Contributed by Dr. Keith Thompson -
“The Arts” and “The Humanities” are linked together on many campuses and in the minds of many scholars. Is this merely a marriage of convenience, or is there a substantative relationship between these disciplines? When I ask students in my music appreciation course “How does music makes us more human?” they typically begin quoting lyrics from the latest popular love song, or a human rights protest song. Some even reference the “universal brotherhood” theme from Beethoven’s 9th symphony. I quickly point out that these are, indeed, all texts about the human condition, but that they have turned the discussion to poetry or literature, rather than music. Of course, poetry and literature are art forms that are also a part of the broad classification of “humanities” and quite capable of providing valuable insights into the human condition. I ask students if the music to which they referred were performed with texts in a language which they do not understand (as the Beethoven usually is) would the music cease to be “humanistic”? Did not Beethoven give us insights into what it means to be human in his other eight symphonies, which have no texts? How is music a humanity?
Susanne Langer had quite a bit to say about this in the mid-1900’s. In her opinion, one unique characteristic of humans is our ability to undergo a wide range of feelings. Langer carefully delineates feeling from emotions. For her, emotions are broad generalized states, but feelings are subtle, differentiated and specific. For example, love is an emotion that we experience in our relationships with other people, and sometimes, things. Yet the feeling we experience within each relationship is different. Langer points out that language may be adequate for communicating about emotions. (We have a range of words for love, sadness, grief, hate, sorrow, elation, fear, regret, etc). However language is inadequate when it comes to communicating about feelings. (There is not a word to describe the difference in the grief I feel between the loss of my mother and the loss of my job or the loss of a pet.) The arts do have a way of symbolizing these subtle and specific feelings and thus enable us to share understandings of the human condition in a deeper and more profound way than is possible with words alone. So while the lyrics of a song may address an emotional state, the music ( specifically the melodic line, the rhythm, the subtle changes in volume, the harmony created by combinations of tones, etc. goes beyond the generalized emotion to express a more differentiated feeling.
How does music do this?
To answer this question we turn to another mid-1900’s author, Leonard Myer and his theory of expectation. According to Myer, enculturation causes us to expect certain sounds to follow one another. A very simple example will illustrate this. The melody of the familiar song “Three Blind Mice” begins with three descending pitches. This pattern establishes an expectation that is confirmed through the repetition of these same three pitches. However, If the final pitch of second phrase went upward rather than continuing downward as we expect, we would react with in a feelingful way. One might label that reaction as “surprise” (which would be an emotion) however, the specific reaction we experience would be dependent on the tone that was substituted for the one we expect. It would be very difficult to verbally label the degree of surprise, but it would be felt and through that feeling we would become a bit more aware of our humanity. Listen to this simple example and with awareness of the feeling you experience when Melody B does something different than you expect.
To be sure, this is a very simple example of how Meyer’s theory of expectation might be applied to pitch. However, each aspect of sound: rhythm, volume, harmony, etc. also has “expected sequences” As these various elements begin interacting with one another in a well crafted composition, we are taken on an “aural roller coaster” of feelingful expectations and surprises. We experience feelings we may not have encountered before. We “re-live” feelings that we experienced in other times and places, examining them more deeply. We become aware of the wide range of feelings that are available to us as humans. We learn a bit more of what it means to be human.
Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” provides a further opportunity to test the theories of Langer and Myer about music’s ability express human feeling. This composition was constructed from two short patterns; one introduced by the percussion, the other by the brass. The simplicity and clarity of these patterns establish expectations, but each repetition reveals a deviation that enables a felt response. If we listen with anticipation about the destination of each sound pattern, and an openness to our reaction to those sounds, we will gain some insight into Copland’s understanding of one aspect of the human condition.
Listening Example “Fanfare for the Common Man”
Video Example “Fanfare for the Common Man”
Keith P. Thompson, Ph. D.
Professor Emeritus, Penn State
Adjunct Professor, Excelsior College