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This paper will investigate to what degree the concepts related to “musical emotion,” a term coined by contemporary music psychology, can be traced in ancient classical music theory. As the debate among present-day philosophers of music and psychologists shows, the notion of “musical emotion” is not clearly defined, nor is there agreement on what role, if any, it plays in the musical experience. While the “emotivists” or “expressionists” hold that music actually arouses specific emotions, the “cognitivists” or “formalists;” (on these schools see e,g, Meyer 1956) would say that the immediate effect of music is limited to creating aesthetical pleasure. If one concurs with the “emotivists” that music does in fact produce emotions, the question remains as to whether these are the ordinary emotions, such as “happiness” or “sadness,” or whether they are specifically “musical” in character (for these questions see, among many others, Kivy 1989/1990 and Davies 2010).

Within the field of classical scholarship, these issues become relevant in the context of the recent surge of interest in ancient music theory. But since the terminology found in classical texts springs from a conceptual world with concerns different from modern psychology, my paper will begin by defining terms and discussing some terminological and conceptual questions in order to understand what exactly we can expect to find in the ancient texts with regard to “musical emotion.”

Many ancient Greek music theorists operate from the presupposition that the human soul has a “passionate” part (θυμός, πάθημα, etc.) which is powerfully affected by music (e.g. Plato Resp. 401d; Leg. 812c; see Pelosi 2010). The common explanation for this phenomenon is, as I shall illustrate, that music itself has a particular ēthos, i.e. a set of characteristics, attributed to such factors as pitch, mode, rhythm, instruments, and the composition of the musical piece as a whole. Through its ēthos music is thought to resonate—we would say, in form of emotions—in the human psyche and influence its ēthos in a positive or negative way. This capacity motivates authors such as Plato, Aristotle, and Aristides Quintilianus to develop pedagogical as well as therapeutic strategies based on musical ethos (see most recently in Barker 2005; Kramarz 2013). This and other observations lead to the conclusion that the mainstream of ancient theorists would tend towards the “emotivist” position, whereas only a few authors, principally the Epicureans Philodemus and Sextus Empiricus, could be considered forerunners of the “formalists,” claiming that music has no significant effect apart from pleasure.

Finally, I shall examine the nature of musical emotions. It seems no ancient author discusses explicitly the idea of an emotion considered exclusively “musical.” Ancient music theorists reflect on passions (or emotions) caused by music primarily in the “ethical” contexts of paideia or therapy. This leads them to identify musical ethos simply with human character traits under the label of mimesis (cf. Halliwell 2002). On the other hand, one could consider literary characterizations of music, which very often borrow from other sense perceptions (such as “sweet” or “sharp,” see Kaimio 1977 and Rocconi 2003), to be attempts of describing specifically musical emotions for which otherwise there exists practically no vocabulary. Along a similar line, one could argue that the “pleasure” (ἡδονή) generated by music—which the Greek authors do acknowledge—is a “musical emotion.” Even so, the terms remain equivocal, especially “pleasure,” which covers a wide gamut of feelings and associations evoked by music. We cannot know whether any of these expressions represents an exclusively musical emotion. In summary, ancient authors have tried, not unlike to modern-day usage, to capture the experience of musical emotions with analogous or metaphorical descriptions, whereas the concept of “musical emotion” as such, apart from its import on ēthos, remained unexplored.