This post is in the Emotions category

Pulling the Rug - Zen Zen Zo, The Tempest © M. Roberts 201

Pulling the Rug - Zen Zen Zo, The Tempest © M. Roberts 201

Dear Reader

As if prosopagnosia, or face-blindness is not enough, I have recently discovered that I can be classified as alexithymic.  Apparently, I don’t know what I’m feeling – at least, not straight away – not without thinking about it.

A-lexi-thym-ia literally means “no words for the feelings”. It refers to an individual’s inability to recognise or define the emotions that they are feeling, and is a commonly recognised trait in Asperger’s Syndrome  (Attwood, 2006; Hill, Berthoz & Frith, 2004; Lombardo, Barnes, Wheelwright & Baron-Cohen, 2007; Moriguchi et al., 2008).  I was vaguely aware of the term and could see it in others, but until very recently, did not realise that it applied to myself. Indeed my counsellor had been working with me on recognising my own emotions, but had never used the term, so I had not put two and two together.

As with all these things there’s some sort of sliding scale of “impairment” compared to the typically developed person so I should rather say, “I’m not very good at recognising my feelings and putting them into words”. This is something of a revelation, an epiphany if you like, as my previous observations of people had led me to believe that most of them don’t know what they are thinking and cannot express their thoughts in words. Perhaps that’s a bit uncharitable …

This rather sudden and unwelcome understanding came about when I realised that my primary engagement with music is not really emotional.  I’m now not convinced that I relate to the concept of music emotion in the listener at all. In the timeline of my own explorations and observations, this is how it happened: (the full report on the literature cited here appears on another page)

  • Pike uses the term Gestalt in relation to musical-emotional congruence  (Pike, 1972, p. 265).  Warning bells.
  • Bennett  (1976) and Hindemith  (1952) discuss the different processes in listening and composing music.  Hm, could account for my own drive to create rather than listen.
  • Allen points to arousal as the primary emotional response to music in ASD (Allen, Hill & Heaton, 2009). Logical.
  • Time passes.  Several months in fact.

My colleague Manny and I are discussing all things Motown and he suddenly gets all teary over an old Marvin Gaye track. Shit, he’s feeling the music – go on ask him, what is going on?1

I’m excited, I can see that he is affected, this is beyond intellectual fascination. Of course I have seen this before but this time it’s different, I’ve got more knowledge and something has clicked.  So I ask “is this making you feel something? What are you feeling Manny?”

He’s a bit taken aback, it takes a while for him to understand, then he realises it’s not one of those questions where we both nod sagely and assume agreement – he has to explain something that I’m not familiar with.  He says it gives him a surge of emotion, it makes him sad and happy at the same time, it brings him a memory of another time, but mostly it makes him fly.

Over the course of the next hour I ask probing questions of everyone I encounter in the building, and by the end of it, I have understood.  Listening to music moves people.  It is not just a saying or a description of a thought process, it’s a fact.  Music moves people.  Other people. But not me.

At that moment I am completely baffled.  I have no idea how to feel – I’m asking myself serious, “WTF?” questions.  I apply the  techniques I have learned over the past two years of therapy to identify my emotional state

Shallow breath
+ really slow heart
+ rigid shoulders
= Anxiety.

I’m worried.
Should I be concerned about this? I’m a musician for God’s sake, a composer, I teach people to create evocative music, am I kidding myself?  Am I a fraud?  I head home – sleep on the train, try not to think.

Evenings at our place are unpredictable. Sometimes it’s really hard to have a conversation about anything meaningful, but tonight the opportunity presents and I spill the beans to my wife.  She says nothing and I wonder if she understood the implications.  A few minutes later she gets back to me – “That’s really sad. That’s why there is no music in our house. That’s why you don’t play anything for the kids. That’s why our CD collection is “interesting music, not anything I want to listen to, it’s all there for you to analyse” and now I have my answer.  I’m not sad about it.  I like the way music and I get along together.

But I realise that my own enjoyment is not normal and I am perhaps depriving my children of something I never realised they could want.

I love music but I never realised just how other people hear it. I hear music and I am fascinated, captivated by the way it sounds, by the way I can get inside it and explore, find the hard shiny bits and soft velvets. In this way I am moved, affected, captured.  “Just listen to that, can you hear the way the instruments interact, listen to the way this sound moves against the others …” Allen, Hill and Heaton (2009) would call this “arousal”.

I have observed other people moved emotionally by music.  I have observed other people moved by my music  and I have generally thought it was a bit over the top.  But I love the fact that when I introduce my music into a scene with Zen Zen Zo or other companies, that the actors change.  They are clearly affected and I can be moved by that.

There is a difference between music coming in and music going out.  Musiking, making music as opposed to listening, is an emotional experience.  I am heavily involved.  I am recalling events and feeling the feelings associated with them.  The process is different to the product and I have very little attachment to the end product.  Its purpose is done for me and is available for others to use and respond to in the way that suits them.

All this hard-core reflection has got me rattled.  I need to know if what I put in, is what others get out.  Does the intent match the receipt?  For myself, when I listen to my own pieces, I recall the moments of creation.  The feelings are linked to that time, so I can’t tell if the music evokes them or the memory.

Experiment time.

  1. A joke! Did you get it?? []

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