Humans Can’t Convey Emotion

In a recent group lesson, the composition professor asked the presenting student if music could convey emotion. The student replied, “No. Music is perceived by individuals as a series of consonances and dissonances, to which he or she may have an emotional response based on their psychological makeup, but it cannot convey emotion.”
”Yeah, exactly,” responded the professor. “My teacher once told me, ‘if music can convey emotion, then what does jealous music sound like?” All in the room seemed in general agreement.
”Ok,” another student interjected, “then would you say that music can evoke emotion?” Though the exact response to this escapes the author’s memory, the gist of it was this:
– It can only in as much as any other physical phenomenon. Our conceptions of sad, angry, joyful, or melancholy music are “cultural baggage” from a “romantic era hangover.” Emotions may drive the composer to write in a certain way, but that in no way determines whether or not a listener will have the same response. There’s no one-to-one relationship between music and emotion. –
This is, to a certain extent, true. People have different emotional responses to music and (do indulge the author) musicate differently to emotions. They also, however, have different responses to hugs, pats on the back, criticism, praise, facial features, tones of voice, etc. If one sees a need to correct the misconception that music can convey emotion, then they need to also correct the common belief that humans can.
What humans do to convey emotion is never exact. There are no one-to-one relationships. Of course, there are norms, but shouldn’t these, too, be dismissed as cultural baggage? Because humans convey emotion in a way less exact than math, are they, then, not able to express it at all? Aristotle would disagree. ”[I]t is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind which the nature of the particular subject admits. It is equally unreasonable to accept merely probable conclusions from a mathematician and to demand strict demonstration from an orator.Aristolte Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 1 chp. 3.
Music is a language. It is sound, granted, which, on its own means nothing, but in a cultural vacuum nothing means anything, anyway. If it were not for “baggage,” there would be no communication. Can music convey emotion? If “convey” means transferring empirically provable, mathematically explainable data from one consciousness to the next, then no. It cannot just as much as any human activity cannot. In fact, until the day when one brain can transfer to another brain the exact pattern of electric signals fired through the nervous system in a given space of time, no emotions will be conveyed at all. If, though, “convey” refers to the normal human to human mode of communication, then yes. Music can convey emotion. It is not exact, yes, but what is in human communication? But enough of logic and discourse. This entire argument is better stated in a few lines of poetry.
There will always be the austere ones Who mount denial’s shaky ladder To drape the statues or whitewash the frescoed wall, As if the still star of painted plaster Praised creation less then the evening’s original. And they are right. Symbols betray us. They are always more or less than what Is really meant. But shall there be no Processions by torchlight because we are weak? What native speech do we share but imperfection?” Dana Gioia Autumn Inaugural.”


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