This post is in the Emotions category

I have read, heard and seen many people respond dramatically to music. Listeners report strong physical reactions, warmth, heat tension, intoxication, ecstasy. These are clearly emotions induced by the music rather than expressed by it. Ball goes so far as to suggest that if one has not experienced similar reactions to these then one might feel like “the gloomy outsider at a party, excluded from the drunken euphoria all around” (Ball, 2010, p. 254). I seem to be the man in the kitchen at the musical party as well as the social one. I have no recollection of ever having the kind of response to music that so many describe, except when accompanied by dramatic or narratively explicit visuals. Perhaps I am simply failing to recognise my emotional response to music, emotions present but inadequately defined (Allen, Hill, & Heaton, 2009, p. 331).   It is perhaps a point for further research as to whether the sometimes extravagant claims others make for their emotional response is a result of having inadequate words to describe it, or even an attempt to fit in to a perception of social expectation.

Yet I love music.

Despite Temple Grandin’s assertions on her own experience, autistics often love music (Heaton & Allen, 2009, p. 321) and it is a common pre-occupation, special interest or indeed obsession. Why? Pamela Heaton in particular has been looking at musical affect in autism for some years (Allen et al., 2009; Heaton & Allen, 2009; Heaton, Hermelin, & Pring, 1999; Heaton, Pring, & Hermelin, 2001; Heaton, Williams, Cummins, & Happé, 2007) and notes that while the range of “uses” that autistics have for music is as varied as their neurotypical counterparts, including social belonging and connection and mood alteration, but more arousal (inward focussed) than emotional (outward focused)  (Allen et al., 2009). I would suggest that for myself, these arousal states are very much cognitively triggered rather than emotional or instinctive. And yet I know that music is important to me, is a part of me and I “need” it to survive. There is a disjunct in my own case between the somewhat addictive experience of arousal and a deeper sense of “movement”. There is a clear case for further research into the variance between physical arousal states and reported emotional response in autistic persons.

The realisation that I can perceive expression of emotion in music if I analyse it, but I do not experience induced emotion led to some serious anxiety on my part, in particular that my ability to induce emotion in others through my music may also be affected.

When engaged in the process of composition, I draw strongly on memory of actual events, film and television and my imagination and work hard to place myself into an appropriate emotive state. I feel sad when I am writing sad music, anxious when underscoring tension or suspense – and it takes time to recover.  From my limited understanding, this seems to have something in common with Method Acting. With the possible exception of the births of my children, these are consistently the most intense feelings I have at any time.

Yet Ball (2010) cites a number of sources including no less than Tchaikovsky, that composers do not feel the emotions they are expressing musically, and performers do not need to be sad to express sadness or to induce it in others. In addition, my recent research has strongly indicated to me that my identification of my own emotive state, empathy with the emotions of others, and ability to project myself emotionally are somewhat unreliable. Perhaps the emotions I experience or try to take on when I am writing are not as real or accurate as I thought. Could this account for my sometimes unexpected musical responses? I particularly had in mind some instances with Zen Zen Zo where I had written a piece in response to discussion about the meaning of a scene, to be met with surprise on delivery. Director Lynne Bradley told me in interview in 2004, during my Masters research (Webber 2005) :

What we like about you, Colin is that you don’t throw us back exactly what we have given you, you analyse the ideas behind what we have given you, or what you think might be the motivation behind what we have given you and then you re-interpret it and create your own piece, the classic examples being some of those pieces in Unleashed, where I can’t even remember what the stimulus was for Steel Ribbons or Butoh Babies but I remember being absolutely shocked when I hear the pieces that you came back with because they were completely unlike what I had given you, but when I listened I realised that you had absolutely captured the essence and I fell desperately in love with both pieces.(L. Bradley, personal communication, October 2004)

In the particular instance to which Bradley refers, my memory is that her “shock” phase came as a surprise to me – I thought I was interpreting pretty literally my own emotional response!

The question then arises as to whether my emotional state at the time of composition,1 is transmitted through the resulting music. Are the signifiers or cues sufficiently present in the music for others to pick up?

And so began the

Great Panic Experiment

I assembled a compilation of thirteen tracks of my music. The pieces were chosen because I have very strong recollections of the emotional motivation and state,  and of the composition and production processes. Some of them are in this document, Know This, Tamashii, Make Firm, Lavinia, Lotus, Caliban, Never Left You.

I then compiled a written response sheet with the title of the piece and a request for “emotive response”. This was distributed to a group of ten colleagues and research subjects from the JMC Academy, who had already been through the informed consent process, with a verbal explanation. I explained that I was interested in their basic emotional response, not “what you think the piece means”. This hurried and rather poorly designed experiment did not differentiate between perception of and experience of emotion. I asked for the experience but I suspect that not all participants understood the distinction.

In all I only received five responses to this experiment,2 making it difficult to draw any definitive conclusions from the data, but the results were still intriguing.  The collated data is shown in the table below. Not all the responses addressed all the pieces in the way I wanted them to, leaving blanks, describing the sonic qualities of piece, “My attention was held by the various percussion instruments”, giving an external context “sounds like a smoky club”, “Sounds like the lion king” or a personal taste “I don’t like this sort of music”. However, most of the responses were close enough to my intention and emotive state when writing that I was quite pleasantly surprised, given my state of anxiety about the whole thing. However, the most interesting aspect for myself were two pieces that did not match.

Responses to Musical Emotion

Make Firm our Steps was confronting to all the listeners, despite my intention that it be about certainty – a clear path in the wilderness. The fact that it is an unfamiliar sacred text may have contributed to this, and it is also in a rather non-traditional setting. The reactions when the piece was played to an audience who were familiar with the text was much more positive, although I would not expect those who found the experience difficult to come and tell me.

Miranda was the other point of departure. The piece was written for Zen Zen Zo’s “The Tempest” and underscores Miranda’s naive loneliness at the beginning of the play. One response was very much aligned to this intention “sadness, loss, lonely, no hope, very powerful sadness”, while the others were rather more positive, “relaxed, clarity, safety, comfort, beauty, sadness”.

While this experiment helped set my mind at rest regarding my compositions, it did nothing to explain why I can feel music when writing but not when listening.  A second epiphany came about through finding a link between cognitive empathy and musical emotion perception.

  1. sorry Tchikovsky, you were wrong []
  2. the timing around assessment and other commitments was not good []

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