Music and the Emotions
by Luke Dahn

Last revised 8/9/09

N.B. This is an ongoing project, and I will be posting my essay in piecemeal fashion and revising along the way as new observations spring forth. Please email me with any comments or recommendations you have!


Lengthy tracts and manuals have been written on these issues, which have been of particular interest to philosophers of art in recent decades. Nothing resembling a survey of the literature or an exhaustive investigation of the philosophical terrain on these matters will be given here.(1) My primary task in this essay is a general one: to present general observations and reflections pertaining to recent discussions of the emotional expressiveness of music. I will first try to give a fair representation of some of the views that have at one time or another gained currency, along the way raising both standard arguments and objections in connection with these, as well as introducing issues and considerations that I think have been neglected. I will then detail my own account of the emotion in music.

While music has kept the abstract philosophers busy for centuries due to its mysterious power to move us, it is still very much a human activity. It has often been stated that there has been no known human culture that has not enjoyed or used music in some form or another. Music can be a powerful form of communication. It can build communities. The acquisition of music–making can foster discipline. Its enjoyment can provide solace. An extreme diversity of music can be used in a plethora of ways by a great diversity of people. (And these diverse musical activities are explained by a great diversity of theories!) Needless to say, the philosopher attempting a single theory of musical expressiveness that accounts for all of the valid ways in which we listen to music(2) is a tall order.

One of the facets that I hope will make my account unique and fresh is its recognition of this plurality of aesthetically valid ways of engaging music. I often find too many theories too narrow in their explanatory scope. Another somewhat unique facet to my study is the eventual foray into the realm of programmatic music. Most theoretical treatises on the expressiveness of music refuse to breach the barrier between absolute and programmatic music for understandable reasons. Theorists do not want to complicate matters when it is the expressiveness within music itself that we are attempting to explain. Bringing in extramusical ’programs’ only clouds the issue. Yet I believe that new light can be shed about the power of music’s expressiveness (even if no new light can be shed on its nature). Finally, I believe that my view of a ’heightened’ emotional response to the expressiveness in music carries explanatory weight, for it makes clear why (non–attenuated) arousal theories(3) have held such great popular currency in the past while appearing to be so philosophically nonsensical.

It will be obvious to those who know some of the literature in the philosophy of music that I have been influenced by a number of prominent thinkers.(4) It will be equally obvious to those who are very familiar with the philosophical terrain of these matters that there are some prominent thinkers whose theories I have not yet come to read. I welcome any recommendations from my readers as there are so many brilliant thinkers out there whose writings are engaging and exciting. The mysteries that lay beneath this thing we call music are endlessly fascinating and deserve a lifetime of study and contemplation.


In general, we usually see no difficulties in thinking and speaking of music in emotional terms. The language we use in describing music very often endows music with emotional content. We do this regularly, and there seems to be general consensus that we do it validly. Such statements as, "Music M expresses emotion E," are common. But closer inspection of this manner of speaking begins to reveal a number of questions. What exactly is it that we mean when we say music M expresses emotion E? And why is it that we speak and think this way, especially when we are well aware that music itself is non–sentient and thus incapable of expressing anything at all? Since real, "occurrent" emotions, as they are experienced in their usual way, necessarily involve cognitive capacities, sentience seems to be a requirement. So why is it that emotional descriptions of music seem to fit so appropriately? Perhaps when we say music M expresses emotion E, we mean that music M expresses emotion E in that it induces emotion E in the listener (arousal theory). Or perhaps we mean that the composer has expressed her own emotions through the music (expression theory). Maybe we only mean that music M resembles the real–life experience and trappings of emotion E (resemblance theory).

Problems of various kinds arise with each of these assertions: Emotions as they are normally experienced require real–life objects. But what could possibly be the object of the emotion ’aroused’ in the listener? Are there such things as objectless emotions, such as moods or feelings, and are these what the music arouses in the listener? And if we call music M sad by virtue of it arousing sadness in the listener, why would anyone willingly listen to such music? What happens to the expression theory in instances where the known state of mind of the composer does not correspond to the expressiveness of the music? If music’s expressiveness merely ’resembles’ the emotions in some way, why do we hear this resemblance and not some other? Can the resemblance theory really account for the deep emotional engagement of our listening experiences? These are just some of the thorny questions that must be answered.

Before proceeding, it will be helpful to describe what I will refer to as the three realms in the emotions–and–music enterprise, and the philosophical questions pertinent to the enterprise can be framed by referring to these realms and the connections between them.

Realm 1: Emotions within the music
Realm 2: Emotion within the listener as they relate to Realm 1
Realm 3: That which in music ’moves’ us

These realms are not locational, as Realms 1 and 2 might suggest, but categorical, as Realm 3 indicates. The very existence of Realm 3 reveals that many, including myself, do not believe that that which in music ’moves’ us can be explained entirely by the first two realms or the relationship between them. Some of the issues at hand rest within one of these realms, and others rest at the connections between them. The issues resting in Realms 1 and 2 deal with the issue of musical expressiveness, while only those issues in Realm 3 that relate to Realms 1 and 2 deal with the issue of expressiveness. Some issues within Realm 3 (e.g. beauty, aesthetic merit) fall outside the discussion of expressiveness, but to varying degrees depending on the distinctions and definitions assumed by the various theories.


A logical starting point is to detail some of the theories of musical expression that have at one time or another gained prominence. As mentioned in the introduction, the general consensus is that when we say something like music M expresses emotion E, we do it validly. The fundamental question that each of the following theories answer is what we really mean by such a statement.

Expression Theory
According to the expression theory,
(5) the emotional expressiveness of the music is or should be heard as an expression of the composer’s real, occurrent emotions. This view answers the sentience requirement in expression by turning to the sentience of the composer. The composer, through his art of composition, has infused in the music his own emotions, and the listener hears the emotional content of the music as an expression of the composer.

There are several shortcomings of this view, which may explain why it has not garnered many advocates. The main objection is simply that our listening experience of music does not allow for this theory, since we generally place the expressive content of music within the music. We hear it as belonging to the music, as an attribute of the music itself. A now famous aphorism from O.K. Bouwsma is often invoked in connection with this distinction: "The sadness is to the music rather like the redness to the apple, than it is like the burp to the cider."(6) When we say that music M expresses emotion E, we take E to be a property of M itself rather than a property of something external that stands in some relation to M. While it is true that a composer may wish to infuse his emotions into the music, it is very often the case that a work’s expressive content is contrary to the known state of mind of the composer during that work’s composition. A clear example of this would be the jubilance of much of the music by Mozart written during the darkest period of his life (e.g. the Jupiter Symphony). But even if the emotional content of the music does correspond to the state of mind of the composer, the fact is often given that we do not generally listen to music in the way that assumes it to be the emotional expression of the composer.

Stephen Davies points out this separation between the composer and the work when he notes that "in the most plausible account [of the expression theory], the composer appropriates the music’s expressiveness in order to make the connection with his or her own emotions. In other words, the composer is like the person who expresses his or her feelings, not by showing them directly, but by making a mask that wears an appropriate expression."(7) Davies’s comment indicates a deficiency in the expression theory—namely, that it carries very little explanatory weight, for while it does attempt to explain what it is that we mean when we attribute emotional content to music by saying that it is the expression of the composer’s real emotions, it stops well short of explaining how it is that the emotional content is heard by the listener or inserted into the music by the composer. Put differently, it is the nature of the expressiveness that we hear within the music that we are seeking to explain, and this view offers nothing by way of an explanation.(8) It only takes for granted that the expressiveness is there, and states that it should be heard as belonging to the composer. This deficiency of failing to explain the how–it–is–that of it all is found in several of the theories to be discussed below.

However, while acknowledging this deficiency, a modest rescue of the expression theory may be possible. While it might be true that we generally do not hear music’s expressive content as being an expression of the composer’s real emotions, due to the expression theory’s quite narrow explanatory scope there is certainly no harm done in listening in the manner the theory suggests. Since it leaves untouched the question of the nature of the emotional content within the music, the expression theory is allowable, and this allowance can be acknowledged by both the resemblance theorist and the arousalist without doing any damage to their respective views.

Not only is the expression theory allowable philosophically, in certain situations the listener would often be correct in listening in a manner that hears the expression in the music as being an intended expression of the composer’s real emotions. This is more appropriate when listening to music from periods during which the prominent view of art saw it as a vehicle for personal expression (e.g. 19th century) and when listening to music by composers who were known to take such a view of art. Just as there are counterexamples of instances when the known state of mind of the composer during a work’s composition does not correspond to the expressive content of the music, there are also many examples when the known state of mind does correspond. There are even works that we know were intended by the composer to be personal expressions of states of mind. So why not hear them in this way? I suspect that more people listen in the way the expression theory suggests than philosophers have generally granted, and I have more than musicologists in mind.

Taking the rescuing endeavor further, even when we are not sure whether the state of mind of the composer corresponds, is there any harm in listening in this manner? If we can, by the use of our imagination, hear the emotional expressiveness of a piece of music as belonging to ourselves (as is suggested by Kendall Walton) or as belonging to a fictitious ’persona’ (the so-called ’persona’ theory), why can we not hear the emotions in the music as the imagined emotions of the composer? It seems, at least, a possible approach.

While the Bouwsma quip invoked by critics has considerable thrust and makes an important distinction that we must not forget, it may not do the damage to the expression theory that these critics assume it does. It seems to me that it only does considerable damage if the expression theorist denies that the sadness is a property of the music, and I do not see that the expression theory is necessarily committed to such a position. Can the sadness heard in the music not be a property of the music and still be an expression of the composer’s own emotions? Is it not possible that the sadness in the music is both like the redness to the apple and like the burp to the cider in some way? It seems to me that the Bouwsma invocation does not do the intended damage here. For even though the expression theory and other theories, such as the arousal theory or resemblance theory, answer the question "What do we mean when we say music M expresses emotion E?" differently, it does not necessarily make the expression theory and others incompatible.

What the Bouwsma quip does do, however, is it exposes once again the expression theory’s deficiency of failing to explain anything about the nature of expression. Even if the expression theory does not deny that the sadness is a property of the music, it does not affirm it either. It says nothing on the matter. The expression theory is an attempt to explain the way in which the expression of emotion is to the music as the burp is to the cider, while the chief enterprise at hand is to explain the way in which the expression of emotion is to the music as the redness is to the apple.

One final objection to the expression theory will once and for all lead us to brighter and better theories. The fact of the matter is that the mere recognition of emotional expressiveness involved in the expression theory seems too conceptual and fails to account for the emotional investment of our listening experience. The fact is that we invest ourselves emotionally in the music without hearing or imagining the expressiveness in music as coming from the composer (or anyone else outside the music, for that matter). The expression theory truly carries too little explanatory weight for it to satisfy. We must look elsewhere if we hope to get at the nature of the expression of emotion in music and our deep emotional investment in it.

Arousal Theory
According to the arousal theory, music’s expressiveness is explained in terms of the emotions evoked or ’aroused’ in the listener. When we say that music M expresses emotion E, we mean that it does so because it brings about E in the listener. Where the expression theory answers the sentience requirement by turning to the composer, the arousal theory points to the listener.

One of the appeals of the arousal theory is the directness and immediacy between the music’s expressiveness and our emotional response. According to both the expression theory and the resemblance theory, there is something of a separation between the music’s expressiveness and our response. Both theories seem to involve a recognition of the music’s expressiveness prior to any emotional engagement taking place on the listener’s part. This seems all too cognitive and mechanical to some and fails to correspond with the immediacy of our listening experience.

The arousal theory, it should be said, was to a great extent the only expression game in town throughout much of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, until Eduard Hanslick began punching holes in it in the second half of the 19th century.(9) As a result of the attacks by Hanslick and others to follow, the arousal theory has not garnered many advocates throughout the 20th century, though there are some who have attempted to revitalize it, usually offering versions of it that are attenuated. Such attempts have been made by Derek Matravers and Jenefer Robinson. What follows below are several of the standard objections to the theory, some of which were pointed out in Hanslick’s important 1854 work, On the Musically Beautiful. (More on Hanslick later.)

Objection #1: True emotions like sadness, as they are normally experienced in everyday life, require accompanying objects and beliefs, and it is difficult to imagine what the required object or belief would be in the emotion aroused by the listening experience. Consider the emotion of fear. It is difficult to imagine a genuine experience of fear without being afraid of something. An afraid person may be afraid that his house is about to be robbed or that his father might die from a complicated surgery. And even if the threat of having his house robbed is not real, if the belief of the threat is real, that is enough for the genuine emotion of fear to be present. But if music expressive of sadness truly arouses sadness in the listener, what is the listener sad about? What is the object and belief of this sadness? The prerequisite object and belief appear to be absent.

Objection #2: The emotion in the listener does not always (and to some, does not usually) correspond with the emotion being expressed by the music. A listener is often moved to emotions contrary to those being expressed by the music. I may be exhilarated by the agitated pounding of a work expressive of anger. Or I may loathe by the sappy cheerfulness expressed in a piece of music. This frequent, if not usual, lack of correspondence between the music’s expressiveness and the listener’s response seems to verify the very separation between the two that the arousalist often cites as a reason for accepting his position.

(It should be remembered that the opponent of the arousal theory does not necessarily suggest that no emotions are ever aroused in the listener, nor does she suggest that those emotions aroused are aroused by the music. Rather, opponents of the arousal theory deny both that the music’s expressiveness of emotions is explained, or at least identified, by the emotions aroused in the listener and that the emotion aroused in the listener is determined by the emotion of which the music is expressive. The opponent of the arousal theory may even allow that the music’s expressiveness is that in music which brings about an emotional response, but she refuses to say that the kind of response is determined by the kind of emotion expressed in the music.(10))

Objection #3: There are pieces of music that do not seem to express any emotion at all and yet move us deeply. Therefore, if we are moved by such music, it must be something other than the music’s expressiveness that is doing the "moving." It is often suggested that a good amount of music of the Baroque and Classical periods fall into this category, as opposed to music from the Romantic era when art was viewed as a vehicle for emotional expression. The objector just does not see enough of the one–to–one correspondence between the music and the listener’s response that is implied by the arousal theory for it to carry any weight as an overarching theory.

Objection #4: If true sadness and other negative emotions are aroused by music expressive of them, there is no reason why anyone would want to experience such music. No sane human would voluntarily subject herself to such unpleasant experiences. However, the fact is that we value highly the experience of many such works, and this fact counts against the arousal theory.

Numerous responses to each of these standard objections have been provided, and not only by arousal theorists. Some of these responses must be addressed and will be in future revisions of this document.

In addition to these standard objections, it should be pointed out that a deficiency of the same kind recognized with the expression theory is found in the arousal theory. Like the expression theory, the arousal theory attempts to explain what we mean when we say music M expression emotion E by pointing to the occurrent emotions aroused or expressed by some sentient being without commenting on the how–it–is–that of it all. Versions of the arousal theory explain either the emotional expressiveness in the music in terms of the emotion aroused in the listener or the aroused emotion in the listener in terms of the emotional expressiveness in the music, or both. If a theory suggests that music M’s expressiveness of emotion E is explained by emotion E’s being aroused in the listener, the theory itself does not say anything about why it is that emotion E is aroused and not some other emotion.(11) If the theory suggests that emotion E is aroused in the listener because music M is expressive of emotion E, the theory itself does not say anything about why it is that emotion E is expressed in music. if a theory suggests that the expressiveness of E in the music and the arousal of E in the listener are explained by each other, then an obvious circularity is involved here.(12) The arousal theorist has a couple of options in response. She can either look for other explanations regarding how it is that emotion E, and not any other, finds its way into the expressive loop,(13) or she can chalk up how it is that emotion finds its way in as one of those great mysteries of music’s expressive power.

Matravers, an advocate of his own version of the arousal theory, acknowledges the circularity. He rightly suggests that the circularity does not itself disprove the arousal theory; it does not deny that the arousal theory cannot explain what actually happens. What it does do is show a deficiency in the theory if it is looked to for an explanation of the nature of the expressiveness found within the music. Matravers also admits that the circularity shows that "in the absence of independent motivations—[we have] no reason to believe [the arousal theory]."(14)

Matravers goes on to suggest two ways out of this vicious loop. . .

Next to be discussed. . .

  • Responses to the objections posed against the arousal theory.
  • Resemblance Theory: Music’s expressiveness of emotion is explained by the resemblances between the music and either (Version 1) the phenomenological profiles of real everyday emotions or (Version 2) the physiological and/or behavioral manifestations of real everyday emotions. When we say that music M expresses emotion E, we mean that music M bears characteristics that resemble emotion E in one or another.

  • 1. The reader may consult a number of more exhaustive books: Stephen Davies, Musical Meaning and Expression (Cornell, 1994); Malcolm Budd, Music and the Emotions: The Philosophical Theories (Routledge, 1992); or Peter Kivy, An Introduction to a Philosophy of Music (Oxford 2001). (return to paragraph)
    2. Obviously there are many invalid ways in which we listen to music in addition to ways whose validity can be argued for but which have little or nothing to do with the expressiveness in the music that we are attempting to explain. (back to paragraph)
    3. Theories explaining music’s expressiveness in terms of the emotions aroused in the listener. These will be detailed later. (back to paragraph)
    4. Stephen Davies, Peter Kivy and Roger Scruton are perhaps the most obvious influences. (back to paragraph)
    5. The expression theory comes under different names, including the "biographical theory" (Scruton, Aesthetics of Music. Oxford, 1997). (back to paragraph)
    6. Bouwsma, O.K., "The expression theory of art," 1950. Reprinted in Bouwsma, Philosophical Essays (University of Nebraska, 1965). (back to paragraph)
    7. Davies, Stephen, "Philosophical Perspectives on Music’s Expressiveness," in Music and Emotion, Juslin and Sloboda, p.32. (back to paragraph)
    8. This is not to say that theorists espousing the expression theory may not look elsewhere for an explanation of the how–it–is–that of it all. For example, it is conceivable that an expression theory can be combined with a resemblance theory, since they can each be used to explain different things within this emotion–and–music enterprise. (back to paragraph)
    9. Prior to Hanslick, Schopenhauer was also partly responsible for beginning to see the emotion in music as expressive properties of the music itself. His writings in the early 19th century elevated music among the arts, and music eventually gained the status of "the Romantic art." See Kivy, An Introduction to a Philosophy of Music, Ch.2 "A Little History." (back to paragraph)
    10. As Davies makes a similar statement: "This is not to deny that the music sometimes can cause an emotional reaction. What is denied is that this reaction is what makes it true that the music is expressive." Davies, 2001; p.33. (back to paragraph)
    11. Again, this is not to say that an arousal theorist cannot turn to some other explanation for why it is that emotion E is aroused as opposed to another emotion. It is only to say that the arousal theory itself sheds no light on it. (back to paragraph)
    12. Davies alludes to this deficiency when he states: "If the listener is caused by the music to experience emotions that are then attributed to it, the music must possess properties that do this causing, and these properties must be describable and enumerable without reference to the listener’s response." (back to paragraph)
    13. Framed this way, it is at least conceivable that the arousal theory can be combined with another theory (usually thought to be a rival). One could suggest that the arousal theory is true in that emotion E is truly aroused in the listener by music M which expresses E and go on to suggest that the resemblance theory explains how emotion E is made manifest in music M. I am uncertain how such a view would look in the end, but such a combination of views seems at least tenable. (back to paragraph)
    14. Matravers, Art and Emotion, p.150.(back to paragraph)