French composer Pierre Boulez in 1976. Photo by Herve Gloaguen/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images


Musical pleasures

We know music is pleasurable, the question is why? Many answers have been proposed: perhaps none are quite right

by Roger Mathew Grant + BIO

French composer Pierre Boulez in 1976. Photo by Herve Gloaguen/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Can a melody provide us with pleasure? Plato certainly thought so, as do many today. But it’s incredibly difficult to discern just how this comes to pass. Is it something about the flow and shape of a tune that encourages you to predict its direction and follow along? Or is it that the lyrics of a certain song describe a scene that reminds you of a joyful time? Perhaps the melody is so familiar that you’ve simply come to identify with it.

Critics have proposed variations on all of these ideas as explanatory mechanisms for musical pleasure, though there remains no critical consensus. The story of their attempts and difficulties forms one vital component of Western intellectual history, and its many misdirections are revealing to trace in their own right. In early modern Europe, theorists generally adopted a view inspired by Aristotle’s Poetics: they supposed that the tones of a melody could work together with a text in order to imitate the natural world. Music, in this view, was something of a live soundtrack to a multimedia representation. It could assist in an analogic way with the depiction of the natural sentiments or features of the world captured in the language of its poetry, thereby eliciting a pleasurable response. Determining specifically how this worked was, in fact, the elusive goal set out at the opening of René Descartes’s first complete treatise, the Compendium Musicae (written in 1618). Unfortunately, Descartes never made it past a simple elaboration of musical preliminaries. He felt that, in order to make the connection to pleasure and passion, he would need a more detailed account of the movements of the soul.

This didn’t discourage later thinkers from picking up where he left off. The idea of music as an imitative or mimetic medium eventually became a major component of 18th-century aesthetics. For some thinkers, music was naturally disposed to imitate the sounds of the emotions. ‘Just as the painter imitates the features and colours of nature,’ wrote the French author Jean-Baptiste Dubos in 1719, ‘so the musician imitates the tones, accents, sighs, inflections of the voice, and indeed all of those sounds with which nature exudes the sentiments and passions.’ Hearing these representations of the various passions was itself pleasurable.

So perhaps music can sound something like a passionate utterance, which might in turn be pleasurable to hear and enjoy. One can imagine a melody as a distant echo of something more primal – the direct expression of emotion in the form of a raw cry. The 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau held a position similar to this. But this idea about melody supposes a more abstract relationship between musical tones and feeling, one that doesn’t yoke music to the specific meanings of a text.

Indeed, as the 18th century drew on, theorists became increasingly interested in the aesthetic power of musical sound as a matter independent of poetic expression. Could it be that there was something about the motions of musical tones that could capture the forms of the various passions? Could the shape of music imitate the shape of feeling? The theorist who became most associated with this view was Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), a Hamburg diplomat, lexicographer and musician. Mattheson proposed rough correspondences between musical materials and the passions: since joy is an expansion of our vitality, music that expresses joy should use expansive melodic leaps. Despair, on the other hand, would find its musical expression in drooping melodic lines. Faster tempos were for desire, while the slowest were for lamentation.

There is something that still rings true of Mattheson’s general idea. We do tend to associate some musical features with being uplifted and others with melancholic reflection, both of which might afford a certain subsequent pleasure to listeners. Just think of how we use music in our everyday lives: some tunes help us to work out or to get something done, while others allow us to cry. Unfortunately, Mattheson’s theory turns out to be incredibly difficult to implement in practice. For an example, consider the opening of one famous melody: the tune that begins the Fugue in C Major from J S Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book I (1722). You can listen to it here (and watch a visualisation as you follow along). In just the first few seconds, we already have too much musical information to make any decisions about the passions depicted, at least according to Mattheson’s theory. The melody both crests and falls, expands and contracts. It’s impossible to say for certain which rubric of Mattheson’s we should be using. And, in any case, the formal features he singles out in his theory – tempo, melodic shape and so forth – are all part of a single musical tapestry in practice. How are we to account for their interactions?

For some 18th-century thinkers, the difficulty of pinpointing the exact nature and content of musical expression was a virtue. Pleasure, on this view, came from the indefiniteness and open-endedness of musical representation. ‘Painting shows the object itself,’ wrote the French philosopher Denis Diderot in 1751, ‘poetry describes it, but music only excites an idea of it … How is it then that, of the three arts that imitate nature, the one whose expression is the most arbitrary and least precise speaks most forcefully to the soul? Is it that in showing less of its objects it leaves more to the imagination?’ Music, after all, does a rather poor job of showing you anything, especially when there isn’t any text to consider. It doesn’t have the same resources to depict things that the other arts do (apart from the occasional cheap trick such as a loud thunderclap). Perhaps music’s power is in its ambiguity.

If we’re to take Diderot seriously, then music was the first of the arts to be considered an abstract aesthetic medium. And Diderot wasn’t alone. The end of the 18th century saw the emergence of a new type of explanation for music’s effectiveness that undermined the older Aristotelian model of imitation. Thomas Twining (1735-1804), an English classicist, tackled this problem directly in his 1789 commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics:

Music … is not imitative, but if I may hazard the expression, merely suggestive. But, whatever we may call it, this I will venture to say, – that in instrumental Music, expressively performed, the very indecision itself of the expression, leaving the hearer to the free operation of his emotion upon his fancy, and as it were, to the free choice of such ideas are, to him, most adapted to react upon and heighten the emotion which occasioned them, produces a pleasure, which nobody, I believe, who is able to feel it, will deny to be one of the most delicious that Music is capable of affording.

For Twining, then, it was precisely what music lacked in specificity that afforded pleasure. Thinking of Bach’s melody in this way would mean that the variety of ideas that it possibly affords could generate pleasure for a listener in the free choice thereof. It’s enjoyable to create meanings out of the abstract energy of musical performances. This thesis emphasises the mutability of musical sound and the subjective nature of its interpretation – a view exactly opposed to that of the mimetic theorists, for whom music evokes pleasure in the specificity of its depicted sentiments. Music, then, could be something of an open playground for each individual. Listeners allow themselves to wander through it, discovering new features, making meaning and deriving pleasure.

It can be difficult even for a professional musician to hear the composite effect of a fugue spinning out

But let’s stay for a moment with Bach’s melody. If we allow it to play on, we’ll discover that it’s only the short opening fragment of a much longer composition written in the form of a fugue. Fugues open with a single melody – the subject – that is transformed and replayed throughout the composition in a systematic fashion. Imitation in fugues is not of nature, but instead of the fugue subject itself.

Fugues are written in a texture that’s called polyphonic, which means that each individual musical line is an independent entity worthy of being called a melody in its own right. All of these lines are coordinated with each other in counterpoint so that they can overlap and interweave. The result is a complex composition that maintains several simultaneously active registers of narrative. It’s a little bit like the effect achieved when a film cuts rapidly between its different plot lines, only in this medium there are no cuts; all of the lines play at once. It can be difficult even for a professional musician to hear the composite effect of a fugue spinning out. And these pieces are not just difficult to hear in their entirety, they are also difficult to compose. Eighteenth-century theorists referred to them as ‘worked-out’ or carefully pre-planned.

Elaborate counterpoint, like the writing featured in Bach’s fugue, was a concern for 18th-century writers on music. Some wondered whether and how this difficult music could be pleasurable, and others were concerned about its capacity to raise the sentiments in its listeners. The Berlin theorist and musician Christian Gottfried Krause (1717-70) worried that the composers of this sort of music had ‘even forgot the affections altogether’. But he also described another experience associated with this difficult music: ‘It was noticed that when all the voices were worked-out, as the composers say, this expresses a grandeur, an admiration, a great zeal, and a general pleasure, and the heart is filled by it with certain elevated and strong feelings.’ Here Krause is not proposing that music imitates and somehow reproduces feelings, but rather that it affords them in the admiration it brings about. He comes close, in this passage, to a description of the sublime, which sometimes characterised critical reactions to complex counterpoint. In his view, the inability to track the unfurling of all the intricate and interlacing lines of a Bach fugue has the capacity to generate the melancholic awe and subsequent pleasure associated with what the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1764 called the mathematical sublime. Krause found in the difficulty of this sort of musical complexity a potential for the experience of limitlessness.

Twining and Krause get us closer to the view that music is pleasurable not for its reproduction of objects or imitations of emotions, but for its opacity. In this view, it is the inability of musical tones to refer or represent that affords a certain pleasurable contemplation. This idea – which flips the earlier theories of imitation on their head – received its fullest elaboration in Eduard Hanslick’s The Beautiful in Music (1854), a screed against emotional interpretations of the art. Hanslick took direct aim against earlier theorists such as Mattheson, who had proposed systems for linking musical materials with the emotions. For Hanslick these efforts were sentimental and misguided, and they encouraged listeners to hear music in the same way that they might enjoy a warm bath. Deriving this sort of pleasure from music was, for Hanslick, both lazy and wasteful. To hear music thus was to misunderstand the true nature of the art, which, he suggested, is hidden in the details.

In Hanslick’s thinking, music consists of nothing but sounds and motions, which together create a play of forms. This formal play aims at the creation of the beautiful in music, and while the contemplation of this beauty might arouse various emotions, these are distinct from the beautiful as such. The pleasure of listening to music instead arises from the intellectual satisfaction that derives from attempting to follow the compositional design of a piece. This is a difficult, almost athletic task – not a soak in the tub. Led in unexpected ways from one moment to the next, the listener is sometimes rewarded and other times frustrated in the play of expectations. A particular kind of musical difficulty is prized in this system, which depends on our temporal encounter with varying degrees of musical familiarity and novelty. Hanslick described this as an ‘intellectual flux and reflux’, or a kind of ‘pondering of the imagination’ that is particular to music. The cultivation of this aesthetic listening strategy was, as he saw it, an art itself.

It is precisely our difficulty in interpreting music that affords our pleasure as listeners

This is an extreme position on musical pleasure. It’s one that divorces music not only from the representation of emotions but also from the outside world. It posits the existence of ideal types of listener and composition, reifying a certain kind of play with formal conventions and expectations as the essence of musical composition. And although this type of thinking has been the subject of withering critique from countless critics and musicians, elements of it persist in our current thinking on musical pleasure.

Twentieth-century theorists sought to redress Hanslick’s assault on the representation of emotions in music. Among them was Susanne Langer, whose Philosophy in a New Key (1941) proposed a symbolic interpretation of meaning in art. Langer, like many of her predecessors, also found in music a prodigious lack. For her, music was nothing but pure structure. This rendered it an ideal case for the investigation of symbolism since, as she put it, ‘there is no obvious, literal content in our way’. Taking this formal view of music, Langer made reference to historical theorists of Mattheson’s generation in order to argue, contra Hanslick, for a deep connection between music and emotion. The twist in Langer’s interpretation is that music cannot transparently symbolise human feeling; music, on her view, is an ‘unconsummated symbol’, meaning that its significance is implied rather than being fixed. This allows for a personal determination of music’s symbolic emotional content, which is thus itself intellectually satisfying. As we listen, we create our own emotional narratives. We dramatise the experience for ourselves, matching up formal musical features with our own ideas about their ever-shifting content.

So once again it seems that it is precisely our difficulty in interpreting music – in consummating, as it were, its symbolism – that redounds to our ultimate benefit and pleasure as listeners. It is this difficulty that affords pleasure. Langer might be worlds away from Hanslick in her ultimate conclusion, linking music back up with emotional interpretation. But this core belief in the value of music’s abstract, formal play is something that the two have in common. And indeed, it is a facet shared by the 20th century’s other major theorist of music and emotion, Leonard Meyer. In Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956), Meyer synthesised a type of musical formalism with principles from Gestalt psychology in order to argue, like Langer, for a new theory of musical expressionism. For Meyer also, music is made up of abstract, non-referential components. Its dynamic unfolding in time creates a play of expectations for the listener. Pleasure, in Meyer’s theory, derives from the listener’s real-time discovery of the music’s deviation from formal expectations.

The influence of Langer and Meyer has been lasting. The game-like, challenging, subjective involvement with music’s formal materials and conventional strategies that they describe has remained the underpinning of many theories of music and emotion in our present day. And while the specifics have transformed significantly, this basic idea owes much to its 18th-century predecessors. Within it there is still a distant echo of something suggested by theorists as early as Twining and Krause, which is that we take pleasure in music precisely because it is a dynamic field of elements that are difficult to interpret, and into which we project ourselves.

According to this notion, what makes the Bach fugue work is that it hits a certain sweet spot of difficulty. We can track the opening melody – the subject – as it begins the piece. Perhaps we follow along as another voice picks up that melody. Soon we are awash in a deep thicket of musical information, but holding on just enough to those familiar tones from the beginning that we’re not totally lost. The idea here would be that this piece of Bach challenges us just enough that we’re working hard to track the subject, but not enough that we give up and lose the thread. It holds us active and engaged as we run through its labyrinthine design (another metaphor connected to music in early modernity), tested and excited but not so challenged as to be defeated. All of this suggests that there is a kind of pleasure at being pushed to the very asymptote of difficulty.

If we follow this logic, then some of the most difficult music might also be some of the most pleasurable. This would draw listening to difficult music into proximity with enjoying spicy food, or walking across suspension bridges, or taking rollercoaster rides. These experiences play on discomfort and push us past the quotidian in order to produce intense sensorial effects. At their most extreme, they can, like music, bring about disorientation, shock, the discovery of immersive innumerability, or even the sublime. In this case, it’s not just that pleasure is the result of something about the way a melody is designed; rather, it is the complex interaction of countless musical components that works to challenge the listener to the point of a detached satisfaction and a subsequent pleasure.

Perhaps we’ve been asking too few questions about how pleasure is a phenomenon with musical qualities

Still, though this idea is inspiring, there is much lacking within it. This model, still popular in today’s music theory (and especially the way we teach it to undergraduates), pushes us too far toward abstraction. It values a very specific, directed kind of musical listening, and it tends to construe musical pleasure as something divorced from the social reality in which music is made. It also risks ignoring the individuals who make it, and indeed the identities and structures of power under which the musical performance comes to life.

Respecting these might mean understanding music qua representation once again. It would entail paying closer attention to other forms of meaning-making in music, such as those connected to its texts (where it has them) and those of the social environments into which it is brought to life. Here we encounter the familiar difficulties of linking up the formal materials of music with the rest of the world. This returns us, then, to problems similar to those posed by the imitative model inspired by Aristotle, adopted by the early moderns, and qualified in the 18th century. These have been with us, of course, the entire time. But different moments in the history of theorising music are more apt than others to bring them out.

Perhaps then, pleasure and music are connected in some way further removed from both the obvious sonorous tickle that music affords or the formal demands that music places on the listener. Perhaps we haven’t gone far enough when we suppose that pleasure in music derives from the recognition within it of a passionate utterance, or an imitation of nature, or an intense game of challenging listening to be played. Perhaps we’ve been asking too many questions about what in music is pleasurable, and too few about how pleasure is a phenomenon with musical qualities.

Seen in this light, music and pleasure are both modes of inter-subjective recognition with multiple registers of enactment: we play music in performance and we perform our reception of it in the shifting modalities of meaning-making that take place in our assessment of it. This second mode of performance constitutes the long and shifting history of theories attempting to explain how it is that music is pleasurable. Historical theories turn out not to be extrinsic afterthoughts but are rather integral to musical practice. Our penchant for continually rewriting and revising them bespeaks a perpetual difficulty: both music and pleasure are phenomena with concrete, definable contours but whose exact nature exceeds complete specification. Perhaps this formal linkage is why music and pleasure have enjoyed intertwined histories for so long.