On Appearance Emotionalism
What makes sad music sad?
David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” has a baseline that wiggles and leaps with uncontained joy. It’s a happy piece of music. Of course—the refrain goes—“happy” here cannot mean what it means in “Jones is a happy guy,” or “Jones is feeling happy right now.” But it is not unusual for a word’s meaning to spread beyond its basic use, and indeed with emotion adjectives like “happy” such spreading is attested. We say that someone is wearing a happy expression on their face, or that their crumpled posture makes for a sad slouch. Here “happy” has been spread to an effect: a happy expression is one characteristic of people who are feeling happy. More carefully, a happy expression is an expression which is a natural one for someone showing their happiness in their face to wear. The analysis of sad slouch is similar: it’s a slouch that is a natural one for someone showing their sadness in their posture to pose in.
A theory of emotions-in-music is an attempt to analyze phrases like “happy piece of music” or “sad melody,” and Appearance Emotionalism is the simplest such theory one could assemble from the observations above. Focus for now on melodies, which “move through musical space,” maybe ascending step-wise from C to G, maybe leaping down from G to B. A happy melody, then, is one that moves in a way that is a natural way for someone showing their happiness in their behavior to move. There are, similarly, natural ways to show your sadness, or anger, and so on, in the way you move; and a melody that moves in one of those ways will be, thereby, a sad or an angry melody.
Variation 1 of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, especially in Glenn Gould’s 1956 recording, is joyful, exuberant. Appearance Emotionalism says that’s because it moves in a way a person full of joy would move, if they showed their joy in their motion. I’ve always found this explanation convincing. In the first half the melody runs, climbs, leaps and zig-zags effortlessly before racing home.
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