December 17

Triangulation of Emotion and Emotional Competency in Listening

Unless you adopt a pure form of an association theory in music (under which the connection between emotions and music is merely one of repeated association), you understand that music expresses human emotion in such a way that is more or less universal, and that an exploration of music and its complexities will inevitably be accompanied by an exploration of emotion and its complexities as well.  As a listener, listening to music can involve the interpretation of feeling from what is being heard, but also as a writer you can intend to convey certain feelings, and wield music to help express those feelings as well.

Given that music and emotion have this connection, there exists the possibility for emotional competency in listening.  I think as a listene or a writer, there are (at least) two kinds of emotional competencies involved in processing music.  The first is having a facility and understanding of the emotion itself, and the second is having a facility with interpreting music in order to understand it as conveying a particular emotion.   The first sort of competency I think is not too foreign of a concept.  Schadenfreude, for example, is an emotion that someone might not be familiar with, but come to understand through a series of events that allow them understand it.  In this sense, they might be understood to lack competency with the emotion and then gain competency with it, by way of a series of events.  So it goes with competency in interpreting music as conveying a particular emotion.  At a young age, people have a good grasp of being able to interpret happiness and sadness when listening to music with major and minor chords.  Beyond that, however, competency at interpreting emotion from music can be much more difficult.

Saint-Saëns, for instance, notoriously detested the work of Debussy, and I think the antagonism can fairly be attributed to an interpretive deficit – it certainly wasn’t a broadly technical musical deficit as he was quite an accomplished composer himself.  The classic generation-gap between musical tastes of older and younger people is a similar evidence of interpretive competency or lack of it.

A good analogue for understanding interpretive competency is people’s ability to read emotion in people’s behavior.  Someone might have difficulty understanding that the person they are interacting with is exhibiting sarcasm or sensing unspoken awkwardness in a room, and the difficulties may lie in two different areas – either the observer does not yet have much experience with sarcasm generally (see the character Danny from the 30 Rock episode, “Secret Santa”) or the observer might have difficulty processing non-verbal behavior in understanding how it expresses frustration.  The first is a competency problem with the emotion itself, and the second is a competency with processing or interpreting the emotion from a mode of expression.  Of course, some interpretive problems involve a simple lack of understanding of social practices and how they relate to particular emotions – flipping the bird, the thumbs up or the high five.  Other interpretive problems, however, have a more universally human background – the frown, crying, or laughter, for instance.

I bring this up because I think, in general, listeners are not very good with emotional competencies of both kinds.  Maybe this isn’t actually very controversial.  We seem to understand that men are generally taught to ignore their emotions and lack sufficient outlets for developing their ability to express their feelings.  Public funding in the arts has generally deteriorated, giving people less proficiency with the arts in general.  Top-40 music, which fairly represents popular tastes, does not abound with musical or emotional complexity – and in fact, it is suggested that popular music is sounding even more the same than it has in the past.  If listeners aren’t given the opportunity to understand more musically and emotionally sophisticated music, then why would one expect them to have great competency of the sort i’m talking about?

I can’t exactly help people out with emotional competency of the first sort – that’s sort of just a matter of having life experience.  But I can say something about the second sort, by talking about the concept of emotional triangulation.

When classical music teachers teach their students how to interpret a passage of music, they ask them to try out a variety of different interpretations of the music and find one that makes sense to them.  How do we adjust the dynamics in this piece?  How do we adjust the timbre?  Do we use staccatto entry at the beginning?  How do we adjust the tempo?  How do we adjust the intonation?  The vibrato?  The student goes through a variety of interpretations and through a number of tries eventually triangulates on an interpretation that best “fits” what they want.  At least this is how it is taught at Juilliard.

So it goes I think with listening as well.  Although it’s not so much an attempt to adjust how the music sounds in order to match the feeling that the student wants to convey, it’s the other way around.  Triangulation in listening is a practice of thinking about different interpretations of what emotion is being expressed, and coming to find that interpretation of emotion that best “fits” that is being heard.  And given that students at Juilliard will pore over a single 8-bar passage and refine it for hours on end – you might think it should actually take listeners at least more than a few listens to really understand a quality piece of music put out by a musician, right?

There’s this idea going around these days that the job of an artist is to catch a listener’s ear immediately, and if the artist fails to do this, then it reflects of an aesthetic failure of the artist.  Of course, this is definitely a market expectation to be aware of, as an artist, because the glut of music that is created every day makes it so that listeners (and industry players in general) have very little time to give to any one piece of music.

And I think this is a huge mistake.  If anything, the fact that a listener can’t immediately understand a piece of music is more often a lack of interpretive competency on the part of the listener.  After all, the musician has spent a lot of time triangulating and crafting a piece of music that best expresses their thoughts – the listener has not.  Especially in the domain of substantively new music, one might think that triangulation is a much more time-intensive and complicated affair.

In sum, emotional competency as a listener is a matter of repeated listening, emotional self-awareness, and patience.