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British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 44, No. 1, January 2004
Nick Zangwill
I argue that Hanslick was right to think that music should not be understood in
terms of emotion. In particular, it is not essential to music to possess emotions,
arouse emotions, express emotions, or represent emotions. All such theories are
SHOULD we understand music in terms of emotion? I agree with Eduard
Hanslick:1 the answer is ‘No’. Let me count the ways that there is no essential
connection: it is not essential to music to possess emotion, arouse emotion, express
emotion, or represent emotion. Music, in itself, has nothing to do with emotion.
This negative thesis is restricted to instrumental or absolute music. What is
called ‘programme’ or non-absolute music can involve emotion if it is intended to
be heard in the light of some representational or semantic art-form that does
express, arouse, or represent emotion. For example, in a song, words may refer to
emotions. But this is different from the way in which instrumental or absolute
music has been thought to involve emotion.
My targets here are restricted to what I call ‘literalist’ theories, which invoke
the existence of genuine emotion. There are theories that propose that in musical
experience we imagine music as somehow connected with emotions, without real
emotions being in play. Roger Scruton and Jerrold Levinson have proposed
theories of this sort, and I offer no objections to these views here.2 The theories I
criticize in this paper postulate some real relation between music and genuine
I will argue that Hanslick was right in his negative critique of literalist emotion
theories of music. I will not argue for his positive view that beauty in music
Eduard Hanslick, On the Musically Beautiful (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986). I shall not follow
Hanslick’s text very closely. I embrace his main conclusions, and my arguments are cousins of
some of his arguments.
See Roger Scruton, ‘Understanding Music’, in The Aesthetic Understanding (Carcanet: Manchester,
1983), and The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1997); and Jerrold Levinson, ‘Musical
Expressiveness’ in The Pleasures of Aesthetics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U.P., 1996). I examine Scruton’s
view in part 2 of ‘Aesthetic Realism I’, in Oxford Companion to Aesthetics, ed. Jerrold Levinson
(Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2003).
© British Society of Aesthetics 2004
‘consists simply and solely of tones and their artistic combination’,3 although I
have much sympathy with it.4 Another theme in Hanslick is his purist view that
music is better when it is absolute or instrumental, and not when mixed with
other arts, as in opera. In particular, Wagner’s later operas attracted Hanslick’s
censure.5 Musicologists tend to focus particularly on Hanslick’s purism. How are
these three views related? The structure is this: if one holds the positive view that
music consists of artistically arranged sounds, then one must hold the negative
thesis about emotion. And if one holds the purist view, then one must hold both
positive and negative views. However, one can hold the negative view without
the positive and purist views. And one can hold both the negative and positive
views without the purism. That is, we can agree with Hanslick’s negative critique
of emotion theories while rejecting both his positive view of what music consists
in as well as his purist stance against opera. Or else, we can agree with both his
negative critique of emotion theories as well as his positive view of what music
consists in, while rejecting his purist stance against opera.
In this paper, I will restrict myself to defending Hanslick’s negative claim that
it is not essential to absolute music to possess, express, arouse, or represent
emotion. This is either because absolute music does not and cannot do any of
that, or because when it does, it is inessential to the music, and only does so
because of what the music is, quite apart from any such relation to emotion.6
Let us start with the simplest case, the possession theory, even if no one has
actually held it. I shall argue—and I think this is quite easy—that it is not possible
for music itself to have emotions. It might seem that I am cracking a nut with a
sledgehammer, but in fact this will prove worthwhile when we turn to harder
In order to pursue the issue, we must make some preliminary comments about
the nature of emotion. The truth is that the emotions are not well understood.
Hanslick, On the Musically Beautiful, p. 28.
See §5 of my ‘Feasible Aesthetic Formalism’, Nous, vol. 33 (1999), pp. 610–629, reprinted in The
Metaphysics of Beauty (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U.P., 2001).
Hanslick did not object to light operettas when the text is perhaps a mere showcase for the music,
or else where the plot and music are separable ingredients. What he objected to was the idea the
music and text could combine together ‘organically’ to realize a higher beauty. I explore this notion
of organic combination in my ‘Feasible Aesthetic Formalism’.
My discussion will be resolutely ahistorical. Of course, Hanslick’s views of the nature of music
were put forward in a particular musical-historical circumstances, but he propounded general
theories. The same is true of Clive Bell and Roger Fry’s visual aesthetic formalism. Compare
science: science requires a social and historical context, but that does not mean that the scientific
theories are about that social context or that they make no justifiable claim to objective truth.
Scientific theories can be assessed independently of the social and historical context without which
they cannot exist. Similarly with Hanslick’s views of the nature of music.
There seem to be an unruly range of them, perhaps with no natural unifying
principle. However, it is not too controversial to say that many central cases of
emotion have both an intentional content (they are about something) and a
qualitative or phenomenological aspect (they are felt). These emotions lie in the
intersection of intentional and qualitative states (unlike beliefs and pains). There
is an issue about whether all emotions are like this. Perhaps some are phenomenological but not intentional, and perhaps some are intentional but not
phenomenological. But, as we shall see, we need not worry too much about this
issue about generality, since the emotions in question in the philosophy of music
are for the most part emotions with both a phenomenological aspect and an
intentional content, and not those emotions, if there are any, that are purely
phenomenological or purely intentional. I shall stipulate that emotions have an
intentional content—they are directed either at a state of affairs or an object. This
excludes contentless moods—I deal with moods separately in Section III. This
stipulation will not beg any questions.
Let us have some examples of emotional descriptions of music. Much classic
flamenco is anguished; passages of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony are optimistic;
much brass band bullfighting music is proud; the steel guitar of Hank W illiam’s
country and western songs is mournful; and Astor Piazolla’s late tangos are pensive.7
Anguish, optimism, pride, mournfulness, and pensiveness are all sophisticated,
intentional emotions and not mere sensations or moods. This is part of our folk
psychological conception of these emotions.
Folk psychology—that is, our common-sense conception of mental states—
tells us not merely that the sort of emotions I am focusing on are propositional
attitudes with a qualitative aspect, but also that they stand in certain essential
rational relations to other propositional attitudes, such as beliefs and desires.
When I say that propositional attitudes stand in essential rational relations, what I
mean is that it is essential to a propositional attitude being the type of
propositional attitude that it is (belief, desire, hope, or fear, for example) that it is
rational or irrational to have that propositional attitude given other propositional
attitudes, or that having that propositional attitude makes rational having other
propositional attitudes.8 For example, it is irrational to feel pride unless one
believes there is something good about what one is proud of; and fearing something rationalizes avoiding it. (These norms are pro tanto norms—that is, they
can be outweighed by other rational norms, and indeed by norms of other
sorts.) There are established debates over the rational properties of belief and
To adduce a quotation from a critic: Sidney Finkelstein writes in his notes to Szigetti’s recording
of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, ‘Tragic feelings suffuse the first half of [] sonata [no. 2 in
A minor] . . . It moves to a poignant climax and close. The Fugue, though bouncy and positive in
its mood, has tragic overtones in its touching chromaticisms . . .’
See my ‘Direction of Fit and Normative Functionalism’, Philosophical Studies, vol. 91 (1998),
pp. 173–203.
desire, but not as yet over emotion. It is not clear that we know what the issues
are yet. Nevertheless, I think it is clear that emotions, as we conceive of them in
folk psychology, do stand in essential rational relations to other propositional
Given the foregoing, it is easy to see that emotions cannot be possessed by
music. Emotions must be felt by a rational being—that is, a bearer of propositional attitudes that stand in rational relations. But a piece or stretch of
music—whatever it is—is not a being with propositional attitudes that stand in
rational relations. So music cannot literally feel emotions such as sadness. That is
the easiest and quickest anti-emotion conclusion.9
Not much progress, you might think. But it is because the possession theory is
so implausible, that many reach for an indirect view to the effect that music
expresses, arouses, or represents emotion. On an indirect view, it is not that the music
itself is sad or whatever. Rather, the music stands in some relation to sadness. In
John Searle’s terms, music has ‘derived’ rather than ‘intrinsic’ emotional
intentionality.10 The trouble is that to reach for an indirect expression, arousal, or
representation theory is already to put some distance between the theory and the
data to be explained. For it seems that what we describe when we describe music
in emotional terms is something in the music. To move to an arousal, expression,
or representation theory is likely to take one too far away from this. For when we
hear music we hear it as itself possessing the (non-relational) properties that we
describe in emotional terms. This is a problem for all indirect theories. The
possession theory, for all its glaring faults, does better at respecting this phenomenology. Music has no mental states, so it is not itself mournful, anguished, or
optimistic. But it does seem that the music itself has intrinsic features that we are
talking about when we describe it in these terms. It does not seem that we are
talking about some relation that the music stands in. So, despite its obvious flaws,
the possession theory does have something important going for it.11
As one of my students put it in an exam: ‘Sad music is not sad because it recently split up with the
John Searle, Intentionality (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1983).
The dialectic is like that over Saul Kripke’s ‘Humphrey’ objection to David Lewis’s possible world
theory of modality (Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U.P., 1980];
David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds [Blackwell: Oxford, 1986]). Lewis says that to say that
Humphrey might have won is to say that someone very like Humphrey in another possible world
did win. Kripke objected that to say that Humphrey might have won is not to talk about a distinct
person, who is very similar to Humphrey, and to say of him (the distinct person) that he won. We
are talking about Humphrey, not about someone rather like him. The standard reply to Kripke on
Lewis’s behalf is that to say that Humphrey might have won is say of Humphrey that he stands in
relation to someone just like him, so the modal claim is after all about Humphrey himself. But this
standard reply is ineffective, for Kripke can counter that attributing the possibility to Humphrey is
intuitively not to attribute any such relational property to him.
Is it essential to music to arouse emotions? Many theorists say that it is. However,
folk psychology also rules out thinking that the immediate experience of music is an
emotion that has the music as its object. Folk psychology says that emotions have
certain essential rational relations to beliefs and desires. Suppose we describe
some music as proud—for example, ‘El Gato Montez’ (the most famous Spanish
brass band bullfighting tune). Think of the experience of that music. The intentional object of that experience is the quality of the music that prompts us to
describe it as proud. It is easy to see that this experience cannot be the emotion of
pride. For pride must be rationally related to the belief that one has some meritorious property or that one is related somehow to something that possesses some
meritorious property.12 One is proud of possessing that property or of being related
to something that possesses that property. But the experience of the property of
the music that we describe as proud is not so related to such a thought. It is not
required that one has such a thought about oneself when one experiences the
music. So the experience is not pride.13
It is crucial to hold on to the fact that our state of mind when we listen to
music has the music as its object. (For this reason, I find it peculiar when
aestheticians appeal to the idea that we have ‘objectless emotions’ when we hear
music.) On many theories there is a danger of losing the idea that musical
experience is directed onto the music. This is a point that I frequently find myself
wanting to make when reading the literature on musical expression. The tendency among some writers is to focus on anything but the music itself and our
experience of it.14 It is almost as if they are frightened of the music! We need to
redirect our focus to the music itself and to the fact that our experience is of the
music itself.
Given that almost all emotions, like pride or fear, have intentional objects other
than the music, in so far as we are having such emotions when listening to music,
we are not listening to or thinking about the music. We are thinking about what
the emotions are about instead. The object of such emotions is not the music.
Such emotions are a distraction from musical experience!
Of course, one can feel pride even though one merely thinks of oneself as having or as being related
to something that has a meritorious property, without believing it. This is irrational pride. It is
essential to pride that it makes us subject to rational requirements, not that we conform to them.
Similarly, one can fear something without believing it to be dangerous. But that is irrational.
I went to see the famous Iranian singer Googoosh sing in London in 2001. She had not sung in
public since the Iranian revolution, twenty-two years previously. It was a very emotional event. She
was crying, and most of the audience was crying. But what they were crying about had a content
that went far beyond the music.
To give one example, Kendall Walton thinks, implausibly, that it is very often true that in listening
to music ‘. . . one introspects one’s own psychological states . . .’ (Kendall Walton, ‘What Is Abstract
about the Art of Music?’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 46 [1988], pp. 351–364 at p. 360,
his emphasis).
Of course, it cannot be denied that we sometimes feel emotions while listening
to music. The music may remind us of some emotionally charged event. Perhaps
it makes us sad by reminding us of something that once made us sad. But in this
purely causal sense, sad music can make us happy and happy music can make us
sad. Sad music sometimes makes us sad and sometimes makes us happy, and
happy music sometimes makes us happy and sometimes makes us sad; but little
of interest hangs on that. The same goes for the artist’s feelings when he makes
music. The fact that he is sad might cause him to make sad music. But it also
might not. It might also make him make happy music. How better to counteract
the sadness! These causes and effects are irrelevant to the essential nature of
music—to what music is.15
This point about music being the intentional object of the immediate experience of music is related to the following substitutability point. When it is said that
music arouses emotions, we need to ask whether something quite different could
arouse the same emotions. If the arousal is a purely causal matter, then the answer
will be ‘yes’. But then the music is a replaceable cause of the experience, and we
have lost the idea that the experience necessarily has that intentional object. But
if the intentional object of the experience is the music itself, then the music itself
is not a replaceable cause. That experience could only be produced by that
particular piece of music, or at any rate by one very like it.16
It has been reported that playing certain kinds of classical music to cows
enhances their milk-production. So should we seek to understand this music in
terms of cow ’s milk-production? Such a theory is perhaps more plausible than the
standard emotional arousal accounts of music! For it is at least generally true that
music has this effect on cows, whereas the effect of music on human emotions is
actually quite variable.17 But even if music did have standard effects on human
emotions, having these effects would be inessential and not what it is to be music.
It would have these standard effects in virtue of some independently constituted
musical experience.
What about the idea that the experience of music is a specifically musical emotion?
Such an emotion would have the music as its intentional object. I am sceptical
about this idea. There are of course ordinary emotions that we can have towards
music. For example, one might be proud of some music if one were responsible
for it. But the proudness of much Spanish brass band music is another matter.
One could be proud of music that was not at all proud. By contrast, specifically
Hanslick concedes that music can arouse emotion, as winning a prize can (Eduard Hanslick, On the
Musically Beautiful, p. 7). But he quite rightly argues that such arousal is quite incidental to the
Parallel points concerning intentionality and replaceability will carry over to the alleged expression
of the artist’s emotions, which I discuss in Section IV.
Perhaps there is some convergence in the way we are prone to describe music in emotional terms;
but that is quite different from convergence in emotional response to music.
musical emotions are supposed to be unlike ordinary emotions such as pride. But
what can we say about them? If all we say about them is that they are the experience of features of the music that we tend to describe in emotional terms, then
the idea that such a reaction is an emotion in any interesting sense has dropped out.
Why call it an emotion if it does not stand in any of the rational relations that we
normally think characterize emotions? We are left with a potentially obscurantist
view which speaks of emotion but which is not prepared to pay the price, which
is the spelling out of the rational relations that would justify us in doing so.18
What about moods? (Recall that I stipulated that moods differ from emotions in
that they lack intentional objects.) There is no denying that there are sometimes
causal connections between hearing music we want to describe as sad and the
inducement of a certain sad mood (as opposed to emotion) in the listener. As with
(intentional) emotions, I suspect that that connection is a variable one. One piece
of music will cause different moods in different people at different times.
However, some people think that there is considerable convergence in response.
But even if there were, it would still not be essential to the music to have such
effects. Two familiar points are decisive here. First, by contrast with the merely
causal connection between music and mood, genuine musical experience is
intentionally directed onto sounds and onto their musical qualities. There is a
more intimate connection than a merely causal connection between music and
mood, since the musical experience is of the musical qualities. But since moods
are contentless, they cannot have the music itself as their object. Genuine musical
experience is both caused by the music and has it as its intentional object. The
music may also cause us to have moods as a consequence of genuine musical
experience. This is most manifest when the music stops and we are left with a
mood. But this is an inessential and variable causal relation. Second, such causal
relations as there are, whether variable or whether standard, hold in virtue of our
immediate experience of the music. Hence, the moods that might or might not
I think that Peter Kivy is absolutely right to demand what he calls ‘Uncle Charlie’ explanations of
‘garden-variety’ emotions. There should be some reason why one is angry. See, for example, his
‘Feeling the Musical Emotions’, British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 39 (1999), pp. 1–13 at p. 4 (or see his
New Essays on Human Understanding [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003], p. 102). However, in
that paper, he goes on to say that we do feel emotions when we listen to music, but they are
‘nameless’ emotions, like those we feel when looking at a sunset or the face of a child or when
thinking of a generous kind action. Do these allegedly garden variety emotions have Uncle Charlie
explanations? If not, my inclination is to say that they are feelings of pleasure, not emotions, just
because they lack Uncle Charlie explanations and they are not subject to rational requirements.
Kivy’s theory in that paper is a variety of the specifically musical emotion theory. But surely not all
pleasures are emotions, and indeed not all emotions are pleasant or unpleasant. On the other hand,
I strongly agree with Kivy that these feelings or experiences—whatever they are—have the sunset,
the child’s face, the kind and generous action, and the music as their intentional objects. See also
Kivy’s Music Alone (Ithaca, NY: Cornell U.P., 1990), especially ch. 8.
be caused by the music are irrelevant to the essential nature of the music and to
the essential nature of our immediate experience of the music. They are downstream from what we are really interested in.
Jenefer Robinson has argued that music can arouse emotions.19 She thinks that
there is a close connection between the music’s expressive properties and the
arousal of emotions or feelings. She agrees that some emotions can be distinguished by their ‘cognitive content’. But she insists that some emotions, such as
the startle reaction, only involve affective and physiological reactions, and music
can induce such emotions.20 In effect, she classifies some of what I would call
moods as emotions. For example, she observes, with some plausibility, that music
can make us feel disturbed or calm. And music can be soothing, exciting, unsettling, or relaxing. So she thinks that music can be calming or unsettling in a
quite literal sense. Thus there can be a straightforward relation between the
‘expressive’ properties of music and the arousal of this kind of emotion in
listeners. This is an interesting suggestion. But in my view, it will not do as a quite
general theory of emotional description of music, for the feelings she adduces,
such as calm, are all what I would call moods not emotions, or if they are to be
classified as emotions, they are contentless emotions in a way that cannot fit with
the sort of emotional descriptions that we very often give of music and of our
experience of it. These descriptions ascribe intentional emotions that have
interesting rationality conditions. Robinson is within her rights to draw our
attention to reactions such as the startle reaction. But such states do not have the
cognitive and rational sophistication of the sort of emotional descriptions that are
usually in question in the philosophy of music. In the description of music, we
are, for the most part, dealing with the sort of emotions for which there are
interesting rationality conditions, unlike the startle reaction. Robinson is right
that some music is calming or disturbing, in virtue of its capacity to arouse the
corresponding states in us. But we also want to describe some music as optimistic,
resolute, proud, and so on, and Robinson’s account does not cover these descriptions. So while Robinson may be right that calm music makes us calm and
exhilarating music makes us exhilarated, that does not go far enough for a general
theory of emotion emotional descriptions of music.
Concession: it might be essential to some particular piece of music that it has
the function of producing a mood. Some music is mood music. Perhaps lift
music, film music, marching music, shopping music, or fighting music have such
a function. These are all examples of non-absolute music. (Non-absolute music
need not be representational.) I concede that music can involve a non-musical
function, and in some cases that function may be, or may in part be, that of
Jenefer Robinson, ‘The Expression and Arousal of Emotion in Music’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art
Criticism, vol. 52 (1994), pp. 13–22.
Ibid., pp. 18–19. See also Jenefer Robinson, ‘Startle’, Journal of Philosophy, vol. 92 (1995), pp. 53–74.
producing a mood of a certain sort. (I am less hostile to the idea that music can
have the function of producing moods than to the idea that it can have the function
of producing emotions.) Still, much music is not like this. So a mood-production
theory could not work as a general account of music. Furthermore, where music
does have the function of producing a mood, the immediate experience of that
music is not a mood. The moods that are caused by the music are causally
downstream from our immediate musical experience of the music. The music
causes a musical experience, which has the music as its intentional object, and
that musical experience causes a mood, which has no intentional object. There
can only be mood music because the immediate experience of music is not a
What might the expression of emotion be?
Some writers on music think that they can take it as a datum that music
‘expresses’ emotion or is ‘expressive’ of emotion. But ‘expresses’ and ‘expressive’
are usually being used as technical philosophical terms in the philosophy of
music. It is unclear what might be meant by these words. Either they need to be
explicitly given a sense, or they need to be mapped onto one or other aspect of an
established sense.
There is a redundant use of ‘expressive’ whereby to say of some music that it
expressive of emotion X is simply to say that the music is X. But that just lands us
back where we started, in search of an understanding of what is being said when
we ascribe emotion to music.
Expression is normally thought to differ from representation. A work of
representational art might involve emotion by portraying people experiencing
emotions or by portraying scenes that arouse emotions. And if music can
represent—which is not obvious—then music could represent emotion in this
way. But this is a quite different matter from what is in question when people
debate whether non-representational instrumental music can express emotion.
Representing someone experiencing an emotion would be quite different from
any notion of expression whereby the music stands in relation to an emotion in
the mind of the composer or musician. In order to represent someone having
emotions or in order to represent a situation with the aim of arousing emotions,
one would need the concept of those emotions to figure in one’s intentions, but
one would not need to have the emotions in question.
One possible theory would be that someone expresses an emotion when he
makes something that arouses, or which he believes arouses, an emotion. But
then all the difficulties of arousal theories will be inherited by this suggestion.
And the idea is not really anything like the usual notion of expression, which
surely involves some relation between the artist’s emotion and what he does or
makes, rather than a relation between what the artist does or makes and the
audience’s responses. So we can put this idea to one side.
Another view might be that music expresses emotion in the sense in which we
can express emotion in rational action, as when my reaching out for a glass of water
‘expresses’ my desire to drink. This might seem to be a more hopeful model.
What might rational artistic ‘expressive’ action be? On such a view, the artist must
intend to express his emotion E in object O. What is going on here? What is the
content of this intention? And how does it help to explain what I think is so
crucial, which is how E can be manifest in O, in the sense that the emotional
description describes properties of the music that are the object of musical
experience? The trouble is that the appeal to expression as rational activity does
not help with elucidating the connection between E and O. It just says that some
such significant relation obtains and the artist strives to realize it. But if it is
difficult to see how proud music stands in an appropriate relation to its maker’s
emotion of pride, then it is equally difficult to see how he might strive to make it
the case that proud music stands in such a relation to his emotion of pride.
In the usual case of rational action on an emotion, we act on the beliefs and
desires that are partly constitutive of the emotion. For example, we act rationally
on fear when we act so as to remove the object of fear, since presumably we desire
its absence. But the musical expression of emotion would clearly not be rational
in that way. It would not help to satisfy whatever desire lay at the root of the
emotion that was allegedly expressed. For example, if someone created proud
music, his action would not connect in any rational way with what he is proud of.
So this kind of rational activity does not seem to be in question in musical
There is a purely causal sense of ‘express’ according to which (absolute) music
expresses emotion when an emotion causes someone to make music. In this
sense, of course, it is uncontroversial that music can express emotion. The trouble
with this is that in this sense, the emotion need not be manifest in the music. That
is, the emotion that caused the music to be made need not be something that an
audience can hear in the music. Moreover, being happy might cause someone to
make sad music, and being sad might cause someone to make happy music. So a
purely causal relation between emotion and music would not suffice for an
interesting sense in which music can ‘express’ emotion. The relation between
emotion and music needs to be more intimate than that.
There needs to be a sense in which emotion causes someone to make or do
something and the emotion is somehow experiencable in what is made or done.
For example, a natural reaction such as blushing can be said to ‘express’ an
emotion in this sense: it is caused by embarrassment but it also makes people look
as if they are embarrassed. But music does not ‘express’ emotion in this way. For
music-making is hardly an involuntary reaction like blushing. Music-making is
deliberate activity. On the other hand, smiling can be said to ‘express’ happiness
or pleasure both as an involuntary reaction and as a deliberate action. (‘Smile
please’, we ask.) The outward manifestation of inner emotions can sometimes be
willed. Someone might smile deliberately (but not blush deliberately) in order to
‘express’ the happiness or pleasure they feel. Or someone might draw a smiley
face or make a smiling mask to show how they feel.
This opens up a possibility, which some have explored. A St Bernard’s face can
look like it manifests the emotion of sadness, even though it does not really feel
that emotion. Similarly, one might adopt a facial expression or make a mask with
the aim of doing or making something that looks as if it sprang from an emotion,
even though it doesn’t. A good aspect of this phenomenon as a model for musical
‘expression’ is that it makes the emotion something we can experience in the
music. However, this model does not involve a relation between an emotion in
the music-maker and qualities of the music in which the emotion can be heard.
For in this sense, one can ‘express’ an emotion without having the emotion in
question. So this theory does not really appeal to emotions after all, but only to
the music-makers thoughts about emotion.
Suppose a man is proud of being a good bullfighter. Then he might deliberately ‘express’ this emotion in a proud facial expression. We might expect this.
It makes sense. But might he also express his pride by making a proud-looking
mask or in making proud-sounding music? Why might someone do this? It
seems rather an odd thing to do! I suppose we can imagine circumstances in
which Pedro is in fact a proud bullfighter, but due to his inherently modestlooking features he has gained an unfortunate reputation for humility, which
does not befit his profession. So he might seek to counter this false impression by
making a proud-looking mask or by making proud-sounding music. He might
say ‘This is how I feel!’. Or suppose that Gonzales does not feel pride, but decides
to ‘express’ that emotion in a facial expression, or in a mask, or in sound. Why
might he do that? We can imagine that Gonzales is a shy, modest, and scared
bullfighter who wants to convince his rivals and the public that he is really proud
and fearless. Clearly, then, it is possible to imagine situations where someone
‘expresses’ emotions he does not have. However, this will not do as a model of
musical ‘expression’. Firstly, when we experience that quality of the music that
we call ‘pride’, it is not the basis for an inference to the emotions of the
music-maker. We don’t experience proud music as symptomatic of the existence
of pride in the (actual) music-maker. And secondly, even if this were how we
experienced ‘expressive’ music, it is difficult to see why we would bother, in
most cases, to make such ‘expressive’ music. It is uncontroversial, I would have
thought, that you do not have to be proud for it to be worthwhile to make proud
music. Yet on this notion of ‘expression’, it is difficult to see why it would be
worthwhile. Or else the sort of situation in which it would be worthwhile—such
as the cases of the shy-looking but proud bullfighter or the really shy bullfighter
who wants others to think he is proud—are so unusual that they are not remotely
plausible as an analysis of the motives of most of those who make proud music.
The only remaining hope I can see for expression theories is to appeal to the
sense in which one might ‘express’ an emotion when one acts arationally on it.
Rosalind Hursthouse introduced the useful category of an ‘arational’ action.21 An
example would be when one throws a cup at a wall out of anger at a pay-cut. That
act is fully intentional, but it is not fully rational, for smashing the mug is hardly
thought of as a means of restoring one’s wages. Perhaps music expresses emotion
in the sense in which smashing the mug expresses my anger. This model would
also seem to be better placed to answer the manifestation problem, for it seems
that my anger is somehow manifest in the smashing of the mug. That does seem
to be a lot more appropriate than gently stroking a feather! Nevertheless, it is
difficult to see how arational action can really be a model for the musical
expression of emotion. In many cases of arational action, such as the case of
smashing a mug out of anger, there is a loss of control. The smashing is a kind of
release—displacement activity. But nothing like this is going on in a normal case
of musical creation. Music-making is fully deliberate. It is rational, not arational.
On the other hand, some arational actions are fully deliberate. Examples would
be self-consciously symbolic actions, such as standing up for an important guest,
or stamping on a wine-glass at a Jewish wedding. Again, it seems that these cases
are unlike the case of musical action. When we stand up for a guest, we are aware
that we are standing up because of their importance and out of respect. But
music-making surely need not involve such a self-conception on the behalf of the
person who is making music. One need not be aware of some independently
identifiable emotion that needs venting in musical action. Of course, one
sometimes produces sounds (or the means to produce them) because one wants to
vent some independently identifiable non-musical emotion that one has to some
non-musical situation. I don’t deny that this happens. However, the problem for
the arational action model is that when there is a separately identifiable emotion
that is arationally expressed in the music, the emotion is not a feature of the
music itself that we experience. It is not manifest in the face of the music. For
these reasons, I think that the arational action model cannot help after all.
We have found it very difficult to say how making music is intelligible so long
as we see musical activity as being driven by emotion. By elimination, then, it
seems that the only sense in which music can express emotion is the purely causal
sense, which is insignificant.
Lastly, what about the idea that music represents emotion? It would be easy to
Rosalind Hursthouse, ‘Arational Actions’, Journal of Philosophy, vol. 88 (1991), pp. 57–68.
argue that music does not represent emotion if we can derive that claim from the
thesis that music cannot represent anything.22 But even if this general negative
thesis were in fact false, it might be thought that there are special difficulties with
representing emotion, in particular. One problem is that emotions are psychological states and do not have any colour, shape, or sound. So there seems not to
be enough in common between the representation and that which is represented.
I take it, following Richard Wollheim, that if there is a representational relation
between two things then we must be able to perceive one in or as the other.23 We
can only perceive something in or as another if there is quite a lot in common
between them. So, for example, we can see a two-dimensional pattern as a threedimensional object. But it seems difficult to see how we could really hear an
emotion in the music, when music is composed of sounds and emotion is not.
The category difference here is too great. Emotions have no sonic nature. So it is
difficult to see how sound can represent emotions. On the other hand, this kind
of argument may be too strong, since a similar argument also seems to show that
pictures cannot represent emotions.
However, even if music can represent emotions, despite the great difference
between what is represented and that which represents, it is surely only exceptional cases of music that do this. It is hardly what is going on in standard cases
where we describe music in emotional terms. For example, proud Spanish brass
band music surely does not represent pride. Whose pride? The pride of some
bullfighter, perhaps? To represent his pride, the music would have to represent
the intentional content of his pride—what the bullfighter was proud of—which it
surely does not. And the idea that we represent some abstract emotion type,
independent of any particular content, is even more bizarre than the idea that we
are representing particular cases of emotion.
It might be suggested, in response, that music represents, not the emotions
themselves, but the behavioural manifestation or upshot of emotion. And thus we
are indirectly representing the emotions responsible for that behaviour. This
theory avoids the problem of the lack of similarity between sounds and emotions,
and it avoids the problem of having to represent the contents of emotions. But
this theory has next to nil in the way of plausibility if it is proposed as an account
of what is going on in standard cases of the emotional description of music.
What behavioural manifestation of pride does proud Spanish brass band music
See Roger Scruton’s persuasive essay, ‘Representation in Music’, in The Aesthetic Understanding
(London: Carnet, 1983). See also Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford: Oxford U.P.,
1997), ch. 5. In my view, Scruton’s case is very strong. Jennefer Robinson responds to Scruton’s
arguments in ‘Representation in Music and Painting’, Philosophy, vol. 56 (1981). In ‘Music as a
Representational Art’, in Philip Alperson (ed.), What is Music? (College Park, PA: Penn State U.P.,
1994), her position is that music in principle can represent, but that it rarely does.
Richard Wollheim, ‘Seeing-as, Seeing-in, and Pictorial Representation’, in Art and its Objects, 2nd
edn (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1980).
I assume a distinction between symbolism and representation. There can of
course be a purely symbolic relation between very different things. Elements of
some pieces of music might, in principle, symbolize various emotions, since
virtually anything can be used to symbolize anything. The composer might
decide or stipulate that a particular sequence of notes symbolizes grief, just as a
sequence of notes might symbolize a wolf or a shipwreck. But, again, not much
music is like this—certainly not enough to explain the ordinary emotional
descriptions of music with which we began. Moreover, such symbolic relations
are too extrinsic to what we experience in the music. Hence the idea that standard
emotional descriptions of music are to be explained in terms of the symbolism of
emotion is as hopeless as the idea that standard emotional descriptions of music
are to be explained in terms of the representation of emotion.
What role, then, does emotion play in what music is, and in our experience of
music? Answer: none of any significance. Emotion is a thorough distraction
when thinking about the nature of music. The experience of music may cause
emotions, just as making music may be caused by emotions. But the immediate
experience of music itself is not an emotion, and the thoughts most immediately
involved in making or composing music are not emotions.24
It is true that music possesses important qualities that we often describe in
metaphorical emotional terms, and we often describe the experience of music in
metaphorical emotional terms.25 A positive account needs to be given of this.26
But there is little plausibility in the idea that in these emotional descriptions we
are literally describing either the presence of genuine emotion in the music or
some relation between the music and genuine emotion, any more than it is
plausible that music that we call ‘delicate’ is literally delicate in the sense of being
likely to break, or music that we call ‘unbalanced’ is literally unbalanced in the
sense of being likely to fall over, or else that we are describing some relation in
which the music stands to other things that are literally delicate or unbalanced. A
quite general account needs to be given of the role of metaphor in our
descriptions of music, where this applies equally to emotional and non-emotional
Since music cannot literally involve emotion in an essential way, I think we should be sympathetic
with Peter Kivy’s view that music is ‘sonic wallpaper’, in ‘The Fine Art of Repetition’, in The Fine
Art of Repetition (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1993).
I see no inconsistency is Hanslick’s use of emotional descriptions in his music criticism, so long as
they are understood metaphorically. Hanslick was not out to ban emotional decription of music,
nor was he insisting on the paraphrasability of such description into non-emotional terms, as is
sometimes alleged.
See further my ‘Metaphor and Realism in Aesthetics’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 49
(1991), pp. 57–62, reprinted with substantial revisions in my book The Metaphysics of Beauty (Ithaca,
NY: Cornell U.P., 2001). See also my ‘Music and Aesthetic Metaphor’, in preparation.
metaphors. What is clear is that in neither case are we describing genuine
emotion or some relation to genuine emotion.
Hanslick was right.27
Nick Zangwill, St Anne’s College, Oxford OX2 6HS. Email: nick.zangwill@philosophy.
Earlier versions of this paper were presented at an American Society of Aesthetic meeting in
Washington, DC, where Lydia Goehr responded, and at a conference on the emotions in
Manchester. I am very grateful for very helpful comments from Malcolm Budd, Peter Lamarque,
and Jerry Levinson, and for conversations with Peter Franklin.