Home > Name that audience. > Emotions Running Rampant, Within a Cultural Context of course. Who Is Our Audience?-Part IV

Emotions Running Rampant, Within a Cultural Context of course. Who Is Our Audience?-Part IV

If you’re interested in being a composer, at some point you’ll be faced with the question “Who are you writing for?”  It doesn’t matter if you’re composing for an abstract audience in a concert hall, yourself, or anyone else.  The question will be there.  The real answer, unless you’re writing music for your dog or cat, is that the music you write is for human beings.  Hopefully, this designation includes you, the composer.  If your audience is made up of people and not dogs and cats, then you can motivate, inspire, stimulate, incite (whatever word you want to use) in different ways; depending on what you do in your music.  Depending on the aspects of a person you want to touch, you’ll gear your music towards that aspect of people.

So far, I’ve written about humans being physical animals, and intellectual animals.  The most obvious label associated with the arts is that they touch you emotionally.  This, of course, means people are emotional creatures.  Sometimes, I believe, we’re excessively emotional.  Humans as physical and intellectual beings needed a bit of explaining.  Probably, most people would think that designating people as emotional, and music as a source of stimulating the emotions needs no clarification.  It’s self evident.  Well, that’s true, but within a context.  Stravinsky said “I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….Expression has never been an inherent property of music.  That is by no means the purpose of its existence.”  Probably most people reading this would completely disagree.  However, what did Stravinsky really mean?  He could see in the concert hall that music gets reactions, so what was he saying?  My take on what he meant is that music, out of context, expresses nothing.  The listener brings everything that is “non-musical” to a piece of music.  How someone in 1808 Vienna responded to Beethoven’s 5th symphony is vastly different from how someone hearing that piece today would react.  That does not mean we can’t analyze the piece and understand what Beethoven did.  It does not mean that we aren’t affected by the sheer energy and rhythmic vitality of the music.  I am saying that we do not emotionally relate to the music the way someone from that time did.  A person in Africa in 1930 would connect to it in a fundamentally different way than an Austrian in 1808 or us today.  We all have different backgrounds and experiences that we bring to art.  Emotionally, my reaction to a piece of music can be totally different than the person sitting in the seat next to me.  There is more of a probability that my neighbor’s emotional response will be closer to my emotional response than to someone from a different time or culture, but the reactions will still be individual.

All of this might seem obvious on the surface, but to many people it’s not.  I once was talking to a very good pianist who said that German Romanticism was transcendent and the greatest music that was ever written.  I disagreed.  He was very upset and said it was clear that this music was transcendent and great and he couldn’t understand why I didn’t see that.  I told him the fact that I didn’t see it meant that it wasn’t obvious.  If this music was objectively transcendent and great then it would be equal to a physical law and all of existence would have to listen to German Romanticism and nothing else.  It would be like the laws of physics, immutable. We don’t decide which physical laws we want to obey; they’re not subjective.  My cat would go into states of ecstasy when she heard Schumann.  Clearly, no one has ecstatic reactions to Schumann, so the statement that that German Romanticism is transcendent and the greatest music that was ever written, is false.

German Romanticism, or for that matter, any style of art, is subjective.  Your like, or dislike for it, your emotional response to it will be different from person to person.  Of course, physicists now say that there may be different universes in which our laws of physics do not apply, but that is a whole other discussion.

How can knowing about the subjectivity of emotional responses to a piece of music be of assistance to a composer?  It can help in a multitude of ways.  It can compel a composer to stay current with new musical trends.  New developments create new ways of listening and new responses.  A composer needs to understand these if he/she is to communicate.  It can influence a composer to try to understand the people who are listening to their music.  We don’t live in a vacuum.  If you’re trying something different, you should know it.  When Bernard Herrmann wrote the score for Hitchcock’s film “Psycho”, he scored it solely for strings.  At that time, strings were used for romantic scenes.  If a composer wanted to make a love scene hot, they trotted out the strings.  Herrmann changed all that.  He made strings scary.  He took a chance that his audience would be open to something different.  Today both, the use of strings for a love scene and for a horror movie, are widespread.

Emotion in music is actually a very difficult subject for a composer to deal with.  While it seems apparent that music evokes emotions, those emotions are not universal.  That is, you don’t know what people are feeling when they hear something.  It’s based on culture.  Plato, in his Republic, writes about certain modes creating certain behavior, therefore some modes should be encouraged and others forbidden.  When I’ve told students about this, many of them laughed.  However, when we look at the last 60 years and see the vehemence with which rock and roll was attacked by some preachers in the 50’s and the way rap music was vilified in the 90’s up through today, the students begin to understand.

This is not to say that there is an objective basis for good or bad behavior created through music.  The objection that most preachers had to rock and roll in the 50’s was to the rhythm, which some of them called African.  While many of the rhythmic practices in rock music do stem from Africa, I don’t think these rhythms objectively create bad behavior.  In Africa, these rhythms are traditional rhythms and are used for specific purposes.

In India, certain rågs and tals are used for specific situations and have explicit meanings.  Most Westerners, even though Indian Classical music has become popular through George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, probably don’t hear that a certain råg is a morning or evening råg.  Most probably, don’t care.  To someone who has grown up in Hindustani or Carnatic culture, these meanings are evident.  To a Westerner, they are not objective, but rather it’s understand that they work within a cultural context.  It’s much more difficult when talking about our own culture and listening to music we grew up with, to see that our culture, or any culture, has nothing inherent about it.

I hope for anyone trying to write music, or anyone simply reading this, that its been of some help and enjoyment.  See you next week.

Categories: Name that audience.
  1. May 27, 2010 at 7:51 AM

    If only I had a greenback for every time I came here… Amazing read.

  2. May 22, 2010 at 8:54 PM

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



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