Music Emotion


in Music Theory, Performance

The study of music theory allows you to put emotion into your playing.  What a bold statement! Let me explain.

You may ask how does music theory relate to the emotion that an artist will put into music? It's a good question. You look around and see some very talented musicians and singers that seem to be able to hear it and play it without the study of music. I submit that is only true for a small percentage of the folks that actually make it that look that easy.

Where We Dwell

Most of us need to understand the framework in more detail. We end up so focused on studying music theory that we miss out on the application of emotion for many months or even years.

As I studied music, I was always in conflict of learning the song chords and melody and being able to translate that into some expression of self or add my emotional take on it.

I remember taking years to learn to express phrases in classical music. However, there was a time when all at once I started to get it.

Transition From Theory to Playing

I had studied Beethoven's Sonata Pathetique for a year and made great progress by understanding the theory behind the movements. That is studying chords, flow, scales, and learning how it was put together. Essentially, in 6 months I was able to play the full 25 minutes of music, but it was missing something.

Of course that was the feeling or the emotion behind it. Although I worked on it, my focus keep coming back to taking on the whole piece. That meant reading and working with the theory part of music.

So at the 6 month level I had to work on expression.

Expression and Emotion

Professionals will spend 4 years studying a piece of music like this before they perform it. That process is one of learning the song through study and then through expression of the written notes.

So the guidance I was given was to take what I knew in understanding of the song and translate that into an expression. I was guided on experimenting with accents, crescendo, decrescendo, and various other techniques to express the music.

Since I had the theory part down, I didn't have to worry about learning notes. It was liberating to finally work on technique and emotion of playing. That next six months were some of the best music study hours I enjoyed.

If I hadn't taken the time to first study the music in the theory, I would have struggled to learn the song by trying to read notes and express rather then learn the framework and then focus on expression.

What Can You Do

Everyone has a different learning style. For me it works best to study songs or even create by having a firm base in the music theory. After that it's about adding the music feeling and emotion as an artist.

If you are struggling with these same issues. Take a step back, find a phrase or two and total focus on them. Analyze them by defining the chords, scales, intervals, keys, melodic notes. Then work them for several days in just the theory aspect.

Once you have just completely understood the phrases, start experimenting and auditioning the expression of those phrases.

As you become more adapt at this process, your skill will become faster and more natural.

If you're not fluent with your music theory then learn as much as quick as you can. You won't regret it, because you will be adding more emotion and feeling to your playing much sooner.

Bernd Willimek December 24, 2013 at 7:56 am

Music and Emotions

The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:

or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:

Enjoy reading

Bernd Willimek

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