Front Page Titles (by Subject) ON THE ORIGIN AND FUNCTION OF MUSIC 1 - Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects
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ON THE ORIGIN AND FUNCTION OF MUSIC 1 - Herbert Spencer, Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects 
Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects, Introduction by Charles W. Eliot (London: Dent, 1911).
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ON THE ORIGIN AND FUNCTION OF MUSIC1
When Carlo, standing, chained to his kennel, sees his master in the distance, a slight motion of the tail indicates his but faint hope that he is about to be let out. A much more decided wagging of the tail, passing by and by into lateral undulations of the body, follows his master’s nearer approach. When hands are laid on his collar, and he knows that he is really to have an outing, his jumping and wriggling are such that it is by no means easy to loose his fastenings. And when he finds himself actually free, his joy expends itself in bounds, in pirouettes, and in scourings hither and thither at the top of his speed. Puss, too, by erecting her tail, and by every time raising her back to meet the caressing hand of her mistress, similarly expresses her gratification by certain muscular actions; as likewise do the parrot by awkward dancing on his perch, and the canary by hopping and fluttering about his cage with unwonted rapidity. Under emotions of an opposite kind, animals equally display muscular excitement. The enraged lion lashes his sides with his tail, knits his brows, protrudes his claws. The cat sets up her back; the dog retracts his upper lip; the horse throws back his ears. And in the struggles of creatures in pain, we see that the like relation holds between excitement of the muscles and excitement of the nerves of sensation.
In ourselves, distinguished from lower creatures as we are by feelings alike more powerful and more varied, parallel facts are at once more conspicuous and more numerous. We may conveniently look at them in groups. We shall find that pleasurable sensations and painful sensations, pleasurable emotions and painful emotions, all tend to produce active demonstrations in proportion to their intensity.
In children, and even in adults who are not restrained by regard for appearances, a highly agreeable taste is followed by a smacking of the lips. An infant will laugh and bound in its nurse’s arms at the sight of a brilliant colour or the hearing of a new sound. People are apt to beat time with head or feet to music which particularly pleases them. In a sensitive person an agreeable perfume will produce a smile; and smiles will be seen on the faces of a crowd gazing at some splendid burst of fireworks Even the pleasant sensation of warmth felt on getting to the fireside out of a winter’s storm, will similarly express itself in the face.
Painful sensations, being mostly far more intense than pleasurable ones, cause muscular actions of a much more decided kind. A sudden twinge produces a convulsive start of the whole body. A pain less violent, but continuous, is accompanied by a knitting of the brows, a setting of the teeth or biting of the lip, and a contraction of the features generally. Under a persistent pain of a severer kind, other muscular actions are added: the body is swayed to and fro; the hands clench anything they can lay hold of; and should the agony rise still higher, the sufferer rolls about on the floor almost convulsed.
Though more varied, the natural language of the pleasurable emotions comes within the same generalisation. A smile, which is the commonest expression of gratified feeling, is a contraction of certain facial muscles; and when the smile broadens into a laugh, we see a more violent and more general muscular excitement produced by an intenser gratification. Rubbing together of the hands, and that other motion which Dickens somewhere describes as “washing with impalpable soap in invisible water,” have like implications. Children may often be seen to “jump for joy.” Even in adults of excitable temperament, an action approaching to it is sometimes witnessed. And dancing has all the world through been regarded as natural to an elevated state of mind. Many of the special emotions show themselves in special muscular actions. The gratification resulting from success, raises the head and gives firmness to the gait. A hearty grasp of the hand is currently taken as indicative of friendship. Under a gush of affection the mother clasps her child to her breast, feeling as though she could squeeze it to death. And so in sundry other cases. Even in that brightening of the eye with which good news is received we may trace the same truth; for this appearance of greater brilliancy is due to an extra contraction of the muscle which raises the eyelid, and so allows more light to fall upon, and be reflected from, the wet surface of the eyeball.
The bodily indications of painful emotions are equally numerous, and still more vehement. Discontent is shown by raised eyebrows and wrinkled forehead; disgust by a curl of the lip; offence by a pout. The impatient man beats a tattoo with his fingers on the table, swings his pendent leg with increasing rapidity, gives needless pokings to the fire, and presently paces with hasty strides about the room. In great grief there is wringing of the hands, and even tearing of the hair. An angry child stamps, or rolls on its back and kicks its heels in the air; and in manhood, anger, first showing itself in frowns, in distended nostrils, in compressed lips, goes on to produce grinding of the teeth, clenching of the fingers, blows of the fist on the table, and perhaps ends in a violent attack on the offending person, or in throwing about and breaking the furniture. From that pursing of the mouth indicative of slight displeasure, up to the frantic struggles of the maniac, we shall find that mental irritation tends to vent itself in bodily activity.
All feelings, then—sensations or emotions, pleasurable or painful—have this common characteristic, that they are muscular stimuli. Not forgetting the few apparently exceptional cases in which emotions exceeding a certain intensity produce prostration, we may set it down as a general law that, alike in man and animals, there is a direct connection between feeling and motion; the last growing more vehement as the first grows more intense. Were it allowable here to treat the matter scientifically, we might trace this general law down to the principle known among physiologists as that of reflex action.1 Without doing this, however, the above numerous instances justify the generalisation, that mental excitement of all kinds ends in excitement of the muscles; and that the two preserve a more or less constant ratio to each other.
“But what has all this to do with The Origin and Function of Music?” asks the reader. Very much, as we shall presently see. 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, à 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, will 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.
There is some danger, however, in giving instances like this; seeing that as the mode of rendering will vary according to the intensity of the feeling which the reader feigns to himself, the right cadence may not be hit upon. With single words there is less difficulty. Thus the “Indeed!” with which a surprising fact is received, mostly begins on the middle note of the voice, and rises with the second syllable; or, if disapprobation as well as astonishment is felt, the first syllable will be below the middle note, and the second lower still. Conversely, the word “Alas!” which marks not the rise of a paroxysm of grief, but its decline, is uttered in a cadence descending towards the middle note; or, if the first syllable is in the lower part of the register, the second ascends towards the middle note. In the “Heigh-ho!” expressive of mental and muscular prostration, we may see the same truth; and if the cadence appropriate to it be inverted, the absurdity of the effect clearly shows how the meaning of intervals is dependent on the principle we have been illustrating.
The remaining characteristic of emotional speech which we have 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. And among children, whose feelings are less under control than those of adults, this peculiarity is still more decided. During a scene of complaint and recrimination between two excitable little girls, the voices may be heard to run up and down the gamut several times in each sentence. 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.
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.
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. Thus, certain passions, and perhaps all passions when pushed to an extreme, produce (probably through their influence over the action of the heart) an effect the reverse of that which has been described: they cause a physical prostration, one symptom of which is a general relaxation of the muscles, and a consequent trembling. 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.
As far as it goes, the scanty evidence furnished by history confirms this conclusion. Note first the fact (not properly an historical one, but fitly grouped with such) that the dance-chants of savage tribes are very monotonous; and in virtue of their monotony are much more nearly allied to ordinary speech than are the songs of civilised races. Joining with this the fact that there are still extant among boatmen and others in the East, ancient chants of a like monotonous character, we may infer that vocal music originally diverged from emotional speech in a gradual, unobtrusive manner; and this is the inference to which our argument points. Further evidence to the same effect is supplied by Greek history. The early poems of the Greeks—which, be it remembered, were sacred legends embodied in that rhythmical, metaphorical language which strong feeling excites—were not recited, but chanted: the tones and the cadences were made musical by the same influences which made the speech poetical.
By those who have investigated the matter, this chanting is believed to have been not what we call singing, but nearly allied to our recitative (far simpler indeed, if we may judge from the fact that the early Greek lyre, which had but four strings, was played in unison with the voice, which was therefore confined to four notes), and as such, much less remote from common speech than our own singing is. For recitative, or musical recitation, is in all respects intermediate between speech and song. Its average effects are not so loud as those of song. Its tones are less sonorous in timbre than those of song. Commonly it diverges to a smaller extent from the middle notes—uses notes neither so high nor so low in pitch. The intervals habitual to it are neither so wide nor so varied. Its rate of variation is not so rapid. And at the same time that its primary rhythm is less decided, it has none of that secondary rhythm produced by recurrence of the same or parallel musical phrases, which is one of the marked characteristics of song. Thus, then, we may not only infer, from the evidence furnished by existing barbarous tribes, that the vocal music of pre-historic times was emotional speech very slightly exalted; but we see that the earliest vocal music of which we have any account differed much less from emotional speech than does the vocal music of our days.
That recitative—beyond which, by the way, the Chinese and Hindoos seem never to have advanced—grew naturally out of the modulations and cadences of strong feeling, we have indeed still current evidence. There are even now to be met with occasions on which strong feeling vents itself in this form. Whoever has been present when a meeting of Quakers was addressed by one of their preachers (whose practice it is to speak only under the influence of religious emotion), must have been struck by the quite unusual tones, like those of a subdued chant, in which the address was made. It is clear, too, that the intoning used in some churches is representative of this same mental state; and has been adopted on account of the instinctively felt congruity between it and the contrition, supplication, or reverence verbally expressed.
And if, as we have good reason to believe, recitative arose by degrees out of emotional speech, it becomes manifest that by a continuance of the same process song has arisen out of recitative. Just as, from the orations and legends of savages, expressed in the metaphorical, allegorical style natural to them, there sprung epic poetry, out of which lyric poetry was afterwards developed; so, from the exalted tones and cadences in which such orations and legends were delivered, came the chant or recitative music, from whence lyrical music has since grown up. And there has not only thus been a simultaneous and parallel genesis, but there is also a parallelism of results. For lyrical poetry differs from epic poetry, just as lyrical music differs from recitative: each still further intensifies the natural language of the emotions. Lyrical poetry is more metaphorical, more hyperbolic, more elliptical, and adds the rhythm of lines to the rhythm of feet; just as lyrical music is louder, more sonorous, more extreme in its intervals, and adds the rhythm of phrases to the rhythm of bars. And the known fact that out of epic poetry the stronger passions developed lyrical poetry as their appropriate vehicle, strengthens the inference that they similarly developed lyrical music out of recitative.
Nor indeed are we without evidences of the transition. It needs but to listen to an opera to hear the leading gradations. Between the comparatively level recitative of ordinary dialogue, the more varied recitative with wider intervals and higher tones used in exciting scenes, the still more musical recitative which preludes an air, and the air itself, the successive steps are but small; and the fact that among airs themselves gradations of like nature may be traced, further confirms the conclusion that the highest form of vocal music was arrived at by degrees.
Moreover, we have some clue to the influences which have induced this development; and may roughly conceive the process of it. As the tones, intervals, and cadences of strong emotion were the elements out of which song was elaborated, so we may expect to find that still stronger emotion produced the elaboration: and we have evidence implying this. Instances in abundance may be cited, showing that musical composers are men of extremely acute sensibilities. The Life of Mozart depicts him as one of intensely active affections and highly impressionable temperament. Various anecdotes represent Beethoven as very susceptible and very passionate. Mendelssohn is described by those who knew him to have been full of fine feeling. And the almost incredible sensitiveness of Chopin has been illustrated in the memoirs of George Sand. An unusually emotional nature being thus the general characteristic of musical composers, we have in it just the agency required for the development of recitative and song. Intenser feeling producing intenser manifestations, any cause of excitement will call forth from such a nature tones and changes of voice more marked than those called forth from an ordinary nature—will generate just those exaggerations which we have found to distinguish the lower vocal music from emotional speech, and the higher vocal music from the lower. Thus it becomes credible that the four-toned recitative of the early Greek poets (like all poets, nearly allied to composers in the comparative intensity of their feelings), was really nothing more than the slightly exaggerated emotional speech natural to them, which grew by frequent use into an organised form. And it is readily conceivable that the accumulated agency of subsequent poet-musicians, inheriting and adding to the products of those who went before them, sufficed, in the course of the ten centuries which we know it took, to develop this four-toned recitative into a vocal music having a range of two octaves.
Not only may we so understand how more sonorous tones, greater extremes of pitch, and wider intervals, were gradually introduced; but also how there arose a greater variety and complexity of musical expression. For this same passionate, enthusiastic temperament, which naturally leads the musical composer to express the feelings possessed by others as well as himself, in extremer intervals and more marked cadences than they would use, also leads him to give musical utterance to feelings which they either do not experience, or experience in but slight degrees. In virtue of this general susceptibility which distinguishes him, he regards with emotion, events, scenes, conduct, character, which produce upon most men no appreciable effect. The emotions so generated, compounded as they are of the simpler emotions, are not expressible by intervals and cadences natural to these, but by combinations of such intervals and cadences: whence arise more involved musical phrases, conveying more complex, subtle, and unusual feelings. And thus we may in some measure understand how it happens that music not only so strongly excites our more familiar feelings, but also produces feelings we never had before—arouses dormant sentiments of which we had not conceived the possibility and do not know the meaning; or, as Richter says—tells us of things we have not seen and shall not see.
Indirect evidences of several kinds remain to be briefly pointed out. One of them is the difficulty, not to say impossibility, of otherwise accounting for the expressiveness of music. Whence comes it that special combinations of notes should have special effects upon our emotions?—that one should give us a feeling of exhilaration, another of melancholy, another of affection, another of reverence? Is it that these special combinations have intrinsic meanings apart from the human constitution?—that a certain number of aerial waves per second, followed by a certain other number, in the nature of things signify grief, while in the reverse order they signify joy; and similarly with all other intervals, phrases, and cadences? Few will be so irrational as to think this. Is it, then, that the meanings of these special combinations are conventional only?—that we learn their implications, as we do those of words, by observing how others understand them? This is an hypothesis not only devoid of evidence, but directly opposed to the experience of every one. How, then, are musical effects to be explained? If the theory above set forth be accepted, the difficulty disappears. If music, taking for its raw material the various modifications of voice which are the physiological results of excited feelings, intensifies, combines, and complicates them—if it exaggerates the loudness, the resonance, the pitch, the intervals, and the variability, which, in virtue of an organic law, are the characteristics of passionate speech—if, by carrying out these further, more consistently, more unitedly, and more sustainedly, it produces an idealised language of emotion; then its power over us becomes comprehensible. But in the absence of this theory, the expressiveness of music appears to be inexplicable.
Again, the preference we feel for certain qualities of sound presents a like difficulty, admitting only of a like solution. It is generally agreed that the tones of the human voice are more pleasing than any others. Grant that music takes its rise from the modulations of the human voice under emotion, and it becomes a natural consequence that the tones of that voice should appeal to our feelings more than any others; and so should be considered more beautiful than any others. But deny that music has this origin, and the only alternative is the untenable position that the vibrations proceeding from a vocalist’s throat are, objectively considered, of a higher order than those from a horn or a violin. Similarly with harsh and soft sounds. If the conclusiveness of the foregoing reasonings be not admitted, it must be supposed that the vibrations causing the last are intrinsically better than those causing the first; and that, in virtue of some pre-established harmony, the higher feelings and natures produce the one, and the lower the other. But if the foregoing reasonings be valid, it follows, as a matter of course, that we shall like the sounds that habitually accompany agreeable feelings, and dislike those that habitually accompany disagreeable feelings.
Once more, the question—How is the expressiveness of music to be otherwise accounted for? may be supplemented by the question—How is the genesis of music to be otherwise accounted for? That music is a product of civilisation is manifest; for though savages have their dance-chants, these are of a kind scarcely to be dignified by the title musical: at most, they supply but the vaguest rudiment of music, properly so called. And if music has been by slow steps developed in the course of civilisation, it must have been developed out of something. If, then, its origin is not that above alleged, what is its origin?
Thus we find that the negative evidence confirms the positive, and that, taken together, they furnish strong proof. We have seen that there is a physiological relation, common to man and all animals, between feeling and muscular action; that as vocal sounds are produced by muscular action, there is a consequent physiological relation between feeling and vocal sounds; that all the modifications of voice expressive of feeling are the direct results of this physiological relation; that music, adopting all these modifications, intensifies them more and more as it ascends to its higher and higher forms, and becomes music simply in virtue of thus intensifying them; that, from the ancient epic poet chanting his verses, down to the modern musical composer, men of unusually strong feelings prone to express them in extreme forms, have been naturally the agents of these successive intensifications; and that so there has little by little arisen a wide divergence between this idealised language of emotion and its natural language: to which direct evidence we have just added the indirect—that on no other tenable hypothesis can either the expressiveness or the genesis of music be explained.
And now, what is the function of music? Has music any effect beyond the immediate pleasure it produces? Analogy suggests that it has. The enjoyments of a good dinner do not end with themselves, but minister to bodily well-being. Though people do not marry with a view to maintain the race, yet the passions which impel them to marry secure its maintenance. Parental affection is a feeling which, while it conduces to parental happiness, ensures the nurture of offspring. Men love to accumulate property, often without thought of the benefits it produces; but in pursuing the pleasure of acquisition they indirectly open the way to other pleasures. The wish for public approval impels all of us to do many things which we should otherwise not do,—to undertake great labours, face great dangers, and habitually rule ourselves in a way that smooths social intercourse: that is, in gratifying our love of approbation we subserve divers ulterior purposes. And, generally, our nature is such that in fulfilling each desire, we in some way facilitate the fulfilment of the rest. But the love of music seems to exist for its own sake. The delights of melody and harmony do not obviously minister to the welfare either of the individual or of society. May we not suspect, however, that this exception is apparent only? Is it not a rational inquiry—What are the indirect benefits which accrue from music, in addition to the direct pleasure it gives?
But that it would take us too far out of our track, we should prelude this inquiry by illustrating at some length a certain general law of progress;—the law that alike in occupations, sciences, arts, the divisions that had a common root, but by continual divergence have become distinct, and are now being separately developed, are not truly independent, but severally act and react on each other to their mutual advancement. Merely hinting thus much, however, by way of showing that there are many analogies to justify us, we go on to express the opinion that there exists a relationship of this kind between music and speech.
All speech is compounded of two elements, the words and the tones in which they are uttered—the signs of ideas and the signs of feelings. While certain articulations express the thought, certain vocal sounds express the more or less of pain or pleasure which the thought gives. Using the word cadence in an unusually extended sense, as comprehending all modifications of voice, we may say that cadence is the commentary of the emotions upon the propositions of the intellect. The duality of spoken language, though not formally recognised, is recognised in practice by every one; and every one knows that very often more weight attaches to the tones than to the words. Daily experience supplies cases in which the same sentence of disapproval will be understood as meaning little or meaning much, according to the inflections of voice which accompany it; and daily experience supplies still more striking cases in which words and tones are in direct contradiction—the first expressing consent, while the last express reluctance; and the last being believed rather than the first.
These two distinct but interwoven elements of speech have been undergoing a simultaneous development. We know that in the course of civilisation words have been multiplied, new parts of speech have been introduced, sentences have grown more varied and complex; and we may fairly infer that during the same time new modifications of voice have come into use, fresh intervals have been adopted, and cadences have become more elaborate. For while, on the one hand, it is absurd to suppose that, along with the undeveloped verbal forms of barbarism, there existed a developed system of vocal inflections; it is, on the other hand, necessary to suppose that, along with the higher and more numerous verbal forms needed to convey the multiplied and complicated ideas of civilised life, there have grown up those more involved changes of voice which express the feelings proper to such ideas. If intellectual language is a growth, so also, without doubt, is emotional language a growth.
Now, the hypothesis which we have hinted above, is, that beyond the direct pleasure which it gives, music has the indirect effect of developing this language of the emotions. Having its root, as we have endeavoured to show, in those tones, intervals, and cadences of speech which express feeling—arising by the combination and intensifying of these, and coming finally to have an embodiment of its own—music has all along been reacting upon speech, and increasing its power of rendering emotion. The use in recitative and song of inflections more expressive than ordinary ones, must from the beginning have tended to develop the ordinary ones. Familiarity with the more varied combinations of tones that occur in vocal music can scarcely have failed to give greater variety of combination to the tones in which we utter our impressions and desires. The complex musical phrases by which composers have conveyed complex emotions, may rationally be supposed to have influenced us in making those involved cadences of conversation by which we convey our subtler thoughts and feelings.
That the cultivation of music has no effect on the mind, few will be absurd enough to contend. And if it has an effect, what more natural effect is there than this of developing our perception of the meanings of inflections, qualities, and modulations of voice; and giving us a correspondingly increased power of using them? Just as mathematics, taking its start from the phenomena of physics and astronomy, and presently coming to be a separate science, has since reacted on physics and astronomy to their immense advancement—just as chemistry, first arising out of the processes of metallurgy and the industrial arts, and gradually growing into an independent study, has now become an aid to all kinds of production—just as physiology, originating out of medicine and once subordinate to it, but latterly pursued for its own sake, is in our day coming to be the science on which the progress of medicine depends;—so, music, having its root in emotional language, and gradually evolved from it, has ever been reacting upon and further advancing it. Whoever will examine the facts will find this hypothesis to be in harmony with the method of civilisation everywhere displayed.
It will scarcely be expected that much direct evidence in support of this conclusion can be given. The facts are of a kind which it is difficult to measure, and of which we have no records. Some suggestive traits, however, may be noted. May we not say, for instance, that the Italians, among whom modern music was earliest cultivated, and who have more especially practised and excelled in melody (the division of music with which our argument is chiefly concerned)—may we not say that these Italians speak in more varied and expressive inflections and cadences than any other nation? On the other hand, may we not say that, confined almost exclusively as they have hitherto been to their national airs, which have a marked family likeness, and therefore accustomed to but a limited range of musical expression, the Scotch are unusually monotonous in the intervals and modulations of their speech? And again, do we not find among different classes of the same nation, differences that have like implications? The gentleman and the clown stand in a very decided contrast with respect to variety of intonation. Listen to the conversation of a servant-girl, and then to that of a refined, accomplished lady, and the more delicate and complex changes of voice used by the latter will be conspicuous. Now, without going so far as to say that out of all the differences of culture to which the upper and lower classes are subjected, difference of musical culture is that to which alone this difference of speech is ascribable, yet we may fairly say that there seems a much more obvious connection of cause and effect between these than between any others. Thus, while the inductive evidence to which we can appeal is but scanty and vague, yet what there is favours our position.
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 pleasurse, 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.
[1 ]Fraser’s Magazine, October 1857.
[1 ] Those who seek information on this point may find it in an interesting tract by Mr. Alexander Bain, on Animal Instinct and Intelligence.