Musical Expression and Musical Meaning in Context1. Some preliminaries.
There is a growing body of work in the philosophy of music and musical aesthetics that has considered the various ways that music can be meaningful: music as representational (that is, musical depictions of persons, places, processes, or events); musical as quasi-linguistic reference (as when a musical figure underscores the presence of a character in a film or opera), and most especially, music as emotionally expressive. Here I will focus on the last topic, for I believe it will be useful for researchers in music perception and cognition to avail themselves of the distinctions that aestheticians have worked out regarding the musical expression of emotion.
Now we often say that music is “expressive,” or that a performer plays with great expression, but what exactly do we mean? There are at least two things one may be saying. First, one may be praising a performer for their musical sensitivity, that he or she has a keen sense of just how a passage is supposed to be played. Such praise is often couched in terms of the performer’s “musicality” (in statements that border on the oxymoronic, as when one says that a performer plays the music very musically). Such praise may also be couched in terms of expression–i.e., that a performer plays “expressively.” I have little to say about these attributions, save that they are often linked to the second thing one often means when speaking of the music or a performance being expressive: an expressive piece or performance is one that recognizably embodies a particular emotion, and indeed may cause a sympathetic emotional response in the listener. Thus if one plays “expressively,” this means that the music’s particular emotional qualities–its sadness, gaiety, exuberance, and so forth, are amply conveyed by the performer.
Before we discuss those emotional qualities a number of other preliminary remarks are in order. When we speak of the expressive properties of music, these are distinct from the expressive properties of sound. Sounds may be loud, shrill, acoustically rough or smooth, and so forth. These acoustic qualities have expressive correlates and may trigger emotional responses, and of course one cannot have music without sound. But musical expression is more than this: it requires the attention to the music qua music, rather than as mere sounds. The opening “O Fortuna” of Carmina Burana may shock (and indeed scare) the listener due to its sudden loudness (especially when the bass drum starts whacking away), but this shock isn’t a musical effect–we get the same reaction when we here a sudden “bang” at a fireworks display or when a car backfires.