Oh the irony: Music and Emotion

Music and emotion are often considered closely connected. It wasn’t the case for me when I began exploring music as a young child. I loved melodies and singing along with the songs played in our household. There was an emotion associated with it of course: joy in making music. But the thought of using music to convey emotion came much later to me. Some say that many music students only pick up on this at puberty, and perhaps that was the case for me too.

Once I started writing songs that were about my personal experiences, instead of formulaic experiments, emotion was in those. Since then, emotion has been integral to my music experience: expressing grumpiness by playing Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, feeling spiritual euphoria with a beautifully sung motet, or taking part in a Handel’s Messiah Halleluyah chorus, going crazy with David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, sad, infatuated and all the rest with a variety of pop songs, plus my own song writing. That all music evoked some kind of emotion was logical to me.

Then I ran an experiment with a colleague, where we asked participants at a Computer Music conference to rate musical excerpts on an arousal-valence scale and with emotion words – two ways of codifying emotion. Arousal represents the intensity of the emotion and valence indicates how positive or negative the emotion is. The backlash was ferocious. Some members of the community insisted that emotion was not always associated with music, or required. Another more generously said that they hadn’t really thought about it before, but could see on reflection that an emotion could be perceived. And yet, there were definite trends in the responses we gathered from these vocal participants.

More recently I have been writing algorithmic choral compositions. The first one, World Cloud, was very emotional, in that I was intentionally making it sound uncomfortable and intense through dissonance and disturbing text. The second, Trees, was an exploratory piece that was attempting to sonify an algorithm, and to discover if doing so would result in fractal-like patterns. The text input was not interpreted in any way, so there was no intentional emotion associated with the work. While the piece has some fans, there were comments about the incongruous setting of the phrase “lovely poem”. A colleague seemed to remark with irony about the “intense” emotion expressed by the work – or so my literal-minded brain eventually concluded. So I have come full circle, from experiencing and expressing emotion via music, researching music and emotion, to writing “emotionless” music.

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