Social Cognitions and Musical Emotions

by Jos Kunst (1986)

Originally published in: Reason, emotion and music; [ed.:] L. Apostel, F. Vandamme, H. Sabbe. Special issue of: Communication & cognition: 19 (1986) 2, 221-240.

Music, reason and emotion: it seems to me that the main opposition here, the one which motivated the colloquium's name, is between reason and emotion. I have been asking myself whether this opposition might not have been based, in part, on a rather trivial every-day language use, such as in: "Be reasonable", i.e. don't let yourself be swept away by your emotions. Reason is then the good guy, the socializing principle, that which makes people behave, emotion the bad guy, antisocial and responsible for bad behaviour.

It is indeed the case that for scientists investigating human behaviour reason is much easier to tackle than, say, intuition (which by some contributors has been put – very wrongly, it seems to me – in the same bag as emotion). But it is well-known that "non-rational" thought, i.e. thought not consciously guided by any rational system, may very well be "rationally reconstructible", as the phrase goes, and that is not only lucky for scientists, it also sheds some light, I believe, on the interest musicologists have in believing in the rational reconstructions some composers have given of their own work. Rational reconstructions are just theories, and composers justifying what they have done are scarcely disinterested witnesses. What they tell us about themselves must be carefully kept in its proper status of "testimonies", and weighed as such.

I want to talk about non-verbal knowledge and non-verbal art. These may lack, say, lexical meaning; but nobody really doubts that, e.g., music has pragmatical (and therefore also semantical) meaning: the information it brings to you, as is well-known, does something to you.

Let us concentrate on the meaning of music. It has been said repeatedly that music and perhaps art in general does not make any truth claims. On the other hand, it does make a different claim, one we might call an "interestingness" claim. What does that mean? What are the relations between interestingness and truthfulness ? If I am interested by some activity a fellow human directs at me, must I not have some hope that what he does be in some way illuminating, that understanding him will in some way or other eventually help me in understanding the world I live in, including myself ?

Let us start out from the idea that what we have in our heads is, among other things, something like a model of the world we live in. We will then be interested in two possible activities: (1) the updating of the model. We have an interest in that the model remain for as far as possible a model of the real world and not of some fantasy world. (2) Nevertheless, we construct fantasy worlds all the time. We very often, one could say, close our eyes, concentrate on our intemal model of the world, and just "make it work", make it "go through its paces" – we make it do what it can do. We call this thinking. Obviously, the whole range of possibilities, from the thinking out of some particular problem up to and including daydreaming is open to us.

However, psychologists tell us that absolutely free, i.e. not problem-oriented, daydreaming generally does not happen; people typically daydream about what one could call their personal recurrent subjects, their personal myths, if you wish.

This talk of personal myths must not induce you to think that these myths may not be socially determined, or even had in common with a great many other people. Generally speaking, one may even plausibly think that people do not like their myths to be just personal, or all too personal. They need to test out these myths not only on their own internal world model, but also on their fellow humans' internal models, perhaps in the way non-organic computers too are used in parallel: it makes one feel such surer of oneself. Here is where culture comes in. If we define culture as an ordered set of conventions in the sense of the David Lewis analysis of the word, its key idea is in the coordination of behaviour; if, secondly, we accept the idea of people having an interest in using each other's world models in parallel with their own, we see the interest people have in common culture and we can explain the tendency they have in a) telling each other stories all the time about non-existing worlds, and b) given the obvious limits on "organic computer time" and communication space, in trying to take over for as much as possible elements of each other's stories, and thus coordinating their internal and external behaviour, their thinking and their telling. In this way we may try to explain the emergence of the conventions of story-telling: these conventions will thus be both on subject matter and ways of presentation.

It may seem that what we have said up till now essentially is on literature and that it bears to music, after all our topic of these three days, only a relation of analogy. I want to argue that this is not quite true.

Literature exploits the verbal communication systems. But people also communicate non-verbally. I continually let myself be seen and heard by other people while, at the same time, the verbal machinery is either occupied elsewhere or otherwise (momentarily) put out of action. (In principle, all senses are relevant; but it may be that the senses of close contact lend themselves less easily to larger-scale cultural use. Good lovemaking may be an art, but, I think, a socially small-scale one, and therefore somewhat limited in its cultural effectiveness.)

Now, limiting ourselves to the senses of vision and hearing, we will want to acknowledge the fact that people build up their ideas of themselves and of others, and come to share these ideas, also largely through non-verbal communication channels. Therefore obviously their "models of the world" will also have non-verbal components. (In fact, the success of verbal communication depends in a large part on the concomitant success of non-verbal communication.)

So: we have ways of making ourselves known by non-verbal means; others have these same means and use them in order to make themselves known to us. Known: not only they tell us that they exist, but also they identify themselves through them, they give information on the kind of people they are and on how they relate to us. This is the realm of attitudes and gestures. Some, but by no means all, attitudes (and gestures) may perhaps be taken to be related with moods – they would then be something like moods being made perceptible.

Let us for a moment explore the avenue of music being an extension of the way we have to make ourselves known through "audible attitudes". This extension would then specifically serve the more explorative needs we mentioned when we were talking about stories. A part of play-acting would then be expected to be "grafted upon" our ordinary non-verbal communication, both parasitizing on it and fertilizing it. All this would be regulated by conventions making possible enduring communication. This would mean that not any attitude is acceptable; new attitudes would be immediately related to older ones; a network of conventions would come to regulate a network of possible attitudes, and that would be the musical culture people, in being acculturated, come to internalize. Interesting music would continually keep this (internal and shared) system "under pressure". Thus the non-verbal components of our model of the world would also be made to "do what they can do", to fulfil specifically explorative functions, to behave in new ways, – as self-learning programs are apt to do.

Now human beings are different from self-learning programs in that successful learning, with them, is always accompanied by emotions, whose "quality" can only be described by describing the content of the "insights" gained, by taking stock of the concepts learned. This is one important way in which, in music, emotions are present. Each even remotely interesting musical event is interesting because of some newness; and if the new aspect can be successfully integrated by the listener he will experience the feeling of "being with it", the feeling of adequately coping with the world, that always accompanies the successful perception of art. In experimental psychology there is considerable evidence to support such views (cf., e.g., Mandler 1975).

Some have objected to such views that even well-known works may continue to be interesting. They must think again. The word "well-known" here just means that the listening experience, including the sense of wonder provoked, is being recognized in passing. Just as in other field, e.g., the memorizing of the layout of a town, people are much better at recognition than at recall. The recognition may then perhaps even add to the sense of wonder: it is itself surprising, and therefore new in the sense meant.

But there is more in art. The specific tension in the perceptor that is generated by a situation that is felt to be a possibly illuminating one makes for a more intense perceptive attitude. Now it is an often overlooked fact that perception itself involves a simulation process. And where, say, moods are being perceived through attitudes and gestures, these moods must be expected to be simulated also. Think, for example, of the behaviour of people present at spectator sports. For some reason, perception there is often intense. This permits us to see in the gestures of the onlookers the way they are simulating what they are perceiving: by the intensity of the perception process, simulation is intense too; and not only the internal model stored in their brain, but also the outward machinery that is intricately appended to the brain, i.e. their physical body, is swept away by the event and taken in, quite literally, by the simulation process. This is, I take it, what happens when motor responses are triggered in music audiences, and also what happens when musical moods are contagious.

Not only moods, also emotions can be perceptible, and, if perceived with sufficient intensity, may become emotions felt. So the picture is that

  1. we have a basic need to understand (the behaviour of) our fellow humans;
  2. if they present us with deviant behaviour, we will become emotional;
  3. any interesting music will be in that category as it will have some uniqueness, and that entails deviance;
  4. the new attitudes (gestures) we are confronted with may lead to the perception of moods and emotions;
  5. by the heightened attention we have, moods and emotions perceived may become moods and emotions felt; and
  6. lastly, they will then enter with all other attitudinal aspects, simple ones and complex ones, of the situation perceived, and with our own pleasurable excitement at cognitively mastering it, into the total evaluation of what the musical event does to us.

Musical style is here seen as a both restricted and elaborated special variant of perceptibly "normal" behaviour. A musical grammar, or system, is just a fossilized style that has, possibly, even been codified in books; we need not give it any special status apart from that. (A musical system must be distinguished from composers' systems: these are mainly systems for self-manipulation, and their influence on musical styles and systems in the world at large simply remains to be seen. As will be argued later, composers don't own the music.) Now, normal behaviour is understandable in virtue of its very normality: it obeys known laws. A composer working out and making known his own style creates in his listeners the knowledge of his own relative normality; he has a number of abnormalities with respect to the style system preceding him, and if he presents something new, he will, more or less slightly, be changing "his" style, or. rather, creating a substyle relative to the present work only.

With the aid of this kind of cultural machinery people, called artists, try to bring their fellow humans into special situations, which will be charged with tension and emotion, and which will be the bearers of non-verbal contents. These contents may be very specific, but also very vague (in this they are exactly like the contents of verbal utterances), and I have developed elsewhere (cf. Kunst 1978) ways of introducing some rigour into the descriptions of these contents.

Finally, as I described it here, music is not the property of musicians only, but the common property of the cultural community. Musicians "live off" that community. This has important consequences. The most important, and the only one I would want to urge onto you now, is the following.

I would like to enter a plea for empirical control to be exercised upon assertions we make about music-in-use. Now there is one question one may well ask in this context. If someone asserts something about a class of musical events, say a piece of music, where can I go and see whether he is right? Where are the pieces of music? – I have also an answer to offer that does justice to the considerations I have made earlier.

A music is in the memory of its normal users. Memory is then to be understood as not confined to the inside of the skull. We all use external memoryspaces, such as appointment books, public libraries, and so on. Memoryspaces may be public and shared, and nonetheless only adequately describable by mental and intentional descriptions. We may share mental spaces.

The question whether in any given case this sharing of mental space actually takes place, and if so, in how far, is an empirical one. Musicologists too often take composers, or themselves, too seriously as authorities on musical works. A composition is, I take it, an action on the part of the composer. Clearly, an action can turn out not to be what it was intended to be, and the agent may not be aware of it. I do not see why this could not be the case with composers. They may have tried to "put something into" their work; they may think they have succeeded in doing so, and they may have failed. They have, as I would now paraphrase it, tried to design a musical communication situation, tried to mobilize certain concepts in certain ways, and not be aware that, for example, very different things actually do happen.

Musicologists must work on ways to find out about these things. In a forthcoming publication I hope to show how the more rigorous ways of noting down contents and workings of non-verbal attitudes/conventions actually give inspiration in devising tests that help us finding out whether they are actually functioning or not, in the real world of users of the music.


Kunst, J., 1978. Making Sense in Music: an Inquiry into the Formal Pragmatics of Art. Communication and Cognition: Studies in Action Theory, Ghent.

Lewis, D.K., 1969. Convention, a Philosophical Study. Harvard U.P., Cambridge Mass.

Mandler, G., 1975. Mind and Emotion. Wiley, New York.