‘Music is the language of emotions’: A Darwinian Argument for Expressionism

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I see my life in terms of music.”

– Albert Einstein

How does music provide us with pleasure? The whole process seems to be very mysterious in and of itself. In a sense, a cluster of wavelengths roams around the room, and once they enter human ears, they generate a myriad of bizarre outcomes. Somehow, they stimulate our reward system, managing to fire out dopamine, giving rise to emotions which ultimately unleash our memories. As a result, a mere organised sound achieves to engage practically every part of the human brain. The whole situation seems to be so odd that if aliens were to replicate our behaviour, it would look like this:

Credit: Nathan W. Pyle.

And yet we are personally and culturally obsessed with music. In fact, we listen to music on average for 4-5 hours a day on multiple devices (Forbes, 2017). After all, music is not only confined to a Spotify playlist but is used as backdrops in movies, adverts, or it simply hums in the background of your favourite coffee shop. Music might be considered an omnipresent deity or a drug, though a highly addictive one! It is an amalgamation of beauty as it contains mathematical ratios, logical composition, emotional excitement and, perhaps, even a reference to religious experience. Or, as Arthur Schopenhauer puts it: “music is the melody whose text is the world.”

The fundamental conceptual problem of music could be summarised in the following terms. Any art form relies upon the imposition of a pattern on experience. Our aesthetic enjoyment is then derived from the recognition of these patterns (Whitehead, 2001, pp. 8). However, music seems to be self-contained, as it is hard to assess what music specifically refers to outside of itself. Whereas paintings refer to clearly defined objects (e.g. portrait of Mona Lisa refers to a lady with an enigmatic smile, or Pollock’s abstract paintings refer to the inner workings of our imagination), music does not have a clear referent. To unravel this problem, we have to discern the purpose that music is supposed to serve. Is music designed to be a rational pleasure, or is it intended to excite our emotions? This question has divided philosophers into several camps.

“I see music as fluid architecture.”

– Joni Mitchell

Rationalists believe that the value of music inheres in the music itself and that the meaning is primarily intellectual (Hanslick, 2010). Above all, they are trying to divorce music from emotions. According to rationalists, the feelings you derive from listening to your favourite songs originate in ‘extramusical’ patterns such as lyrics, performance and context of the song, none of which truly lies within the song itself. Hence, the beauty of music resides primarily in its logical composition.

The spark that has ignited this worldview is most notably the Pythagorean invention of music intervals. Upon discovering that music can be structured according to mathematical rules, Pythagoras decided to integrate music into his wider metaphysical theory. His concept of Musica Universalis postulates that all planets co-existed in a ‘harmonious’ relationship, much like music. This cosmological view was further expanded by Plato in Timaeus, where he discussed the composition of the cosmos and the human soul, both in terms of intervals and ratios. Therefore, ancient philosophers widely believed that music resembles the internal mathematical fabric of the universe. According to this view, music entices pleasure because we subconsciously recognise these logical patterns.

Think about it this way; we derive a sense of pleasure from playing board games (an intellectual pursuit in its own right). A rationalist would have you believe that music is as well a rational exercise. When listening to music, your brain naturally predicts the development of rhythm and melody, and each time your prediction is successful, your brain rewards you with a kick of dopamine (Belzen, 2013, pp. 13-15). That is why you like to listen to the same piece of music over and over again because it gradually improves your predictions. In a sense, it is a pleasurable confirmation of our ingrained faith in anticipations of uniformity, as we regularly experience continuity and correlation between events (Mackenzie, 2017).

Furthermore, rationalism is very sceptical about music’s ability to express emotions. As a matter of fact, the notion of emotional expressionism is very hard to prove. For an example, consider the opening of one famous melody: the tune that begins the Fugue in C Major from J S Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book I (1722). You can listen to it here (and watch a visualisation as you follow along). In just the first few seconds, we already have too much musical information to make any decisions about the emotions depicted. According to rationalists, the full enjoyment of such a work is revealed only to those who come to it well-prepared and who are able to appreciate the fathomless depths of the technical accomplishment (Hanslick, 1963). In other words, only true experts can experience higher forms of musical pleasure.

There are many other examples to corroborate the ideas of rationalism. For instance, the human ear deems tones that are structured in ‘consonance’ to be naturally pleasurable. Consonance denotes a mathematical relationship where tones (sound waves drawn in terms of sine functions) intersect at their starting point (0,0), and intersect again at some other point after completing several full cycles. Whereas tonal ‘dissonance’, deemed displeasurable, rarely intersects at the point (x,0).

Based on that, we can establish that the human mind is able to extract mathematical patterns aurally! Another good example would be Guillaume Dufay’s Nuper rosarum flores, a motet written for the dedication ceremony of Brunelleschi’s newly built dome in Florence. Dufay’s motet directly mirrors the architectural design of the dome. “In its overall dimension, then, Nuper rosarum flores has exactly the same proportions as the interior of the cross and dome of Santa Maria del Fiore” (Warren, 1973, pp. 97). As such, Dufay’s little musical experiment proves a wider metaphysical point. If we are able to construct a sounding model of architectural construction, then probably, through music, we are constructing imaginative models of the external world as such.

Consider Smetana’s Die Moldau, for example. The melody and rhythm of the song directly reflect the flow of the river Moldau as it is growing from a small stream into a mighty torrent on its way to Prague. Or, what about Rimsky-Korzakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, which tries to depict the trajectory of a Bumblebee’s flight. These two songs prove that music has the ability to replicate and uncover the logical composition of naturally occurring events, and recognition of these patterns results in rational pleasure.

“Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.”

– Leo Tolstoy

The arch-nemesis, or the antithesis of rationalism, is, of course, expressionism. This school of thought deems the expression of emotions to be among one the principal purposes of art. In other words, music is regarded as the outward manifestation of the human emotional state, which refers to all kinds of images, feelings and memories (Reimer, 2012, pp. 17). As a result, all agents (composer, performer and audience) indulge in sophisticated emotional communication. Music then becomes an intriguing infrastructure for the exchange of both conscious and subconscious emotions.

To elaborate on this idea, it is important to distinguish between experiencing an emotion and expressing it. Expressing an emotion is similar to rational contemplation. At first, a composer is not acutely aware of what he is feeling, but he discovers it by expressing it through music. Once he finishes the artwork, he has encapsulated a particular feeling which he then imprints onto the minds of his listeners.

To illustrate, try to contrast Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata with Chopin’s Funeral March. Even though the feeling of sadness resonates in both sonatas, each expresses it differently. Beethoven’s song evokes a lulling sadness mixed with melancholia, whereas Chopin’s sonata ends on a much more pessimistic note filled with staggering nihilism. To corroborate this idea, recent findings from neuroscience provide clues for how music can convey emotions. A good starting place to understand such science is with a brief introduction to mirror neurons.

When we observe or hear another’s actions, the same regions of our brain involved in making such actions are activated through mirror neurons (Molnar & Overy, 1959, pp. 235-41). This provides us with the ability to understand and represent the actions of others. So, when we hear Chopin’s sonata, mirror neurons activate similar regions of the brain in every listener. Consequently, music becomes an exchange of neurally-coded emotional states.

Another theory suggests that music can express emotions by resembling human behavioural expressions (Kivy, 2002). Music can imitate human utterances or the way we move or gesture. Consider, for example, that we might slump with grief or leap with joy. Music mimics these bodily expressions in slow versus fast tempo or falling versus rising melodic lines. Ergo, the expressiveness of music might depend on the resemblance we perceive between the dynamic character of music and human movement, gait or carriage. However, based on this account, music could only reflect garden-variety emotions that have standard behavioural responses such as sadness or joy.

Nevertheless, according to Jenefer Robinson, there are ways through which music can reflect more complex emotions (Robinson, 2005) . For instance, a musical theme that repeatedly struggles for completion and finally achieves closure might mimic desire. Or, a composer can express melancholia by carefully altering tempo and tone colours (see further so-called GERMS model designed by Patrik Juslin, which summarises expressionist methodology in music). But the most important part of her philosophy is the idea of the ‘musical personae’.

Each instrument differs in its expressive value as a result of its unique sound properties and range. Therefore, each instrument assumes its own distinctive persona, and so a purely instrumental composition could be viewed as an emotionally charged dialogue between different agents. Don’t forget that some melodies are purposefully designed to symbolise actual real-life characters (a device prevalent mainly in musicals). In the end, music is so incredibly referential! It, unavoidably, triggers our memory and imagination to such an extent that emotional association is nigh inevitable. Or as Mattheson puts it: “music was naturally disposed to imitate the sounds of the emotions, just as the painter imitates the features and colours of nature” (Aeon, 2018).

“Man is a musical being. His origin is in the spoken Word. By sound was he sustained and by music he evolved. One day he will recognize music as a vital factor in the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual evolution of the whole human race.”

– Corinne Heline 

So, those are the two prevalent theories of music. Truthfully, I think there is a grain of truth in both of them. Nonetheless, I would like to propose a Darwinian argument in favour of expressionism. The gist of this argument is that every sound bears inherently coded emotional information. Music then becomes a refined medium for emotional communication. This stance rejects the rationalist notion that the beauty of music inheres primarily in rational pleasure.

This argument rests on two fundamental premises. First of all, I disagree with Locke’s notion of tabula rasa (i.e. the theory that all individuals are born without built-in mental content, and ergo all knowledge comes from experience), rather I prefer Kant’s notion that the mind contains inherent structures that organise sensory perceptions into ideas (Kant, 1929). Second of all, I agree with Jordan Peterson’s assessment that human perceptive and behavioural responses are, to a considerable extent, informed by our evolutionary history (Peterson, 2019, ch.1).

It is a well-recorded fact that animals are able to communicate and discern emotions through sound. For instance, when I am talking to my dog in a high-pitched voice, and I talk very fast, my dog interprets it as a positive emotion and starts wagging his tail. On the other hand, when I talk in a deep patronising voice, my dog starts to express guilt, even though he does not understand what I am saying, as exemplified here.

I would say that if this phenomenon is prevalent among animals, then it should also extend to the human realm, given our intertwined evolutionary history. It is only natural that various sounds create emotional responses in us since we had to use our hearing system as means of survival. To demonstrate, when you walk in a forest and suddenly you hear a movement of a wild animal; naturally, it causes goosebumps, and you feel fear. This is because our cognitive system warns us against potential predators. Or, if you just attune yourself to the sounds of nature, such as murmuring trees or rivers, then you feel a sense of calmness because the tranquil state of nature tells you there is no predator in sight.

Hence, sound, as such, always carries embedded emotional information. If sound informs our emotional condition, then the only means to conversely express the emotion is through making sounds. However, during this very process, a simple sound is converted by the mind into an idea, which differs in its degree of complexity. Therefore, to express this emotion, we need a more elaborate coded language which turns out to be music. In this way, music should be understood as an organised sound that explores and transmits complex emotions. This theory could be further expressed by the following diagram:

Emotional transformation.

This diagram encapsulates how an emotion derived from sound (E1) turns into an idea (Ex), but it is impossible to convert the process. Therefore, music is the medium (symbolised by ↔) that allows to express ideas in a simplified form (E2).

At this point, the notion of ‘pure’ rational pleasure evaporates. Man pursues music because he desires to understand sound, out of his innate need to always emotionally comprehend his surroundings. If Hume claimed that men are attuned to other people, I would like to extend this claim by postulating that we are emotionally attuned to our proximate environment. The two cardinal senses that guide emotional assessment of our surroundings are hearing and vision. Rationalists think that we can simply switch off our emotions for a while, whereas I would claim that emotions are an ever-lasting, constantly changing state. In other words, our mood never goes away and is continually being shaped by the perception of sound. Thanks to music, we seek and record patterns of sound in order to educate ourselves about the emotions we feel.


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Grant, Roger Mathew. “It’s Hard to Know Why Music Gives Pleasure: Is That the Point? – Roger Mathew Grant: Aeon Essays.” Aeon, Aeon, 4 Sept. 2018,
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Hanslick, Eduard, and Henry Pleasants. Music Criticisms 1846-99. Penguin Books, 1963.

Juslin, Patrik. “Five Facets of Musical Expression: A Psychologist’s Perspective on Music Performance,”Psychology of Music 31 (2003): 273–302.

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Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/hughmcintyre/2017/11/09/americans-are-spending-more-time-listening-to-music-than-ever-before/#26bb9a72f7f8

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Plato, and Oskar Piest. Timaeus. Liberal Arts Press, 1959.

Peterson, Jordan B., et al. 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos. Random House Canada, 2019.

Robinson, Jenefer. Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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1 Comment

  1. Azmy Birdi says:

    Excellent , Benedikt. I am so impressed. Awesome.

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