Music, Emotion and Language

Immanuel Kant famously described music as “the language of emotions”, and many other writers have said much the same. Witness Henrich Heine, “Where words leave off, music begins”; Hans Christian Andersen, “Where words fail, music speaks”; Henry Longfellow, “Music is the universal language of mankind”; Alphonse de Lamartine, “Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends”; Irena Huang, “When words fail music speaks ”; Mara Arps, “Music is a second language to my heart”; and many others.

In a much-quoted letter to Marc-André Souchay of 15th October 1842, Felix Mendelssohn was more emphatic: “People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should think when they hear it is so unclear, whereas everyone understands words. With me, it is exactly the opposite, and not only with regard to an entire speech but also with individual words. These, too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words. The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein opposed Mendelssohn diametrically, appearing to side with those people with whom Mendelssohn disagreed. Strictly speaking, he said, music is not a language because it has neither outside referents nor easily detectable meaning. Although we understand music and understand language in similar ways, music is not a language because we cannot communicate through music as we can through language. Wittgenstein was well informed about music and as much affected by it as anyone – indeed his brother was a renowned concert pianist, for whom Ravel wrote the “Concerto for the left hand” – but he seemed to take issue not only with Mendelssohn and a constellation of writers from Heine onwards, but also with the great Kant.

Can this conflict of opinions be resolved, and can we make sense of the way in which music encapsulates, purveys – and perhaps communicates – human emotion? The potential power of music and its importance for our species are widely attested. Confucius, in the Book of Rites, wrote that “Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without”. Maria von Trapp echoed the sentiment: “Music acts like a magic key, to which the most tightly closed heart opens”. Bono remarked that “Music can change the world because it can change people.” In other words, music is vitally important for us – just as language is vitally important. This seems to be common human experience.

The philosopher who focussed particularly on music, whose writings reflected the views of Confucius, von Trapp and Bono, was Arthur Schopenhauer. Unfortunately, Schopenhauer’s evaluation of music, like much of his work, is hard to understand and remains a focus of debate, though it has been influential. (For example, it influenced both Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche.) In The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer distinguished various forms of consciousness, notably ‘empirical’ and ‘aesthetic’. Empirical consciousness separates objects in our outer experience – objects perceived as related to each other by space, time and causality – in order to judge whether they’ll help or hinder us in achieving the purposes we Will. Aesthetic consciousness, in contrast, is disinterested and allows us to perceive the objective essence of things. Music is the apogee of aesthetic consciousness because it provides us with a disinterested view of the individual Will itself, thereby (temporarily, while the music lasts) freeing us from the pessimism inherent in the human condition. Thus, the ‘philosopher of pessimism’ saw in music a kind of salvation. There’s no evidence that Schopenhauer knew the writings of Confucius (and he certainly didn’t know about Bono!) but in a convoluted philosophical way he echoed their views.

In the context of Schopenhauer’s writings on music, it’s interesting to reflect on Eliot’s line in Burnt Norton: “But you are the music while the music lasts”. For Eliot, as for Schopenhauer and others, music definitely did communicate – pace Wittgenstein – not in language, perhaps, but in a deeply human and primarily emotional way.

Scholars of mediaeval music might question this assessment. Among the seven arts of mediaeval learning, music was construed as a branch of mathematics along with arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. The four disciplines together constituted the Quadrivium. Music was “mathematics in practice”. But of course, the Quadrivium was a matter for the learned, and the learned belonged in some way or other to the Church; so it was sacred music that was a branch of mathematics. Secular music (peasant dances and songs, for example) wasn’t considered in the same light. Now the point of sacred music was to inspire religious awe and reverence, just as the architecture of the great Gothic (and even Romanesque) cathedrals was designed to inspire awe and reverence. And just as the proportions among various parts of a cathedral were mathematical (here, geometry was put into practice in the interests of religious inspiration), so were the harmonies of the music sung inside those buildings. The emotions communicated, or evoked, were religious ones – at least, that was the intention. And no doubt the emotions evoked or communicated by the secular music of the day, as by the secular music of our own times, were decidedly different.

For this reason, I see no conflict between the idea of music as the “language of enotion” and the mediaeval conception of music as a branch of mathematics.

Overall, I have no difficulty with the Kantian idea of music as the “language of emotion”, though in respect of precision of communication I’m with Wittgenstein rather than Mendelssohn. (But then I’m not a composer to compare with Mendelssohn!) But if I understand Schopenhauer correctly – a big ‘if’, I admit – I’m happy to acknowledge that the lack of precision is more than compensated by a depth, sometimes a totality, of immersion in the experience of music.

You really do lose yourself when you listen to music that ‘grabs’ you, in a way that you don’t when you hear or read even the most aesthetically brilliant use of language.



  • phibby venable 01.04.2016 - 03:02am

    Wonderful write, Mark – Music as a branch of mathematics is interesting. Music is definitely mind altering – can take one back – or inspire – or just relax.
    Love this blog!

  • Mark Henderson

    From Jürgen Lawrenz:

    Apropos Music, Meaning and Emotions

    I think Wittgenstein is right. If music were the ‘language’ of emotions, then it would necessarily need to have a vocabulary, so that audiences could decipher it as to its meanings. But although Derryck Cooke made such an attempt, it is fairly generally agreed that his pandect is so rudimentary (and unsubtle) as to rule out its usefulness. The point is, however, that the emotion is not the artist’s, nor is it ingrained in the molecules of sound, but rather that the auditor’s sensibility creates an inner emotional response to the impact of this organised noise. So as in the case of beauty being in the eye of the beholder, the emotions of music are in the ear of the auditor. Kant himself says something along those lines in his Critique of Judgements; and Nietzsche sharpened that insight by raising the question of the auditor’s ‘sufficiency’ in this transaction.

    Similar arguments pertain to ‘meaning’. As no two persons could possibly agree to the same meaning except in an utterly vague sense, it seems to me a misuse of the word—and not in terms of music alone, but art altogether. But to stick with music, plainly the appropriate term to use would be ‘import’, as then we have no argument. Music distinctly conveys an import, though once again its decryption is up to the auditor.

    As I don’t wish to write a dissertation, I merely add that the importance of music to our culture is not (by a long shot) tied in with our emotions. That seems to me a very impoverished notion of its value, as many things not art can evoke the same emotions—e.g. love stories, murder, war, rites of passage, TV, movies, sport, etc etc. I am on the contrary persuaded that the emotional issue is the surface of deep waters, namely connection with the world that gave birth to us, from which we long ago departed by constructing our own artificial habitat. Many sensitive people have testified to a feeling of oneness with something greater than themselves (not necessarily a religious sentiment), of horizons opening in this experience which remain clouded in our quotidian (and intellectual) life, even a feeling of connectedness with our inner self. I think if we took this away, music would be nothing more than titillation of our auditory nerves and/or temporary stimulation of pleasurable, but unimportant and transitory states. Consider that a profound musical experience can lodge a long time in memory, perhaps for life; and that in some circumstances it may change a person’s life or direction. This is not adequately explained by puzzling either over meaning or language.

    Best regards


  • Mark Henderson

    Jürgen e-mailed his comment to me so I’ve posted it on his behalf. Here’s the reply I sent:

    Your view of music – not as “language of emotion” or indeed language of any sort, but as an instigator of what might, with allowance for secular interpretation, be called a spiritual experience – accords not only with a lot of human experience but also (I think) with the mediaeval perspective. Many people now consider the attitude to sacred music in Europe during (at least) the 12th-16th centuries to be coldly academic, but perhaps this misses the point: as I understand it, all acknowledged branches of mathematics in late mediaeval times, including music, were intimately connected with the design of the universe and therefore with God, so both the geometry of cathedral architecture and the “abstract geometry” of the music performed in those cathedrals were ways of evoking awe and reverence. Those are, in some sense, emotions, but your description “connection with the world that gave birth to us, from which we long ago departed by constructing our own artificial habitat” captures the concept much more precisely. And I don’t think things have changed with the passing of centuries. The music’s changed, of course, more or less drastically, but I don’t believe its human importance or its effect on the listener’s mind are qualitatively different now from what they were in the fifteenth century.

    In other words, I don’t think we disagree! But there’s so much more to be said on the subject of music that these assessments can only skim the surface. I shall try to write a little more about it in due course.

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