Many wise and wonderful things have been written about emotion in music, and many more foolish and trivial things. Most of what can be said falls into the shallow side, so I’ve always tried to say as little as possible. But there’s one aspect of the topic I’ve seen precious little written about, so allow me to venture out on the brink – and if I fall, let’s just hope part of me falls into the deep end.
One can insist that isolated passages of music sound happy or sad, and others may agree or disagree. What interests me more are the passages that ease us from one emotion to another – passages in which the emotional tone seems to shift from light to dark, or vice versa. Sometimes these shifts are brief, ephemeral; sometimes they carry us off to another realm for keeps. Either way, their potency lies in their direct appeal to our understanding of the relativity of all emotion. “Happy” and “Sad” don’t exist without comparison to one another, and to other states as well. Music that carries us from one state to another – however near, however distant – reinforces our awareness of these interdependencies.
So however I may shy away from definitive descriptions of emotional content in music, I think it’s important to acknowledge the moments when emotional relativity is pulled into the foreground – regardless of what labels we may fix to the departure and arrival points.