The question of the presence and role of negative emotions in the experience of music - does sad music make one sad? - has been discussed at such length and with such sophistication in the literature on aesthetics that it might well seem that little or nothing more could be said about it. The academic interest in the question, as reflected in dozens of publications, might well seem obsessive were it not for the recognition that understanding how listeners appreciate sad music, especially abstract instrumental music, is a key to understanding much musical experience and aesthetic experience in general. Upbeat, kinetically stimulating music, vocal music with lyric texts and genres explicitly invoking extra-musical sentiments like patriotism or religious devotion-all these idioms involve dimensions of aesthetic responses that may be relatively easy to explain.
I should reiterate that the findings of this essay certainly do not demolish the emotivist position, although I believe it is significant that most of the comments received and quoted can be seen as questioning or rejecting that stance. Rather, my target is the specific premise, asserted by Radford, Levinson and Davies, that many listeners routinely claim to be made sad by music. It is entirely possible, of course, that these authors have encountered several listeners who make such claims or that they might in the future conduct their own surveys and find many such people. However, my own sample of around fifty people revealed only four people who claimed to feel a certain sort of sadness; of these, one stated that she first had to be feeling sad to begin with, another said the feeling was rare, and the other two were markedly ambiguous in their assessments of their emotional responses. As it is, we should thus wonder just who are these allegedly typical people referred to who claim to be made unambiguously sad by music and how proportionally numerous are they?
Sound Sentiment: An Essay on Musical Emotions (Philadelphia: Temple …
This essay has sought to take a tentative step toward redressing the latter shortcoming in the debate on the negative emotion issue, suggesting the untenable nature of a key premise in the emotivist position. I would argue that my findings shift the burden of proof on to the emotivists themselves: If they wish to claim that genuine sadness is a common, basic and desirable part of aesthetic response to music, then it is up to them to substantiate this argument, especially as they may be able to find few informed listeners who would attest to such an experience.