From time to time on this blog I've complained about journalistic stories trumpeting scientific researches into how music works and how it "makes us feel." These stories tend to draw simplistic conclusions from scholarly studies whose results are often quite a bit more nuanced and complex. Also, they tend to ignore centuries of prior speculation on the same issues. For example, back in 2004 I flagged a report claiming that "while many classical scores have a distinctly national feel, no one [emphasis added] had put forward a good explanation for why that should be." If you're reading about the emotional power of dissonant tones, you're not likely to see citations of Rameau's Treatise on Harmony, which went viral in 1722, and if you're reading about the interrelationship of music and language you will seldom encounter the name Leoš Janáček. I should make clear — as I haven't always made clear in the past — that the problem is very often not the work itself but the media summary of it. Although I do have serious questions about the methodology of that study finding that Beethoven avoided high notes in his middle period.
In a NewMusicBox piece, Isaac Schankler scrutinizes recent articles on the topic of music and emotion, these focused on alleged appoggiaturas in the songs of Adele. Because Schankler is a composer and musician associated with the field of music perception and cognition, in large measure his aim is to give a more accurate picture of the study by the psychologist John Sloboda that was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal and on NPR. But a more general protest emerges. Schankler resists "the implication that music is like a science of emotional manipulation through sound, and that it’s as simple as applying a 'formula' to achieve commercial and artistic success." So many of these how-does-music-work articles and books seem to view music as one thing, as a standardized mechanical apparatus whose tricks can be figured out. And music is peculiarly prey to trivializing questions. Perhaps I'm overlooking stories in other fields, but I don't seem to see headlines along the lines of "How do paintings make us feel?" or "Why do movies with unhappy endings make us cry?" or "What about thrillers makes us tense?" Music emerges from these reports as a reliable servant of everyday emotion, not as a medium of individual creativity. They dovetail a little too nicely with the corporate methodology of focus-group testing. Only the mean counts; outliers are discarded. I love the comment that Schankler found in a Metafilter discussion: “I’d like some scientific explanation of why that song does nothing for me.”