You are here

Aristotle on Musical Emotions

Juan Pablo Mira

Music affords a suitable “ambient” for the arousal of emotion and can change the appearance of and object, and so our belief towards that object. In this sense music acts as a catalyst for the appearance of emotions, imitating their physiological output, i.e. bodily motions and sounds. It can make us, like wine, readily vulnerable and apt to an emotional response changing our body; but the emotional response is about something different outside the music, i.e., a proper intentional object able to arouse emotions.

In this paper I try to give an Aristotelian account of the relations between instrumental music and emotions. Those relations are problematic at least for two reasons. First, Aristotle seems to present the emotions based on rational beliefs (This is the prominent reading subscribed by Fortenbaugh 1975, Cooper 1996, Konstan 2007 and Nussbaum 2001; and attacked by Sorabji 1993, Sihvola 1996 and Burnyeat 2012). This cognitive approach precludes animals of being subjects of emotions. Whether those emotions are ascribed to them only metaphorically or not, the fact is that Aristotle allows some marvelous instances where music can affect the psychological state of non rational animals in a way that is apparently emotional. Secondly, instrumental music, as seems to be presented in Politics VIII with Susemihl emendation, is not able to be the intentional object of the emotions. Instrumental music by itself lacks the “narrative” necessary for the arousal of emotions. However, it seems that somehow instrumental music still affects the emotions of the listener. If that is so, either the cognitive reading of the emotions in Aristotle (mostly based on Rhetoric) is at risk or, against the common belief instrumental music cannot arouse emotions.

I argue that according to Aristotle instrumental music affects the listener setting him in a bodily state that resemble a particular emotion. Particular music resembles the physiological response present in a particular emotion (as described in the modern ‘contour theory’), but not the emotion in itself. Thus, instrumental music acts similarly to substances that can change the body according to the humoral theory (e.g. wine or even water) and predispose the listener to be readily susceptible to the emotion when an intentional object is presented.

Thus, the case of music shows that the Aristotelian account of the emotions involves equally both body and mind. When an emotion occurs the body reacts to a particular belief with a physiological output, but also the body shapes the conditions, like moods or tempers, under which some believes are more prompted than others in front of a particular intentional object. Acting upon the body is how music can set a “frame of mind” even in non rational animals. But that state to which music leads is not in itself an emotional one.

Some previous studies either in Ancient music or emotions in Aristotle do not reconcile both elements; either omitting the subject (Fourtenbaugh 1975 and Kontan 2007) or reducing the explanation of the cause-effect relation between music and emotions to an instantaneous or simultaneous emotional arousal of the listener when music is perceived (Barker 1984 and Halliwell 2002 and Brüllmann 2013).

On the contrary, my interpretation offers an explanation for the tacit Aristotelian psychology behind the so-called “musical emotions” without jeopardizing the cognitive nature of the emotions, as well as it offers a theoretical explanation to the phenomenon based on elements of Aristotle psychology developed in his ethical and biological corpus.

Session/Panel Title:

Ancient Music and the Emotions

Session/Paper Number

10.2

Share This Page

© 2019, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy