Is the way music is heard and felt universal?

Posted on: October 5, 2010

In Saturday’s (10/2) Wall Street Journal, Eric Felten writes, “Musicologists have long questioned whether musical elements can be said to have any such emotional content. Does it make any sense to say that a minor key is ‘sad’? Some argue that such assertions are just so much trite humbug, no matter how common is our experience of music as a vehicle for emotional expression. Why is it that we hear the E-flat major of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony as heroic (and not just because of the symphony’s name)? Are such judgments inherent in the frequencies of the sound itself—in the way our brains process the wavelengths? Is our emotional reaction hard-wired or is it a matter of convention, a set of responses that are learned and that differ from one musical culture to another? These are among the many questions asked by Philip Ball in ‘The Music Instinct,’ his admirable survey of the science and philosophy of music. … The data are fascinating, if fragmentary, but they don’t answer with any certainty the questions that Mr. Ball places at the heart of the matter: Is music a language? What are composers and musicians trying to say?”

Posted October 5, 2010