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The Music’s Secret Language

Ever wonder why a certain classical piece evokes a consistent emotional response?
Scientist and musician Manfred Clynes has done extensive research on the topic and discovered that many of the great composers all had their own unique signature of underlying emotional “pulse” in their music. But he was not the first to explore the music’s secret language.

During the Baroque era, there existed a school of thought called the Doctrine of Affects. Composers, theorists, and musicians during that time opined that certain musical styles and techniques could elicit specific emotional responses from the listener. Werckmeister and Heinichen were steadfast proponents of the Doctrine and subscribed to the idea that different keys evoked different moods. Indeed, in these heady days before equal temperament, the sound difference between key signatures was marked and substantial.

Beethoven at the piano evoking emotions in his listeners

At that time, the use of pure intervals, usually pure fifths, in just temperament was in fashion. As one advanced around the Circle of Fifths, one noticed that the last fifth of the sequence was not the same as the beginning note. Eleven of the perfect fifths that existed between the two notes of the octave would have an exact ratio of 3-to-2. As an example, the frequency of a higher note in a perfect fifth might be 300 hertz (cycles per second) while the lower would be 200 hertz. In order to close the circle, Baroque era tuners would have to increase the size of the last fifth to get to the right place. This was called the wolf fifth because the out of tune beating of the two notes sounded almost like a howling wolf. This would mean that key signatures with more than about three sharps or flats would be unusable. Werckmeister created his own tuning system to “tame the wolf,” so to speak. Werckmeister made some of the fifths in his tuning system smaller, some larger, and some pure. In his system, there are two smaller wolf fifths. This would allow a composer to use more keys, and, by extension, evoke more moods.

The basics of how key affects mood are, as experienced by proponents of the Doctrine, thus: large intervals elicit joy, small intervals elicit sadness, rough harmony elicits fury, and the complicated counterpoint of unchanging lines elicits obstinacy. Composers since then have used music to inspire, infuriate, and ingratiate listeners the world over. Baroque proponents of the Doctrine would have been proud of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” no pun intended. They would have marveled at Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony.” Before Ludwig sat at the brook composing, however, the Doctrine of Affects reached its early pinnacle in Mannheim.

The experimental musical factory in Mannheim

Mannheim Palace, Germany

In the first half of the 18th century, the orchestra at Mannheim was the best in the world. Music historian Charles Burley called it an “army of generals.” The best players from around the world descended on the northern Black Forest and made music the likes of which had never been heard. Under the baton of Johann Stamitz, and, later, Carlo Grua, they created what were, at that time, astounding effects. Two of the most famous were the “Mannheim Crescendo” and the “Mannheim Rocket.” In the early Baroque era, composers used what are known as “terrace dynamics¨. The musical line would go forward quietly for a time and then, abruptly, become loud and forceful. The Mannheim Orchestra pioneered the technique of getting louder or softer gradually. Audiences were stunned but appreciative. The rocket was a rapidly ascending collection of intervals, usually spanning at least an octave or two. Generally, this was accompanied by the aforementioned crescendo, which created a stirring effect. Audiences cheered in the middle of performances and gave thunderous ovations at the conclusion of works. Even without intense, empirical evidence or meticulous studies, one can see how music affected listeners in Mannheim.

Mattheson’s famous handbook

Mattheson's opus magna on Affect and Retoric in Music


Even those musicians who were devoted to the Doctrine found it difficult to put the evocations into words. When referring to dance forms, Mattheson said in his 1739 treatise, “Der Vollkommende Kapellmeister,” the gigue would elicit a response of “heat and eagerness,” while the courante would evoke “sweet hope and courage.” Of course, other writers expressed equally valid opinions that differed markedly from Mattheson’s.

When referring to Baroque era instruments, scholar Alec Harman stated: “Baroque composers were primarily concerned with rendering and translating into music the temper, disposition or frame of mind, passions, and mental reactions characteristic of man.” According to Harman, timpani, for example, indicated heroism. Plaintive flute lines indicated modesty. Trombones indicated melancholy.

Even ancient Greek scholars noted the mathematical precision in pure intervals. In them, it evoked respect and awe at the innate balance between the two tones. Their painstaking work in creating a musical tonality, beginning with Pythagoras, was so influential that, even 2,000 years later, musicians were playing using a tonality based on the Greek model of successive
pure fifths.

Music – a universal language?

Almost 350 years after the end of the Baroque era, Dr. Manfred Clynes applied a clinical touch to to Doctrine of Affections. He opined that one could determine a subject’s response to music by studying electrical reactions of the central nervous system. These electrical responses are based on the central nervous system’s innate connection to time forms. Music has, as its most basic root form, rhythm. Even in the absence of melody, harmony, articulation, or intonation, one can perceive rhythm. This primal relationship between sense of time and the human nervous system can manifest itself in gesture, sound, or touch.

Dr. Manfred Clynes

In fact, Clynes experimented in 1988 with two groups of people. One group was white, urban Americans, and the other group was Australian Aborigines. He played music of different types for the Americans, who transmitted their feelings by touching a button in a certain way. Short, quick stabs, for example, indicated anger. Soft, gentle touches indicated joy. Long, soft touches indicated sexual desire. Clynes then used those same touches of the Americans to create sounds. He played the sounds for the Aborigines, who correctly guessed the emotional state indicated by the sounds created by touch.
Skinner would argue that these were learned behaviors since free will and innate feelings did not exist. How, though, would residents of the Outback have learned about a European neurologist’s experiments on urban Americans 16,000 km away? Clynes’ data support the conclusion that music and sound have a universal impact on the human central nervous system, and vice versa. Werckmeister and Stamitz “knew” it in 1700, though. They just could not explain it.


/patrick

  1. Ted Jones Says:

    This hypothesis of a universal, invariant mapping of response to music over all human brains is provably not true for me. Indeed, I find one of the most wonderful properties of music is its completely abstract nature. My listening brain is at liberty to place any meaning it wishes onto musical sound, and moreover, such as it does impose may even vary from one listening of a piece to another. If the conjecture is false for me, and I strongly doubt I would be aone, it is false in general.

    Secondly, “emotion” is far too limited a description of response. I could not possibly describe some of my mental states in regard to music; abstract beauty, visionary experience, landscapes of the mind perhaps, but not just emotion. Further, to permanently attach a specific emotion to any given musical feature, seems not only childishly simple but also an implied moribund limitation of musical power.

    Surely the wonder and power of music is that it communicates absolutely nothing. Thus two people can be transported by the same sounds in radically different ways, with nothing right or wrong about either. Each of their minds superimposes and associates according to the totality of its intellectual, emotional and psychic experience. For any two listening brains these latter are likely to markedly differ. One may be contemplating a past romantic experience and it reminds the other of the delicious sausages he ate for breakfast. “What a marvellous piece,” says the first, and the latter agrees, neither being any the wiser.

  2. chris n Says:

    I have to agree with Ted Jones on this. Pure music (without lyrics, associated visual media, or externally supplied meaining, etc.) at its heart is very abstract and communicates absolutely nothing. Its abstract beauty is very difficult to derive meaing from or qualify in any way.

    In the end the incredible power and beauty of music does not seem to need any sort of meaning or consistency of response. It flows through the mind on its own unique plane creating an experience that is mostly difficult to put into words.

  3. Daniel G Says:

    While a specific musical composition does not necessarily elicit precisely the same response within different listeners or even within the same listener at separate times, it does produce responses within a certain range of emotions and thought. For example, a loud, abrasive, agitated piece of music is not going to inspire peaceful thoughts and emotions within any listener. A soft, slow, flowing composition very well may. One time, a certain piece of music may cause one to feel sad, and, another time, lonely, but the same music is highly unlikely to make the person feel angry or defiant.

    While absolute music does express abstract thoughts, to say it communicates absolutely nothing seems counter-intuitive. In fact, to say that it is abstract is, by definition, to say that it expresses something. Music, rather, directs our minds in a certain direction. Our own imagination and creativity interacts with that of the composer and that of the performers to create either a concrete narrative or an abstract experience. That experience can depend upon the circumstances and our frame of mind, as well.

  4. frank simmons Says:

    I have met hundreds of people in my life that show no emotional response to classical music at all. It is as if their brains were uttely unable to recognise any meaning or any beauty in any piece of classical music.So the idea that a certain classical piece evokes a consistent (universal?) emotional response is probably not true.

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