The Reading Selection from "On the Origin and Function of Music"

[The Connection Between Emotion and Music]

All music is originally vocal. All vocal sounds are produced by the agency of certain muscles. These muscles, in common with those of the body at large, are excited to contraction by pleasurable and painful feelings. And therefore it is that feelings demonstrate themselves in sounds as well as in movements. Therefore it is that Carlo barks as well as leaps when he is let out—that puss purrs as well as erects her tail—that the canary chirps as well as flutters. Therefore it is that the angry lion roars while he lashes his sides, and the dog growls while he retracts his lip. Therefore it is that the maimed animal not only struggles, but howls. And it is from this cause that in human beings bodily suffering expresses itself not only in contortions, but in shrieks and groans—that in anger, and fear, and grief, the gesticulations are accompanied by shouts and screams-that delightful sensations are followed by exclamations—and that we hear screams of joy and shouts of exultation.

We have here, then, a principle underlying all vocal phenomena; including those of vocal music, and by consequence those of music in general. The muscles that move the chest, larynx, and vocal chords, contracting like other muscles in proportion to the intensity of the feelings; every different contraction of these muscles involving, as it does, a different adjustment of the vocal organs; every different adjustment of the vocal organs causing a change in the sound emitted;—it follows that variations of voice are the physiological results of variations of feeling; it follows that each inflection or modulation is the natural outcome of some passing emotion or sensation; and it follows that the explanation of all kinds of vocal expression must be sought in this general relation between mental and muscular excitements. Let us, then, see whether we cannot thus account for the chief peculiarities in the utterance of the feelings: grouping these peculiarities under the heads of loudness, quality, or timbre, pitch, intervals, and rate of variation.


Between the lungs and the organs of voice there is much the same relation as between the bellows of an organ and its pipes. And as the loudness of the sound given out by an organ-pipe increases with the strength of the blast from the bellows; so, other things equal, the loudness of a vocal sound increases with the strength of the blast from the lungs. But the expulsion of air from the lungs is effected by certain muscles of the chest and abdomen. The force with which these muscles contract, is proportionate to the intensity of the feeling experienced. Hence, Ó priori, loud sounds will be the habitual results of strong feelings. That they are so we have daily proof. The pain which, if moderate, can be borne silently, causes outcries if it becomes extreme. While a slight vexation makes a child whimper, a fit of passion calls forth a howl that disturbs the neighbourhood. When the voices in an adjacent room become unusually audible, we infer anger, or surprise, or joy. Loudness of applause is significant of great approbation; and with uproarious mirth we associate the idea of high enjoyment. Commencing with the silence of apathy, we find that the utterances grow louder as the sensations or emotions, whether pleasurable or painful, grow stronger.


That different qualities of voice accompany different mental states, and that under states of excitement the tones are more sonorous than usual, is another general fact admitting of a parallel explanation. The sounds of common conversation have but little resonance; those of strong feeling have much more. Under rising ill temper the voice acquires a metallic ring. In accordance with her constant mood, the ordinary speech of a virago has a piercing quality quite opposite to that softness indicative of placidity. A ringing laugh marks an especially joyous temperament. Grief unburdening itself uses tones approaching in timbre to those of chanting: and in his most pathetic passages an eloquent speaker similarly falls into tones more vibratory than those common to him. Now any one may readily convince himself that resonant vocal sounds can be produced only by a certain muscular effort additional to that ordinarily needed. If after uttering a word in his speaking voice, the reader, without changing the pitch or the loudness, will sing this word, he will perceive that before he can sing it, he has to alter the adjustment of the vocal organs; to do which a certain force must be used; and by putting his fingers on that external prominence marking the top of the larynx, he will have further evidence that to produce a sonorous tone the organs must be drawn out of their usual position. Thus, then, the fact that the tones of excited feeling are more vibratory than those of common conversation is another instance of the connection between mental excitement and muscular excitement. The speaking voice, the recitative voice, and the singing voice, severally exemplify one general principle.


That the pitch of the voice varies according to the action of the vocal muscles scarcely needs saying. All know that the middle notes, in which they converse, are made without any appreciable effort; and all know that to make either very high or very low notes requires a considerable effort. In either ascending or descending from the pitch of ordinary speech, we are conscious of an increasing muscular strain, which, at both extremes of the register, becomes positively painful. Hence it follows from our 'general principle, that while indifference or calmness will use the medium tones, the tones used during excitement will be either above or below them; and will rise higher and higher, or fall lower and lower, as the feelings grow stronger. This physiological deduction we also find to be in harmony with familiar facts. The habitual sufferer utters his complaints in a voice raised considerably above the natural key; and agonising pain vents itself in either shrieks or groans -in very high or very low notes. Beginning at his talking pitch, the cry of the disappointed urchin grows more shrill as it grows louder. The "Oh!" of astonishment or delight, begins several notes below the middle voice, and descends still lower. Anger expresses itself in high tones, or else in "curses not loud but deep." Deep tones, too, are always used in uttering strong reproaches. Such an exclamation as "Beware!" if made dramatically—that is, if made with a show of feeling—must be many notes lower than ordinary. Further, we have groans of disapprobation, groans of horror, groans of remorse. And extreme joy and fear are alike accompanied by shrill outcries.


Nearly allied to the subject of pitch, is that of intervals; and the explanation of them carries our argument a step further. While calm speech is comparatively monotonous, emotion makes use of fifths, octaves, and even wider intervals. Listen to any one narrating or repeating something in which he has no interest, and his voice will not wander more than two or three notes above or below his medium note, and that by small steps; but when he comes to some exciting event he will be heard not only to use the higher and lower notes of his register, but to go from one to the other by larger leaps. Being unable in print to imitate these traits of feeling, we feel some difficulty in fully realising them to the reader. But we may suggest a few remembrances which will perhaps call to mind a sufficiency of others. If two men living in the same place, and frequently seeing one another, meet, say at a public assembly, any phrase with which one may be heard to accost the other—as "Hallo, are you here?"—will have an ordinary intonation. But if one of them, after long absence, has unexpectedly returned, the expression of surprise with which his friend may greet him—"Hallo! how came you here? "—will be uttered in much more strongly contrasted tones. The two syllables of the word "Hallo" will be, the one much higher and the other much lower than before; and the rest of the sentence will similarly ascend and descend by longer steps.

Again, if, supposing her to be in an adjoining room, the mistress of the house calls "Mary," the two syllables of the name will be spoken in an ascending interval of a third. If Mary does not reply, the call will be repeated probably in a descending fifth; implying the slightest shade of annoyance at Mary's inattention. Should Mary still make no answer, the increasing annoyance will show itself by the use of a descending octave on the next repetition of the call. And supposing the silence to continue, the lady, if not of a very even temper, win show her irritation at Mary's seemingly intentional negligence by finally calling her in tones still more widely contrasted-the first syllable being higher and the last lower than before.

Now, these and analogous facts, which the reader will readily accumulate, clearly conform to the law laid down. For to make large intervals requires more muscular action than to make small ones. But not only is the extent of vocal intervals thus explicable as due to the relation between nervous and muscular excitement, but also in some degree their direction, as ascending or descending. The middle notes being those which demand no appreciable effort of muscular adjustment; and the effort becoming greater as we either ascend or descend; it follows that a departure from the middle notes in either direction will mark increasing emotion; while a return towards the middle notes will mark decreasing emotion. Hence it happens that an enthusiastic person uttering such a sentence as—"It was the most splendid sight I ever saw!" will ascend to the first syllable of the word "splendid," and thence will descend: the word "splendid "marking the climax of the feeling produced by the recollection. Hence, again, it happens that, under some extreme vexation produced by another's stupidity, an irascible man, exclaiming—"What a confounded fool the fellow is!" will begin somewhat below his middle voice, and descending to the word "fool," which he will utter in one of his deepest notes, will then ascend again. And it may be remarked, that the word "fool" will not only be deeper and louder than the rest, but will also have more emphasis of articulation—another mode in which muscular excitement is shown.…


The remaining characteristic of emotional speech which wehave to notice is that of variability of pitch. It is scarcely possible here to convey adequate ideas of this more complex manifestation. We must be content with simply indicating some occasions on which it may be observed. On a meeting of friends, for instance—as when there arrives a party of much wished-for-visitors—the voices of all will be heard to undergo changes of pitch not only greater but much more numerous than usual. If a speaker at a public meeting is interrupted by some squabble among those he is addressing, his comparatively level tones will be in marked contrast with the rapidly changing one of the disputants.… In such cases we once more recognise the same law: for muscular excitement is shown not only in strength of contraction but also in the rapidity with which different muscular adjustments succeed each other.

Thus we find all the leading vocal phenomena to have a physiological basis. They are so many manifestations of the general law that feeling is a stimulus to muscular action—a law conformed to throughout the whole economy, not of man only, but of every sensitive creature—a law, therefore, which lies deep in the nature of animal organisation. The expressiveness of these various modifications of voice is therefore innate. Each of us, from babyhood upwards, has been spontaneously making them, when under the various sensations and emotions by which they are produced. Having been conscious of each feeling at the same time that we heard ourselves make the consequent sound, we have acquired an established association of ideas between such sound and the feeling which caused it. When the like sound is made by another, we ascribe the like feeling to him; and by a further consequence we not only ascribe to him that feeling.. but have a certain degree of it aroused in ourselves: for to become conscious of the feeling which another is experiencing, is to have that feeling awakened in our own consciousness, which is the same thing as experiencing the feeling. Thus these various modifications of voice become not only a language through which we understand the emotions of others, but also the means of exciting our sympathy with such emotions.

[Theory of Music]

Have we not here, then, adequate data for a theory of music? These vocal peculiarities which indicate excited feeling are those which especially distinguish song from ordinary speech. Every one of the alterations of voice which we have found to be a physiological result of pain or pleasure, is carried to its greatest extreme in vocal music. For instance, we saw that, in virtue of the general relation between mental and muscular excitement, one characteristic of passionate utterance is loudness. Well, its comparative loudness is one of the distinctive marks of song as contrasted with the speech of daily life; and further, the forte passages of an air are those intended to represent the climax of its emotion. We next saw that the tones in which emotion expresses itself are, in conformity with this same law, of a more sonorous timbre than those of calm conversation. Here, too, song displays a still higher degree of the peculiarity; for the singing tone is the most resonant we can make. Again, it was shown that, from a like cause, mental excitement vents itself in the higher and lower notes of the register; using the middle notes but seldom. And it scarcely needs saying that vocal music is still more distinguished by its comparative neglect of the notes in which we talk, and its habitual use of those above or below them and, moreover, that its most passionate effects are commonly produced at the two extremities of its scale, but especially the upper one.

A yet further trait of strong feeling, similarly accounted for, was the employment of larger intervals than are employed in common converse. This trait, also, every ballad and aria carries to an extent beyond that heard in the spontaneous utterances of emotion: add to which, that the direction of these intervals, which, as diverging from or converging towards the medium tones, we found to be physiologically expressive of increasing or decreasing emotion, may be observed to have in music like meanings. Once more, it was pointed out that not only extreme but also rapid variations of pitch are characteristic of mental excitement; and once more we see in the quick changes of every melody, that song carries the characteristic as far, if not farther. Thus, in respect alike of loudness, timbre, pitch, intervals, and rate of variation, song employs and exaggerates the natural language of the emotions;—it arises from a systematic combination of those vocal peculiarities which are the physiological effects of acute pleasure and pain.

[Other Vocal Qualities]

Besides these chief characteristics of song as distinguished from common speech, there are sundry minor ones similarly explicable as due to the relation between mental and muscular excitement; and before proceeding further these should be briefly noticed.… We have the trembling of anger, of fear, of hope, of joy; and the vocal muscles being implicated with the rest, the voice too becomes tremulous. Now, in singing, this tremulousness of voice is very effectively used by some vocalists in highly pathetic passages; sometimes, indeed, because of its effectiveness, too much used by them—as by Tamberlik, for instance.

Again, there is a mode of musical execution known as the staccato, appropriate to energetic passages-to passages expressive of exhilaration, of resolution, of confidence. The action of the vocal muscles which produces this staccato style is analogous to the muscular action which produces the sharp, decisive, energetic movements of body indicating these states of mind; and therefore it is that the staccato style has the meaning we ascribe to it. Conversely, slurred intervals are expressive of gentler and less active feelings; and are so because they imply the smaller muscular vivacity due to a lower mental energy. The difference of effect resulting from difference of time in music is also attributable to the same law. Already it has been pointed out that the more frequent changes of pitch which ordinarily result from passion are imitated and developed in song; and here we have to add, that the various rates of such changes, appropriate to the different styles of music, are further traits having the same derivation. The slowest movements, largo and adagio, are used where such depressing emotions as grief, or such unexciting emotions as reverence, are to be portrayed; while the more rapid movements, andante, allegro, presto, represent successively increasing degrees of mental vivacity; and do this because they imply that muscular activity which flows from this mental vivacity. Even the rhythm, which forms a remaining distinction between song and speech, may not improbably have a kindred cause. Why the actions excited by strong feeling should tend to become rhythmical is not very obvious; but that they do so there are divers evidences. There is the swaying of the body to and fro under pain or grief, of the leg under impatience or agitation. Dancing, too, is a rhythmical action natural to elevated emotion. That under excitement speech acquires a certain rhythm, we may occasionally perceive in the highest efforts of an orator. In poetry, which is a form of speech used for the better expression of emotional ideas, we have this rhythmical tendency developed. And when we bear in mind that dancing, poetry, and music are connate—are originally constituent parts of the same thing, it becomes clear that the measured movement common to them all implies a rhythmical action of the whole system, the vocal apparatus included; and that so the rhythm of music is a more subtle and complex result of this relation between mental and muscular excitement.

But it is time to end this analysis, which possibly we have already carried too far. It is not to be supposed that the more special peculiarities of musical expression are to be definitely explained. Though probably they may all in some way conform to the principle that has been worked out, it is obviously impracticable to trace that principle in its more ramified applications. Nor is it needful to our argument that it should be so traced. The foregoing facts sufficiently prove that what we regard as the distinctive traits of song, are simply the traits of emotional speech intensified and systematised. In respect of its general characteristics, we think it has been made clear that vocal music, and by consequence all music, is an idealisation of the natural language of passion.…

[Music is Emotional Language]

Probably most will think that the function here assigned to music is one of very little moment. But further reflection may lead them to a contrary conviction. In its bearings upon human happiness, we believe that this emotional language which musical culture develops and refines is only second in importance to the language of the intellect; perhaps not even second to it. For these modifications of voice produced by feelings are the means of exciting like feelings in others. Joined with gestures and expressions of face, they give life to the otherwise dead words in which the intellect utters its ideas; and so enable the hearer not only to understand the state of mind they accompany, but to partake of that state. In short, they are the chief media of sympathy. And if we consider how much both our general welfare and our immediate pleasures depend upon sympathy, we shall recognise the importance of whatever makes this sympathy greater. If we bear in mind that by their fellow-feeling men are led to behave justly, kindly, and considerately to each other—that the difference between the cruelty of the barbarous and the humanity of the civilised, results from the increase of fellow-feeling; if we bear in mind that this faculty which, makes us sharers in the joys and sorrows of others, is the basis of all the higher affections—that in friendship, love, and all domestic pleasures, it is an essential element; if we bear in mind how much our direct gratifications are intensified by sympathy,—how, at the theatre, the concert, the picture gallery, we lose half our enjoyment if we have no one to enjoy with us; if, in short, we bear in mind that for all happiness beyond what the unfriended recluse can have, we are indebted to this same sympathy;—we shall see that the agencies which communicate it can scarcely be overrated in value.

The tendency of civilisation is more and more to repress the antagonistic elements of our characters and to develop the social ones—to curb our purely selfish desires and exercise our unselfish ones—to replace private gratifications by gratifications resulting from, or involving, the happiness of others. And while, by this adaptation to the social state, the sympathetic side of our nature is being unfolded, there is simultaneously growing up a language of sympathetic intercourse—a language through which we communicate to others the happiness we feel, and are made sharers in their happiness.…

Just as there has silently grown up a language of ideas, which, rude as it at first was, now enables us to convey with precision the most subtle and complicated thoughts; so, there is still silently growing up a language of feelings, which, notwithstanding its present imperfection, we may expect will ultimately enable men vividly and completely to impress on each other all the emotions which they experience from moment to moment.

Thus if, as we have endeavoured to show, it is the function of music to facilitate the development of this emotional language, we may regard music as an aid to the achievement of that higher happiness which it indistinctly shadows forth. Those vague feelings of unexperienced felicity which music arouses—those indefinite impressions of an unknown ideal life which it calls up, may be considered as a prophecy, to the fulfilment of which music is itself partly instrumental. The strange capacity which we have for being so affected by melody and harmony may be taken to imply both that it is within the possibilities of our nature to realise those intenser delights they dimly suggest, and that they are in some way concerned in the realisation of them. On this supposition the power and the meaning of music become comprehensible; but otherwise they are a mystery.