Music, Emotion and Forms of Vitality

by Dwight Furrow

That music and emotion are somehow linked is one of the more widely accepted assumptions shared by philosophical aesthetics as well as the general public. It is also one of the most persistent problems in aesthetics to show how music and emotion are related. Where precisely are these emotions that are allegedly an intrinsic part of the musical experience? Three general answers to this question are possible. Either the emotion is in the musician—the composer or performer—in which case the music is expressing that emotion. Or the emotion is in the music itself, in which case the music somehow embodies the emotion. Or the emotion is in the listener, in which case the music arouses the emotion.

I suspect the most popular view among the public, since it draws on the romantic views of the self and creativity which is still very much with us, is that music expresses the emotional state of the artist. But this is implausible. I doubt that song writers when writing a sad song are in a state of sadness. At best the song could be expressing a composer’s understanding of sadness or perhaps a memory of a previous emotional state. But even if that were granted, we usually know little about the emotional states of composers, song writers, or musicians and so the listener is forced to somehow “read off” the emotion from the music itself. The emotional state of the artist just seems irrelevant to the process of determining the emotive content of the music. No doubt some composers and musicians are expressing their emotions in specific cases. But the only way to know that, short of inferring it from biographical details, is to infer it from the music itself, which seems to locate the emotion in the music.

However, the claim that the emotion is in the music is difficult to defend since music is not a being with mental states. Nevertheless, this is probably the most widely held philosophical position on this question and has received a sophisticated defense. The basic move here is to argue that music bears a resemblance to emotion and thus we recognize this resemblance and attribute emotion to the music itself. Peter Kivy’s theory is the best known of these views, articulated in his Sound Sentiment: An Essay on the Musical Emotions. He argues that, just as the face of a St. Bernard looks sad because it has a contour that resembles the face of a person who is sad, music has a contour, a shape in the way it unfolds, that resembles the contour of the expression of emotion or emotional behavior. It’s not the felt emotion that resembles the unfolding of music but the outward expression of emotion that does so. Sad music does not resemble sadness but the expression of sadness. Thus, for Kivy, the emotion in music is not felt but perceived. We perceive the contour of the music, note the similarity with a particular emotional expression, and thus attribute that emotion to the music.

This is a plausible theory except for an obvious flaw. Almost everyone who listens attentively to music will at some time experience being emotionally aroused by music. We know music arouses feelings of some sort. Kivy is right that sad music does not typically make us feel sad—but it makes us feel something. The experience of music is not an affect-less comparison of similar contours but an engagement with affect. Music is a process in which the listener becomes enmeshed in its development and it feels like something to be so enmeshed. It is this active involvement that needs explanation because it gives rise to the feelings we experience in musical environments.

Thus, perhaps it’s more plausible to locate the emotion in the listener, with the music itself bearing only properties disposed to cause an emotion in us. But counter examples to this thesis abound. Kivy is right that we seldom feel sad when listening to sad music. In fact, sad music often makes us feel joyful and alive. Moreover, it is common to listen attentively and with enjoyment to a piece of music, recognize its emotional content, but not feel any particular emotion, if we think of emotions as complex, nameable reactions to intentional objects such as anger at an insult or sadness because of a loss. Thus, while it is certainly possible to feel sad when listening to a sad song, or joyful when listening to a joyful song, this seems a contingent matter, not a general pattern that would constitute a theory of how music and emotion are related.

Thus, none of the three approaches to answering the question are enlightening. I think the problem is that this philosophical discussion seems focused on fully constituted, clearly delineated emotions for which we have words—joy, sadness, melancholy, anger, etc. As noted, there is no reason to think music arouses these emotions; there is also no reason to think it resembles only or primarily these emotions. There are countless pieces of music that arouse feelings that are not best understood as emotions for which we have names.

It is not often that work in the sciences directly solves a problem in aesthetics. But in this case, the work of developmental psychologist Daniel Stern provides us with a concept that significantly advances this debate about music and emotions. The now deceased Stern, whose life’s work culminated in a 2010 book entitled Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development, noticed early in his career that mothers, in responding to the vocalizations and behaviors of their pre-verbal children, used their own vocalizations that imitated the child’s affect. This, ultimately, led to his thesis that this affective attunement made use of what he called “forms of vitality”, which, he argued are at the foundation of conscious experience.

Vitality forms constitute “the flow pattern” of human experience, “the subjectively experienced shifts in the internal states” that characterize sensations, thoughts, actions, emotions, and other feeling states. According to Stern, they “are the felt experience of force—in movement—with a temporal contour, and a sense of aliveness, of going somewhere. They do not belong to any particular content. They are more form than content. They concern the ‘How’, the manner, and the style, not the ‘What’ or the ‘Why”‘.

In short, any apprehension of motion or movement will have a temporal contour consisting of its duration, acceleration and intensity that make up its vitality form.  To use one of Stern’s examples,  the term “rush” can characterize any number of conscious phenomena: “A rush of anger or joy, a sudden flooding of light, an accelerating sequence of thoughts, a wave of feeling evoked by music, a surge of pain, and a shot of narcotics can all feel like ‘rushes'”.  Experiences surge, burst, fade away, are fleeting or drawn out, explode, reach a crescendo or decrescendo, etc. Importantly, these vitality forms are not tied to any particular sensory modality or form of awareness. “A thought can rush onto the mental stage and swell, or it can quietly just appear and then fade”.  So can sounds, visual experiences, tactile impressions or emotions—anger can explode or emerge as a slow burn. Thus, Stern shows that consciousness has two aspects, the content, the objects of consciousness, the “what” of an experience, and the temporal structure of an experience, how it occurs in time. Stern claims, with some support from neuroscience, that these are implemented differently in the brain although they are experienced as entwined. Although vitality forms are experienced as a gestalt, they can be analyzed into five theoretically distinct aspects–movement, force, time, space, and intention. Movement unfolds over time, takes place in space, is experienced as the result of a force with a certain level of intensity, and has a direction or an intention.

Importantly, vitality forms are not restricted to subjective experiences; the movements and gestures of other people and animals have a temporal contour as they move about in the world and thus exhibit vitality forms as well. It is on the basis of vitality forms that we recognize someone in the distance even when their facial features and other characteristics are too indistinct. It is central to Stern’s thesis that it is via vitality forms that we identify something as alive rather than dead, which explains in part the role they play in evolution. (He unfortunately does not provide an analysis of the vitality forms of plants which are no doubt alive but lack human scale mobility) Thus, the experience of vitality serves as a basis for experiencing the vitality of others and apprehending their mental state. The difference between a genuine greeting and a perfunctory, insincere greeting is in the different vitality form expressed.

It is part of Stern’s thesis that music and the other time-based arts—dance, theater, and cinema—are expressions of various vitality forms that constitute human experience. (I suspect that even more static art forms make use of vitality affects although I won’t defend that claim here.) Music especially draws on these physical, affective, and cognitive “flow patterns” producing elaborations and variations on them to provide new aesthetic experiences.

This notion of a vitality form is enormously useful in explaining the felt experience of music.  It explains why we don’t experience full blown emotions such as sadness or anger when listening to music. Music does not express the “what” of emotions but rather expresses the “how”, the underlying vitality forms that are recruited by the emotions on their way to being expressed. Sad music does not make us feel sad, but we do feel some of the force and contour of sadness when listening.  Thus, vitality forms also explain why we feel something when we listen to music, why the appreciation of music is not merely a form of perceptual recognition but a distinctly affective, felt experience. We feel the form of vitality expressed by the music in a kind of sympathetic resonance with the music. In addition, the hypothesis of forms of vitality obviates the need to attribute complex emotions to artists during the creative process. Instead, the composer plays with felt vitality forms as an exercise in themes and variations.

How then do we answer the question with which we began—in music, where is the affect, the feeling state, located? Stern insists that vitality forms are subjective—they are the form of the movement of conscious experience. Thus, Stern seems to think they exist in the listener. Yet, if vitality forms enable us to identify persons or distinguish between things that are living or dead there must be something about the object that indicates vitality. After all objects move and their motion unfolds in time, occupies space, and exhibits intensity and direction. Music itself must be an enactment of a vitality form that can to some degree be cognized in the musical structure itself. After all, composers and musicians manage the tempo, expectations, tensions, and releases of the music by manipulating notes, chords, textures, and a system of accents all of which can be objectively described. Yet, on the other hand, there is no apprehension of vitality forms that could simply be read off this technical description of music. Traditionally, composers have indicated the outline of a vitality form by adding terms to the score such as “andante” or “allegro”.  But as any musician or experienced listener will assert, these can be played mechanically or with feeling. To recognize tension as tension, or a passage as explosive, we must resonate with the music, be drawn in by it, enacting the temporal shapes as if they were part of us, while still maintaining a distinction between ourselves and the music.

Thus, vitality forms are neither in the listener nor in the music but emerge from their intersection. They don’t exist without the meshwork necessary to build awareness of a world, musical or non-musical. Our interaction with the world requires affective resonance whether that world consists of other humans, animals, or non-living objects such as music. Any movement in our environment, the drizzling of water, the drift of clouds, the texture of wood as we run our hands over a railing, or a dog bounding across a field will be experienced as a integrated gestalt of various vitality forms. The qualitative character of the experience must come to resemble the object and what the object and the experience share is a confluence of vitality forms. Music is perhaps the riches of objects because it expresses more and in more particular ways the movement of our affective lives, and shows perhaps more saliently than any other human practice why there cannot be a sharply delineated boundary between self and world, or between cognition, perception, or feeling.

At any rate, regardless of the larger epistemological and ontological framework we use to understand vitality forms, they are a very useful concept for understanding how we apprehend and appreciate the arts.