Music means according to how it feels.
I closed the last iteration of this series by pointing out that musical meaning is often constructed around – and uses the material of – its emotional content or ability to invoke or evoke emotion.
So how exactly does music invoke or evoke (or just voke) emotion? There are several ways of explaining this.
On the one hand, several scholars have suggested that music’s emotional efficacy can be attributed to something called “contour theory.”
Contour theory argues that music’s emotional power lies in the ways that music’s elements mirror human emotions.
For instance, a descending melody or minor key can be understood to mimic sad emotions. An upbeat tempo can mirror an exuberant or purposeful strut.
Another way of understanding music’s emotional power is by considering the effects of something called “entrainment.”
Entrainment is a law of physics that states two objects moving rhythmically (that is, back and forth) in proximity to each other will synchronize automatically.
While this originally was understood to apply to nonhuman objects (like pendulum clocks), it has since been observed in human beings as well.
Particularly in and around music. People move to music, and quite often move rhythmically together. Sometimes in unison.
When we move together in unison for a prolonged period of time (about 13 minutes), something happens to us that triggers powerful emotional responses. I’ve written a bit about this here and here, and some really smart people have written even more about entrainment and emotional responses here, here, here and here.
But how is it that music means according to how it feels? Don’t we have conventions like “reason” as opposed to “emotion”? Doesn’t meaning belong to the rational realm while feeling resides in the irrational? Don’t we have two sides of our brain, or something like that?
Without going into another long history lesson (please, hold your applause), we imagine this to be so because we’ve been taught to control our emotions with our mind; remember when you were a kid and your parents taught you about self-control?
While we would now say that this is about “impulse control,” when I was a kid it was about controlling your emotions; not letting them get the better of you.
This wasn’t just my childhood, either. It extended well into my young adulthood. (I even wrote a song called “Emotion Sickness” after spending a week in a canoe. The main metaphor involved comparing the rocking back and forth of a canoe with the rocking back and forth of my emotions, which I was supposed to be controlling. Clever, I know.)
This division of meaning and feeling has been nowhere more pronounced than in musical scholarship (except perhaps childhood) – especially in churches.
Countless books and pamphlets have been written encouraging singers and leaders to avoid performing music in worship primarily for emotional reasons.
In other words, “don’t just sing something because it makes you feel good. Be sure the words mean the right things.”
Some even go so far as to instruct leaders not to sing songs that elicit strong emotions (this was one of the tactics used during the “Worship Wars” against “praise songs”) because it was believed that emotions could lead a person astray.
And maybe they can. But so can meaning. And theology. And orthodoxy. More on that later.
But what does any of this have to do with musical meaning?
Think about a song you love: Why do you love it? Is it because it reminds you of someone – maybe Grandma? Perhaps it calls to mind certain events. Or it expresses something central about who you are or imagine yourself to be. Maybe you love the song because of what it stands for, the meaning of its lyrics.
But would those lyrics be anywhere near as meaningful if they were not set to music? Or would that musical composition be as important without the way it can generate ideas, feelings, maybe even affection? If not for emotion and feeling, why have music at all?
So, yes, music is emotionally powerful. Musical meaning is made in conjunction with how it feels.
Here’s an example from my own sordid life: the song “Come Thou Fount” and its most popular setting, Nettleton, is one of my favorite folk hymns.
I especially love the second theme in the third stanza – the “B” section, (for you hymnologists out there).
The melody shifts from its descending pattern and climbs to the other end of the octave, accompanying the words, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.”
Immediately following the invocation of grace’s “binding” assurance and followed by a reaffirmation of one’s allegiance to God’s Kin-dom (yes, that’s on purpose: see Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz “Kin-dom of God: A Mujerista Proposal”), the soaring admission of waywardness evokes something deep in my being; something, emotional and meaningful – what Jonathan Dueck calls “feelingful.”
It both invokes acknowledgment of my own tendency to wander off simultaneous to how I feel about that.
But do I feel “feels” because of what that section of the song means, or do I find it meaningful because of its ability to make me feel those “feels?”
If “prone to wander” was set to the “A” section of a different stanza, would it have the same affect? Alternatively, if the lyrics “Oh to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be” were relocated here would the meaning be as rich?
Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
It doesn’t matter. The point is that chickens and eggs are of a kind, are the same species. Musical meaning and emotion are like that too.
When meaning and emotion collide in human bodies during musical activity, they generate affection, love. We call that collision “affect.” Affect is neither only meaningful nor only emotional; it is and needs both.
Here’s the thing. If we think we can divorce musical meaning from musical feeling, we are deceiving ourselves. Each contributes to the other in music.
Instead of trying to diminish the emotional efficacy of worship, we should embrace it as intrinsic to music’s musicking.
And more than that. Affect needs an object for the subject to affection. Affection is relational. Because relationships are central to being human.
Nathan Myrick is Assistant Professor of Church Music at Mercer University. His work focuses on music and human flourishing in the context of Christian communities.