elusive reaction, and it resents being forced.
How true!