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Shirley S Kirsten

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Emotion and Meaning in Music with Beethoven examples
by Shirley S Kirsten   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Sunday, September 25, 2011
Posted: Sunday, September 25, 2011

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I examine excerpts of Beethoven's works that have emotional trigger points and I explain why in the context of Leonard B. Meyer's book, Emotion and Meaning in Music.

Emotion and Meaning in Music with examples showcased from Beethoven’s piano works (Video)


I was thumbing through my soft cover copy of Leonard B. Meyer's Emotion and Meaning in Music, a book required for an elective course I took at the City University of New York decades ago, and I became thoroughly confused by the author's eclectic vocabulary of "absolute music," "theories of continuation," "tonal organization" and the rest as his springboard to understanding an emotional response to music.

Yet, I recall that my professor at the time, synthesized Meyer's concepts in a way that I could understand and apply them to music-making, performance and teaching.

According to the Wikipedia, "Meyer's most influential work, Emotion and Meaning in Music (1957), combined Gestalt Theory and theories by Pragmatists Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey to try to explain the existence of emotion in music. Peirce had suggested that any regular response to an event developed alongside the understanding of that event's consequences, its 'meaning.' Dewey extended this to explain that, if the response was stopped by an unexpected event, then an emotional response would occur over the event's 'meaning.' Meyer used this basis to form a theory about music, combining musical expectations in a specific cultural context with emotion and meaning elicited. His work went on to influence theorists both in and outside music, as well as providing a basis for cognitive psychology research into music and our responses to it."

Put in simple terms and as exemplified by the many musical examples provided in the author's book, when a listener absorbs music, he has certain "expectations" that are built into the composer's design. In Beethoven's "Fur Elise," for example, on page two there are two phrases that sound strikingly parallel until the second one ends with a harmonic deviation that has an emotional "meaning" or at least triggers a "response." It defies "expectation."

In the video below, I've selected various portions of Beethoven's compositions that elicit emotional responses in the way they defy expectation, though Meyer does allude to the fact that trained musical ears might further the appreciation of these emotional events. I find that having a theoretical background, with an understanding of harmonic progressions and their implications augments my understanding of a composition's emotional dimension as it unfolds during performance.

The following musical examples are included:

Beethoven's "Tempest" Sonata in d minor, Op. 31, No. 2, Allegretto (last movement)
Sonata "Pathetique" in C minor, Op. 13, No. 8, Adagio cantabile (second movement)
"Fur Elise"


Web Site: Emotion and Meaning in Music

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