Evoking emotion

September 20, 2021, 11:16 AM · I'm sure most players are very aware of the ability of music to evoke emotional responses - indeed, for the majority this is really the prime goal of performing. I have always been intrigued by how this achieved and also by what emotions can actually be evoked. This post is solely about the latter (we should certainly have one on the former, 'how', anon.

I just came across a Berkley publication, summarizing an original report from the same institution (published in PNAS in 2020), in which scientists attempted to identify which emotions could be evoked. No doubt this is not exhaustive but it is quite an eye-opener nonetheless. The emotional 'induction' types were:

Feeling pumped up.

I'm going to spend some time in the studio trying to differentiate these and see if I can at least mentally generate each. However, I also thought that this list might serve as a terrific teaching tool to both inform and enliven music students (of whatever type). I do think that it is particularly useful for (fretless) string musicians because of the flexibility of note control that is unique to these instruments.

The review article is at:


[It also contains disclaimers and quite a lot of other interesting info.]

Replies (39)

September 20, 2021, 11:41 AM · This is a great question and thread, Elise. Sometimes when I go to a concert or recital, I wonder what I'm prepared or expecting to feel.
Edited: September 20, 2021, 12:47 PM · The list chimes well with the range of emotions I get when listening to music. Although when I experience annoyance it probably isn't the desired outcome for either the composer or the performer!

But shouldn't exultation be there too? Slightly different from joy and triumph.

And mystical reverence.

Edited: September 20, 2021, 3:04 PM · Yes, I put up as discussion thread here about music reflecting anger, and got nothing but grief for it. But I certainly would still add outright anger to the list. Ever listen to Beethoven?...or Bartok?
September 20, 2021, 3:59 PM · Sanders - if you got outright anger in response I think you won your argument! :D

If listeners to your playing sensed anger then likewise it really doesn't matter what the pundits here.

September 20, 2021, 4:02 PM · Steve - do you think you could express exultation so that the listener could differentiate it from joy or triumph? It seems to me that that is a bit subtle and may be contextural (e.g. a tune about a spiritual revelation, not a war or, say, childbirth) rather than expressive (which is what we are referring to here I think).
September 20, 2021, 4:28 PM · Ahem! Listen to the emotionality of the Bartok Violin Concerto - in the music, in many of the great performances - Sounds like the expression of anger to me. And if so, what's wrong with that? Anger is an everyday, ordinary emotion, and often an important emotional element of expression in many of the performing arts.
September 20, 2021, 4:35 PM · Annoyance at something is part of many musical messages. At an unjust system, or an unfair situation. Conveying either a sense of fight or feeling of hopelessness. Not strictly the realm of Classical of course.

What Mr. Deck hints at is important, though, as even the most carefully composed and performed work with an "specific aim" won't matter if the listener's mind is not there or does not care about it. This is why knowing some of the work's history can often be useful. Ultimately, the listener will be moved to whatever feelings he/she wishes or allows to-sometimes the music evokes different things because of different backgrounds and even recent-or not so recent-life events.

I can draw pathos from anywhere, not only from clearly "tragic" works but also simple, not so sad themes in which the harmonies "suggest" sadness to me-even if the composer likely had nothing of the sort in mind. I can handle it due to my personality type-I do not find despair disagreeable, and try to form an internal message of inspiration to move forward.

As the musician, perform with a clear vision of what you want to convey, and do not worry whether it will be understood as such-let each listener appreciate it on their own personal level. That is what I think is the most healthy, "do not pull your hairs out overthinking it" approach. A clear message should be "intended", even if it is not understood.

Some music on its own does not require much interpretation to "speak" (especially "harsher" or non traditional works.) Others need more help from the performer, and of course, the listener.

I agree the violin and its family can be perfect tools to convey different emotions. Guitars and pianos are all expressive too in their special way, but are somewhat limited by their frets and keys.

My apologies for the randomness of my thoughts, should have any been expressed.

Edited: September 20, 2021, 9:24 PM · Sander I don't see "anger" on Elise's list but I wonder if that's just because anger is too generic or diffuse. Still, I don't see any other "higher level" entries on the list to capture any of the variants or subcategories or cousins of anger such as frustration, disgust, derision, regret, etc. And I agree with you that some music explores these areas including Bartok and some Beethoven -- not to mention more explicit (even obvious) examples in lieder, ballet, or opera.
Edited: September 21, 2021, 3:01 AM · @Elise - In attempted compliance with your OP ("that makes a change" you might say), I'm thinking solely about the emotions that can actually be evoked in me (can't speak for anyone else). How a composer or performer goes about doing it is a different question entirely.

Anger comes into the same category as annoyance; I only get angry when I think the music is a sham or the performer is making a wilful distortion of it.

We should make a distinction between emotions evoked and emotions portrayed. I agree with Sander that some music tries to portray anger but angry isn't what I feel. Nor, I expect, did the composer and I'm sure not the performer.

Others may have a different experience but I believe "eroticism" is portrayed but probably not evoked. I can detect a pseudo-sexual quality in some music but it doesn't physically turn me on (eu!), in the same was as Beethoven's apparent rage doesn't make me angry.

Paul - yes, derision for sure is also an emotion sometimes portrayed in music rather than evoked in the listener. Not sure about regret or disgust...

Awe is another emotion that I frequently experience. Here it's often easy to objectify the cause (an overwhelming sound), whereas what exactly are the musical qualities that portray anxiety or defiance such that listeners can detect and maybe even feel it? I have no idea.

The most powerful evoked emotion of them all doesn't seem to have a name. What does it signify to be "blown away"? That's pretty much what I meant by "exultation".

Edited: September 21, 2021, 9:18 AM · I believe that anger is one of the most uncomfortable basic human emotions to feel, to deal with, and to express. The term itself evokes discomfort in most of us. It's easier to talk about "annoyance" and other terms.

And talk about actually expressing it artistically in a serious musical performance? I don't recall anything that I've read on the topic on this website that reflects comfort with it.

Just for the heck of it, listen to the Bartok Violin Concerto (both the
music itself and the performance) for the many, many passages that may very well reflect this emotion.

Then take a good look at the few photos of the composer (especially in those difficult years in the from 20's to the end of his life). That grim, serious expression seems to me to reflect, at least in part, anger. And he certainly had a lot to be angry about. How much of that feeling can we accept and respect?

September 21, 2021, 11:05 AM · I do know what you mean Sander, for example the orchestral outburst about 4 minutes in, but very soon it's back to the serene mood of the opening. Was Bartok subject to violent mood swings?

Normally I just enjoy listening to the piece but a performance at this year's BBC Proms made me feel slightly angry...

September 21, 2021, 12:02 PM · Thanks for the comment, Steve. No, from what I have read, I don't recall anything about Bartok having violent mood swings. I just think it's imbedded in his musical "voice."

And speaking of anger, I remember reading years ago an anecdote about Brahms. He was in the audience where one of his chamber pieces was played. After the performance, the violist came up to Brahms and tried to "butter him up" with complements. Brahms wasn't the easiest person to get along with. When the violist asked, "Tell me, Maestro, did you like the tempo?" Brahms replied, "Yes, especially yours."

Edited: September 21, 2021, 2:10 PM · To me, what is so special about pure non-programmatic instrumental music is the fact that there are no words or story at all. Well yes obviously, given the genre... but to use a cliché, somethings a single emotion word cannot really describe passages of music, either because that particular emotion is beyond our human capacity to explain using words, or because a certain event is being conveyed where several emotions might be taking place simultaneously.

I've often been told that I'm very dry when teaching or give comments during rehearsal, because I tend to speak in mechanical terms, but that's because when trying to convey my thoughts about the music, I wouldn't be able to find the words! So it often ends up pointless discussing emotions and I find it much more productive to discuss how to physically create the sound which I happen to associate with the inexplicable emotion in my head.

This is the first example which pops in my head when thinking about inexplicable music... from 03:51 to 04:01. I would be interested to hear what emotions people hear from these few bars because honestly I have no idea. Of course it helps if you listened to the whole introduction or if you already know this piece.

For me, already the fact that the melody is reharmonized to start on the tonic chord but in 1st inversion instead of root position already makes me want to cry, let alone the incredible chord progression which follows, and I have no idea why. It still frustrates me, but now I've learnt to embrace the not knowing.

September 21, 2021, 2:14 PM · James: Yes, I know what you mean. And this passage you're referring to is exceptionally emotional, but slapping a label on it doesn't really "describe" the emotions it generates. And, yes, that's the nature of the art. I just think that there is a mix of emotions in this wonderful art form, but we usually don't include anger as one of them.
September 21, 2021, 2:26 PM · Yes, I agree Sander that one can't simply slap a label on such a passage, but not even half a label, or naming one of the many emotions that might be taking place? Perhaps I am not alone then!
September 21, 2021, 3:09 PM · James, obviously just immediately listening to that place in the music doesn't work, so I listened from the beginning, then upon entry of that passage, I would describe my emotion as the emotion you feel when somebody takes you by the hand and guides you into a new place where you haven't been yet. That's just my emotion!
September 21, 2021, 5:50 PM · James, the entrance prior to that is like a statement full of anger or certainty, like, "here's how it is!", and then after all that energy gets spent with that descending figure it's like, "well, now that I'm settled in here, maybe there's some more nuance, and...actually I'm not sure", so it's like someone suddenly having a little doubt about something they just exclaimed with certainty, and maybe they are ruminating a little on it.

So maybe doubt, maybe longing, maybe wistfulness. It has a little bit of a tentative flavor. A little more towards the sad side than the happy side. It ends up being pretty personal.

So taking the longer view of what I can justify in my own mind, the orchestra was just saying, "the world is a terrible place, full of pain and strife!", and the piano comes in and says, "NO, I've had enough! It's worth living in this world and fighting on!", and then it's like the piano suddenly concedes a bit, "well, the world is full of pain and sadness, and I've certainly had my pain, but...let me think about some reasons why life is worth living...like uh...flowers are nice, and uh...youth is full of many pleasures" and the piano kind of picks up steam and the two characters go on to have a dialogue about the pros and cons.

I think as long a performer has a clear sense of what they want to convey, the audience will at least sense that something is being clearly conveyed, and they will fill in their own emotional journey, because if you just read my hypothetical reading, hearing the composer's own ideas about the meaning of their non-programmatic pieces can be pretty dull (When I read Tchaikovsky's thoughts on the meaning of one of his symphonies, I thought that maybe it's better not to ask).

September 21, 2021, 6:05 PM · Christian, that was one of the most beautiful things I've read all year..! I also agree with what you say about the audience sensing that sonething is at least being clearly conveyed, I guess that's what I try to base my rehearsal discussion on rather than sharing imagery, talking about how to maximise expression through our physical tools. While I always keep these kinds of elaborate images (whenever I do have them) rather private, it's nice to hear how others see things, especially in a forum like this where we are not trying to explain to one another how this music needs to sound in order to capture the listener's imagination.
September 21, 2021, 7:38 PM · Thanks James! Sometimes it can be shocking when I've heard a piece many times and I hear a particular performance where a certain phrase seems to convey a very distinct emotion from what I had in my database, but I'm won over when the emotion can be conveyed clearly and convincingly, even if the conception is different.

Maybe when there is a certain threshold of difference across a piece from what I think, then I just reject the interpretation, but I don't know where that line is. I want my interpretations of Mendelssohn and Bartok concertos to be as tender and lyrical as possible, and I guess really "objective", flashy or aggressive interpretations can be for other people, so I have my limits.

Pollini's interpretations almost always resonate for me, whereas Argerich leaves me cold. Am I even judging objectively by my own standards?

Edited: September 22, 2021, 8:54 AM · Great discussion. Ultimately, I believe, a great work of art will be open to many individual reactions and emotions, both because of the richness of the art form and the fact that we all are, ultimately, individuals with our own unique reactions and inner sensitivities.

Speaking of Tchaikovsky, he is the author of my favorite quote about music: "Music is not illusion. It is rather revelation. Its triumphant power is that it reveals to us beauties we find nowhere else, and that the apprehension of them is not transitory, but a perpetual reconcilement of life."

Oh, as an additional thought, don't we always hear the advice in violin lessons and rehearsals for performing certain passages that we need to "attack" the note? Isn't there just a tiny bit of anger implied in that?

Edited: September 22, 2021, 3:46 PM · The cynic in me wonders how "emotional" the cited passage would have seemed were it not for Pollini's facial expressions, body language, and other visual protestations.

My teachers have never used "attack the note" language. I'm not sure I know what that means. I know that runners often are taught to attack hills. Language is very confining and limiting in these contexts.

September 22, 2021, 4:29 PM · Paul - being a fellow cynic, I definitely believe the performer's physical expressions could play a role in how strongly emotional content can be received. However my question is about which actual emotion is being portrayed rather than quantifying the emotional level of the passage. Or do you think his emoting here has possibly influenced which type of emotion you experienced in this clip?
September 22, 2021, 4:49 PM · I wasn't watching the video to come to my conclusion, but for some audience members, that may be a very relevant cue.
September 22, 2021, 5:19 PM · Paul, "attack" in the context of violin playing is simply the beginning of a note from the string with audible rosin noise. You put some pressure on the bow, then start the note with an accent. No real violence involved nor intended. It is a "great soloist in a great hall" type of gesture and is being overused by some people.

As a general remark, I think we need to take Steve's point very seriously: Emotion can be evoked by music or else it can be represented by music. The Queen of the Night in her great aria is clearly angry and I do not think you need to know the text to get that. But the aria does not evoke anger in the audience; the main emotion evoked is likely admiration for the singer's skill or else disappointment at the lack thereof.

September 22, 2021, 7:57 PM · Who said anything about the goal being to "make the audience angry?" All I have been trying to say is that there is an element of anger in some of the emotions involved in playing and in the qualities of some music. Is that so terrible?
Edited: September 22, 2021, 8:49 PM · My point was that music may "portray" or "describe" or "mirror" specific emotions but that doesn't mean that these exact emotions are evoked in the listener.

In the case of the Queen of the Night her aria would make the listener empathize rather than angry (especially if they haven't been told that she is the "bad guy" character in the plot). Though I do believe that the majority of listeners want to know how the singer masters the great difficulties in this aria and don't really care about the emotions one way or the other.

Edited: September 22, 2021, 9:53 PM · A reporter asked Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry why he was always so stone-faced, dead-panned, on the sidelines. The answer was something like "I can't smile and think at the same time". We should not be so quick to criticize our violin soloists for not physically showing emotion; they have a lot to think about. For the audience, music is a language that speaks directly to the emotions, the lower levels of the brain. They do not have to have any technical training to have a valid experience. For the performer, it is a big gamble to give up rational control and surrender to the emotions. The piece would have to be so solid that it is easy. The conductor can get away with appearing emotional because he won't be playing any wrong notes and most of the time the musicians don't need him. The composer's real world is solitary, trying things on the piano, like working on chess puzzles or a rubics cube. The source of the composer's best ideas is a mystery or miracle. All of the theory and composing textbooks that I have seen do not teach how to compose. They quote what other composers have done and what not to do.
Edited: September 23, 2021, 3:00 AM · Last year I was playing Ole Bull's Sæterjentens Søndag (The Herd-Girls' Sunday). It's supposedly about a herd girl who is minding the herds on Sunday and therefore can't go to church. It's full of crescendos depicting her spiritual anguish at her inability to attend divine service, and then I suppose the quiet ending might indicate her spiritual recovery as she realises God is in the cows.


Bad players crescendo as a Honda robot might be programmed to crescendo: good players crescendo musically. The emotions the audience experiences from that crescendo are the audience's problem. Every audience member will experience a different emotion. It's the same with reading a book. Why is "reader response" not a concept carried over into music?

Players who "emote" should be shot.

September 23, 2021, 4:22 AM · The last piece of music that had me shivering with a frisson of something like ecstasy, then punching the air in elation was Ravel's deceptively gentle violin sonata in a performance by Jean-Jacques Kanterow and Jean-Philippe Collard. These two manage to nail the climaxes in the first and second movement in a way that no others I've heard achieve. From the CD I can't tell if the players themselves were visibly moved but they must surely have been emoting internally.
September 23, 2021, 6:52 AM · Talking about anger in music.
"Dies Irae" means "The Day of Wrath" and wrath means extreme anger.
Here is Verdi's "Dies Irae" form his Requim:

Does that mean that you are angry when performing or listening to this music? No, well strictly speaking I can only talk for myself.
I have participated in perfomeming Verdi's Requim. Was I angry when we played Dies Irae? No, it was a wonderful experience to play. Why is it wonderful to play something that is about wrath? Hmm, there is aesthetics connected to it. We can call it a "wavelength" of aesthetics.

And that also happens with other emotions. You can cry when listening to something very sad, but at the same time it is wonderful.

I have played to many funerals in my family. Sometimes I have composed a piece of music which got performed by family members, other times I have played a classical piece of music, often Händel's Largo. Since a family member's funeral means that I have an emotional connection one could think that it would be a difficult performance. But actually it is a beautiful experience because I know I am playing for someone who would appreciate the music and I know that the famlly members present also appreciate it very much.

Edited: September 23, 2021, 7:09 AM · Sander I really don't think anyone's dumping on you specifically. Your question about anger in music seems perfectly legitimate to me. You (re)introduced the idea in this thread, which seems totally appropriate, but this thread is oriented differently from your previous one. What I read in the present thread is a lively discussion with thoughts coming in from many angles.

I disagree with Steve that the musicians in the recording of Ravel that he enjoyed* must have been emoting internally. That's a conclusion that, in my opinion, does not have a secure logical basis. It would be interesting to know what feelings the musicians DID have. Were they to listen to their own performance with the score and a pencil in hand and asked to jot down the emotions they were actually feeling at each point, I wonder what they would write. And make another pass for the emotions they wanted to evoke in the listener. That would be a fun project. Anyone out there writing a doctoral dissertation?

*The word "enjoy" can have many different meanings.

September 23, 2021, 7:17 AM · Lars, You undoubtedly know all this but other might not, that every Requiem Mass has Dies irae for it is the sequence of the Requiem Mass. The sequence is placed before the proclamation of the Gospel. The Day of Wrath refers to the particular judgement of the person who has died. The best of these pieces are those which work with the meaning of the words. Most Requiem Masses that were written are not intended to be used as the Mass and in fact are not permitted to be as they are intended to be performance works.
September 23, 2021, 11:16 AM · I believe there is a way to resolve the dispute about musicians emoting or not while playing. When friends of ours lose a loved one we empathize. This does not mean we feel the loss as deeply as they do.

Similarly we may say that a musician empathizes with the music's feeling without being fully consumed by them. I can't see anybody performing something as difficult as the Ravel sonata while being fully invested in the related emotions.

September 23, 2021, 11:59 AM · I bet that if you asked the musician to tell you what was going on for them internally during their performance, they wouldn't be able to recall more than a moment or two when their conscious mind turned on. I don't think those kinds of flow states are associated with much self-monitoring.
Edited: September 23, 2021, 12:01 PM · @Albrecht. In general I suspect you're right but there have been a number of occasions when I felt playing an executive role in the music revealed its emotional depths to a greater degree than I'd ever have experienced in the audience. I'd specifically cite great choral works such as the St Matthew Passion and Missa Solemnis. Professionals, unfortunately, are expected to maintain a greater degree of detachment. Or is their detachment just because they're over-familiar with the repertoire?

On the subject of the representation as distinct from the expression of emotion, I've just been reading an interesting article by conductor Edward Gardner comparing the works of Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett. Britten, he suggests, tended to paint emotions while Tippett "delved into" them.

September 23, 2021, 4:42 PM · Paul: Thanks for the kind words.

I'm reminded of a quote by Aaron Copland: " The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, 'Is there a meaning to music?' My answer would be, 'Yes.' And 'Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?' My answer to that would be, 'No.' "

An another quote is by an ancient Greek philosopher, Zeno the Stoic: "No one can truly know the meaning of anything. Even if we discovered the meaning, we couldn't explain it to anyone else. Even if we found a way to explain it, those we explain it to would get it wrong."

Go figure.

Edited: September 26, 2021, 10:49 AM · It's taken me a long time to get moving on this thread to communicate with other people.

Some pieces I have performed accompanied by either piano, quartet or orchestra I thought about long and hard (and experimented with) before I felt I was able to play it my way. So then, at least from my side, I was communicating. In general I developed a "scenario" (sometimes an actual story - or stories if there were multiple movements) for each piece. But it does not have to be a complete story. So when it comes down to it, I think "playing with feeling" involves working out the techniques that I think convey the desired feeling - that doesn't mean I'm correct about it!

Sometimes there was an "emotional device" I used to try to communicate - for example adjusting the timing and dynamics of Schubert's "Ave Maria" on the cello to play it like a love song (I gauged the success by seeing when the old ladies in the church audience wiped their eyes with their handkerchiefs). Then I knew I was communicating what I wanted.

Personally I have rarely watched performers in concerts. Too many of them move about in ways that I find distracting - I usually just shut my eyes. I will watch string players if I can learn something technical from what is visible. But I have never found it to communicate "emotion," only distraction. One of my great disappointments has been to watch how Tetzlaff's motions while playing have become so distracting. I recall enjoying watching him on Sunday morning A&E performances 20+ years ago - before he became hyperactive.

There is so much noise these days that is presented to us as "music." I think we have to pick our music and, if we must, ignore the rest - until, perhaps, we will grow to appreciate it, in time (maybe a little bit of it). If any music conveys "anger" to me, it is that kind of stuff!

I am most impressed by what I consider to be the "spiritual" content of music that I hear (sometimes). Sometimes it has even happened when I was playing. Most memorable was the first time I ever heard (and was playing) the great Schubert C major 2-cello quintet (I was sight-reading the 2nd cello part). We got to the brief 2-cello duet on the first page and by the time we finished that brief segment I could no longer see the music for the tears in my eyes. We had to stop playing - maybe that was just an excuse to play that bit again.

September 26, 2021, 9:48 AM · Mr. Victor,

I just ignore the movements and concentrate on their performance. It has become so much the norm. If Mr. Tetzlaff performs well, then his ocassional whole torso twisting is fine (I last saw him play the Beethoven some time ago, pre-pandemic of course.)

What I do not like is these stage extra movements being passed as a "musical experience" or the player being more "musical" than those who are not as movement-happy. The music will speak for itself; both types of players can be truly expressive or not so exciting to listen to.

I understand these movements are often distracting or can seem "superfluous" to some of us, so if closing your eyes helps you better appreciate the performance, then that is best for you in the end.

Edited: September 26, 2021, 2:21 PM · When it comes to violinists, the one whose stage presence and facial and physical "expressions" that I still find the best of all is Zino Francescatti. Take another look at his video performances.

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