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Music’s Education of Emotion

A recent reading in Jeremy Begbie’s Theology, Music, and Time fascinated me with an exploration of the way that music educates our emotions. His account reminded me of similar explanations of the way that stories shape our responses and hence our character—for example, the Pevensies knew the robin could be trusted because, as Peter reminded them, robins are good birds in all the stories; and Eustace had no idea what to do in Narnia because he had read all the wrong books. The children’s responses and characters were shaped by the stories they had read—as, indeed, Lewis hoped to shape his own young (and not-so-young) readers.

Just as we surround ourselves, our students, and our children with stories rich in characters both to emulate and to abhor, should we not also surround ourselves with music rich in emotions ready to be enacted in their proper time?

The following excerpt from Begbie’s book requires close reading, but repays it well. I’ve included it here with a summary below:

[W]hat emotional benefit do we gain by listening to music, especially by repeated hearing? . . . Roger Scruton has suggested a promising way of understanding emotional expression through music . . . He challenges the view that emotions are to be located solely in some inner or ‘subjective’ life, the conditions of which are then externalised through music. Though emotions may have an ‘inner’ aspect, they are publicly recognisable states of an organism, displayed in desires, beliefs and actions. Further, they implicate the whole personality and are intrinsically bound up with our relation to other people. Emotions become what they essentially are through their public expression—they are formed and amended through dialogue with others. Hence the expression of an emotion is also to some extent the creating of an emotion, and this is one of the ways in which a human subject comes to self-awareness and maturity. Normally, though emotions may include feelings, they are also motives to actions—we act out of fear, joy, sadness, or whatever. Emotions are also intentional states: they are of or about an object, and the most immediate object of an emotion is a thought—about an external object or about the subject who has the emotion. (Fear involves the thought that something threatens me, joy the thought there is something which is good, beautiful, or whatever.)

Building on this, Scruton outlines an account of emotional engagement hinging on the notion of ‘sympathetic response.’ These responses are quite complex in structure but the heart of the matter is clear enough: if you are afraid of death, and I, observing your fear, come to share in it while not being afraid for myself, then my fear is a sympathetic response. Sympathetic responses are aroused more fully by fictional situations than non-fictional ones, for in the latter, our interests are at stake and this clouds our sympathies. In the world of fiction, our feelings are free from the urge to intervene, to do something with or towards somebody, for there are no concrete ‘others’ to be the objects of sympathy. Through the exercise of our emotions in this way, we can be educated—our emotional life can be stretched, widened, deepened. Sympathetic response is not merely a matter of ‘inner’ feeling but also of action and gesture—I comfort a bereaved friend, I put a hand on his shoulder. But in the fictional world we have action and gesture without objects, sympathy without any concrete person or situation in view. . . . Our emotional response to musical sounds, claims Scruton, is fundamentally a sympathetic response of a similar kind, a response which does not require a precise object of sympathy or interest, whether a human subject or a situation perceived through the eyes of a subject. . . . As far as the emotions are concerned, through sympathetic response they are exercised—and we must exercise our sympathies if they are to be alive at all. Moreover, we are emotionally educated—our emotional life is enriched, deepened, and perhaps even re-formed. Hearing music can mean ‘the reordering of our sympathies.’ Scruton remarks: ‘The great triumphs of music . . . involve this synthesis, whereby a musical structure, moving according to its own logic, compels our feelings to move along with it, and so leads us to rehearse a feeling at which we would not otherwise arrive.’ Music can therefore not only reflect an emotional disposition already experienced . . . but can also enrich, nuance and even re-shape our emotion, affecting subsequent emotional experience. This would in part account for music being so emotionally beneficial and why we can derive pleasure again and again from the same piece. We can be emotionally exercised and educated. (From Jeremy S. Begbie, Theology, Music, and Time. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 17-18.)

Here’s the summary:

Music educates us. One of the ways it does this is by educating our emotions.

People often assume that music expresses emotions that we already have. While it can indeed do this, it also educates us in emotions we do not necessarily possess, or do not possess strongly.

The reason this can happen is due to the nature of emotion. None of our emotions are personal possessions, privately formed. All of our emotions are responses and reactions to things and events in the external world. Hence, all of our emotions are formed through our engagement with the external world. (This is why a person who has been isolated from other people, events, etc., would be an emotionally immature person.)

Sometimes, though, our emotions are exercised through “sympathetic response,” which means that we are emotionally responding to a situation, real or fictional, that does not actually directly affect us. This could include the situation of a friend or of a character in a book. Their situations arouse our emotions, but secondarily, since whatever is happening to them does not directly affect us.

Music, as a re-presentation of both emotions and the world that evokes emotion, calls forth this kind of sympathetic response—an emotional engagement with a situation outside of ourselves, possibly a situation that could never be experienced by ourselves. By exercising these emotions, music actually educates our emotions—strengthening those we already possess, evoking some we have not experienced, training the ways in which they are directed.

And all of this happens outside our conscious awareness as we listen to music! The music that fills our lives is teaching us all the time.

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