Please feel free to raise questions, make criticisms, etc....REB
Serious Schmaltz and Passionate Pop
[subtitle to be added later]
by Roger E. Bissell
“…the great unanswered question: why does music make us experience emotions?” – Ayn Rand, “Art and Cognition,” The Romantic Manifesto
In college during the late 1960s, as I read various works on philosophy of art and aesthetics, I began to get a feel for the difficulty of the issue of emotion and meaning in music. Music was touted as “the language of the emotions,” and the challenge was to identify how this could be so – to identify how music conveys emotions and stirs them in us. At the time, it struck me as somewhat odd to grant this title to music, when it was obvious to me that the other forms of art also present and arouse emotions in the viewer.
In particular, it seemed clear to me that stage dramas were able to affect their audiences in much the same way that music did, the main difference being the means by which they did so. In drama – which, like music, is a temporal art, a process occurring through time – emotions are symbolized by gestures, tone of voice, posture, attitude, and actions by the actors. The parallel in music is melody – the phrases, motifs, intervals, etc., that occur in a way that seems similar to the actions of a dramatic character.
In drama, including dramatic novels and short stories, the overall progression of actions and interactions between the characters and circumstances draw us in so that we vicariously experience the expectations, frustrations, victories or defeats of the characters – and in that way, too, emotions are symbolized and evoked by drama, in this case by the plot of the story. Again, in music, something very similar happens in the unfolding of the progressions of harmonies.
While the parallels between dramatic music and literature are probably most obvious on the scale of the symphony, the concerto, or the sonata, a good number of similar observations can be made on the level of the popular song and classical theme. Indeed, the longer forms are, to a great extent, an elaboration upon the shorter forms, both in literature and music. So, it seems reasonable to me that there is much to be gained by beginning one’s quest to understand music’s emotional impact with an examination of popular songs and classical melodies.
This book, which attempts such an examination, is an outgrowth of a talk by the same name that I gave in San Francisco in March of 2003. The subtitle of that talk, “Are there objective indicators of emotion in music?” indicated that my purpose was to examine songs from the popular and serious repertoire for features that might explain our experience of and response to music. I specifically looked at the connotations of melodic contours, especially ascending and descending melodies, of major and minor tonalities, of faster and slower tempos, and of beginning- and end-accented rhythms. I continue to use those categories in this book, and I will expand upon them where appropriate to get at the subtleties in more complex melodies and themes.
When I gave my talk on this topic, my approach to understanding emotionality in music was mainly in terms of the melodies of cherry-picked examples of popular songs and classical themes. As noted, I already had some concepts – mainly, melodic and harmonic attributes of melodies – to apply in analyzing the emotional character of songs and themes, but I did not have a systematic approach. Above all, I did not have a data base from which to observe patterns and draw generalizations about melodies and their emotional qualities. My samples were drawn from my own experience, rather than from a comprehensive survey of the fields of popular and serious music. In this book, I aim primarily to make an attempt to remedy that lack, and then to show how the enormous task of mining this data base for enlightening and practical insights can be carried out.
The first task will be to gather a large pool of melodies and themes, then to measure their various aspects and enter those into the computer, then to analyze the data for additional aspects and patterns. Some mathematics and statistics will, therefore, be inescapable – but also invaluable, in managing and making use of the data. As a consequence, a new area of music theory will be established, ... and this book is the first attempt to organize and apply this approach to doing music theory and musical interpretation.
My “sample population” will be what is colloquially referred to as “the Great American Songbook” and “America’s Best Loved Classical Melodies.” The former will be gathered in a number of ways: culling most-recorded songs from the ASCAP and BMI websites, titles from recent “standards” albums (e.g., Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, etc.), and titles from a reference books for “casual” musicians (e.g., The Real Book). The latter will be gathered from printed and recorded collections of Classical and Romantic themes, such as those issued by Time-Life. Although my primary samples will be “favorites” or “hits,” I will also include other less popular melodies and themes mainly for use as “contrast items,” in order to illustrate what works emotionally and what does not – and as a suggestion as to why certain themes and melodies have remained popular and “stood the test of time,” while others have not.
There are several things that this book will not try to do. This book will not attempt to accomplish an encyclopedic analysis of all aspects of all musical works. An example of that would be something along the lines outlined by Ayn Rand [1975 (1971)] in her essay “Art and Cognition,” in which she proposed that researchers carry out:
…a computation of the mathematical relationships among the tones of a melody—a computation of the time required by the human ear and brain to integrate a succession of musical sounds, including the progressive steps, the duration and the time limits of the integrating process (which would involve the relationship of tones to rhythm)—a computation of the relationships of melody to harmony, and of their sum to the sounds of various musical instruments, etc. 
As Rand notes (ibid.), “[t]he work involved is staggering” – much too daunting to attempt in the early, exploratory stages of ..., and largely irrelevant to the present project, anyway. Rand’s goal for such research is to develop a standard for evaluating music based on how much integration a given musical composition achieves. We will certainly consider how well the factors of melodies and themes work together in one piece compared with another, much as one considers which of two shades of orange are closer to red than to yellow. But the massive undertaking Rand suggests is neither possible nor necessary in order to get a very large foot in the door in understanding the emotional power of melody.
Nor, therefore, does this book aim at the musical equivalent of a “Theory of Everything.” The current quest in physics is to find a “Grand Unifying Theory” to explain gravity, electro-magnetism, and the nuclear forces and how the universe evolved the way it did. This is way beyond Einstein and his theories of Relativity, who went way beyond Newton and his Theory of Universal Gravitation, who went way beyond Galileo and his Laws of Motion and Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion. I envision my efforts, certainly those in this book, to be on the scale of what Galileo and Kepler did. I am making a deliberately limited examination of certain features of certain aspects of a certain set of musical pieces, trying to find out what “makes them tick,” and specifically how they stir emotions in listeners.
Another thing this book will not try to do is to provide a set of standards for evaluating all music as to its worthiness. My own operating premise is that melody and harmonic goal-directedness are very important and valuable in providing “emotional fuel” to listeners of music, and I thus give them primary consideration in my book. However interesting it would be to argue the point, though, I am not saying here that dramatic music is better than music that functions similarly to landscape painting (“tone poems,” Impressionistic music) or poetry (Baroque dance forms, early Classical themes), any more than I am saying that a novel is better than a poem or a painting. To each his own.
Nor will this book try to argue the case for why purposeful elements in music are better than non-purposeful elements, or why music with confidently assertive melodies are better than music with wistfully resigned melodies, or why music with coherent melodies and harmonic progression are better than incoherent music, or why music with successful resolutions of conflict are better than music in which such resolution is avoided or denied. These are basically the artistic counterpart of the cardinal issues of ethics: Do you value purpose or not? Do you value self-esteem or not? Do you value reason and understanding or not? Do you value happiness or not?
I trust that my readers know where they stand on the basic ethical issues, one way or the other. It’s not my job, nor my desire, to convert anyone to my point of view on those issues. In point of fact, any of these perspectives can be appropriate in a given song or theme, depending upon the context. In literature, most people regard villains as evil, but they are a necessary evil in a dramatic story, as a foil to the hero, i.e., to serve as contrast and source of conflict so that the plot is more interesting. Or, on a deeper level, an author might use an unhappy ending (as Ayn Rand did in We the Living
as a way of dramatizing how certain political or social situations are so inimical to human success and happiness that no other outcome is possible, despite the best efforts and struggling of the main characters.
Similarly, in music, contrasting themes are used to provide variety and conflict, which is developed and resolved in the course of the piece; 19th century sonata form is a particularly good example of this, though some popular songs also exhibit the pattern. Vigorously defiant pieces beginning and ending in the minor mode are an obvious parallel to the novel described above, and they convey the idea that there are no guarantees in life, that struggle can result in defeat. (All the more reason why it is so important that there are examples of vigorously defiant pieces that end triumphantly in a major key!)
Rather than speaking as advocate for any subcategory of melodies and themes, therefore, my mission, instead, is to lay out chapter and verse on how these different stances toward life can be embodied in the attributes of a melody, so that we all have a better grasp on why we are experiencing the emotions we do when listening to music. My aim is to help us understand the phenomena, to figure out how music conjures up emotions – so that listeners will have a better handle on why their feelings are being stirred by music, and performers will have more explicit means for optimizing the expressiveness of their playing, and composers will know in conceptual terms how better to tug at the heartstrings of their listeners, and teachers will have more ideas at their disposal in helping listeners, performers, and composers approach their musical experience with more success and enjoyment.
Having said that, I hasten to add that I do intend to compare, for instance, the songs that made the Hit Parade or the list of Best Loved Classical Melodies with those that didn’t. My goal in doing so, however, is not to prove which songs or themes were the best, in any philosophical sense. Instead, I will be trying to assess the relative effectiveness of the musical factors contributing to their emotionality, and whether that had anything to do with their relative stature and longevity in the public’s affections.
In other words, I will be aiming at an aesthetic evaluation of the melodies, at the effectiveness by which they conveyed their emotional meaning. (Rand [1975 (1971)] draws a clear distinction between philosophical evaluation and aesthetic evaluation of art, and I basically follow her guidelines in applying this to the identification and evaluation of the emotional effectiveness of music.) That presupposes an identification of their emotional meaning – which is, of course, the main point of this book: to pinpoint the objective indicators of emotion in music, which requires that we measure the attributes
of music and identify the meanings
they convey. Even delimited in this manner, the task will be a big one – one that I hope repays the efforts made with sufficient adventure and enjoyment for the reader!
[more to come]
Objectivism, properly used, is a tool for living, not a weapon with which to bash those one disagrees with.