Is All Music Intended To Be Expressive?

Version 2I am asked from time to time if all music is created with expressive intent. The National Arts Standards seem to imply so, because they set students to interpreting and determining expressive intent with no restrictions or qualifiers concerning to what music this applies. Elsewhere I have discussed the problems of knowing what a composer’s creative intent is; that without directly asking the composer, we can only surmise what his or her creative intent might have been, using a consensus of listeners and experts to lead the way. But it may be immaterial whether or not the composer intended to express something, because music itself is perceived as expressive, regardless of what a composer had in mind.

There are properties in music that stimulate cognitive activity that releases emotions. Much of this emotional response is dependent on making predictions and then enjoying the stimulation that results from the fulfillment of those predictions being delayed or confounded. Mohana (2016) explained that

Music, though it appears to be similar to features of language, is more rooted in the primitive brain structures that are involved in motivation, reward and emotion. Whether it is the first familiar notes of The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” or the beats preceding AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” the brain synchronizes neural oscillators with the pulse of the music (through cerebellum activation), and starts to predict when the next strong beat will occur. The response to ‘groove’ is mainly unconscious; it is processed first through the cerebellum and amygdala rather than the frontal lobes.

Music involves subtle violations of timing and, because we know through experience that music is not threatening, these violations are ultimately identified by the frontal lobes as a source of pleasure. The expectation builds anticipation, which, when met, results in the reward reaction.

Meyer (1956) in his seminal work Emotion and Meaning in Music  argued that music was a dynamic process, constantly presenting the listener with patterns of sounds that demanded continuation, or that came to rest. According to Krumhansl (2002),

Meyer proposed that expectations play the central psychological role in musical emotions. Some points in the music engender strong expectations for continuation, creating a sense of tension and instability. Other points in the music fulfill expectations, and units are perceived as closed off and completed. Musical meaning and emotion depend on how the actual events in the music play against this background of expectations.

So the answer to our question, is all music intended to be expressive, may well be found in the degree to which a composer consciously or intentionally manipulates repetition and variety so that expectations, which are learned from experience and enculturation, are satisfied, delayed or left unmet. A musical work that is one beautiful, sonorous melody after another may sound beautiful, romantic or lush to many listeners, but if expectations are constantly met without exception or variation, then it is more likely than not that the composer was not so much intending to express emotions as present beautiful music. Indeed, beauty in and of itself is not an emotion, but a trait that is perceived but not felt or experienced as an emotion is. This harkens back to the concept of aesthetic response where the listener perceives beauty in an artistic work, but that perception is purely objective. Any emotion perceived in music where all expectations are always fulfilled without delay can only express the one emotion of repose. Without delayed or unfulfilled expectation, there can be no tension and no expression of emotions that are disturbing, scary, exciting or other such emotions. On the other hand, music that is nothing but seemingly random sounds cannot be expressive of emotions that are restful and calming because there are no satisfied expectations. While such musical works could be intended to express only a single emotion, it is just as likely that the composer was intent on writing in a particular style, such as 12-tone or minimalism, and accepted the inherent emotional limitations of those styles, exchanging some expressive potential for compositional technique.

This principle can be seen in the general intent of composers in the Classic period (c. 1750-1820) compared to the Romantic period (c. 1820-1900). In the Classic style, which largely harkened back to classic Greek styles, balance and carefully proportioned phrases, themes, theme groups, sections and movements were given priority. It is not that composers such as Mozart tried to avoid being expressive with their music, it is just that wearing their emotions on their sleeves was not the purpose of writing music in the 18th century. The music itself is mostly predictable, true to the classic forms. When unusual musical events occur within a work, they are the exception. Compare this to the music of the Romantics in the 19th century. One can find innovation and new musical frontiers almost everywhere on the musical landscape. Composers such as Liszt, Pagannini, Richard Strauss and of course Wagner excited audiences with musical innovations, shows of brilliant virtuosity not seen before, and a shifting, difficult to predict harmonic language that made long time-spans of building tension possible for the first time. The level of tensions and angst were great in these works, as was the sense of relief and satisfaction when all came to rest peacefully or triumphantly on that perhaps lately hard to find or altogether missing tonic chord. The difference in expressive intent between the Mozarts and the Wagners of music history cannot be overlooked, and it is all a matter of in Mozart’s case the absence of unfulfilled or delayed expectations, and in Wagner’s case, the abundance of them.

Is all music intended to be expressive? Though his quips were sometimes hard to distinguish from his truths, Stravinsky once said that, “I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.”

We can conclude at the very least that not all music is meant to be to the same degree expressive. While it seems evident that much of the great musicians would not agree with Stravinsky’s evaluation, his remarks indicate that perhaps at least that one great musical genius had no expressive intent whatsoever. If this is so, we must conclude that not all music is intended to be expressive. Though I wonder how many, like myself, find much of Stravinsky’s music highly expressive, his remarks not withstanding. If manipulating listener expectations is a composer writing expressiveness into the music, than surely there are some delayed and frustrated expectations one runs across while listening to Stravinsky’s music. It does seem safe to say that the more experienced and enculturated one is with a given musical idiom, the more able one is to form expectations as to what will happen in that music. It follows that with a heightened ability to form expectations, comes an increased power in the music to manipulate those expectations. Perhaps the degree to which a musical work is expressive depends as much on the listener’s ability to make predictions about it as on what the composer actually wrote or even intended.

Meyer, L. B. (1956). Emotion and meaning in music. Chicago, Ill. [u.a.: Univ. of Chicago Press.



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