Beyond Emotion: The Gestalt Theory of Music

JoeM's picture
Submitted by JoeM on Mon, 2006-02-13 02:34

“The formulation of a common vocabulary of music would require these answers...It would require: a translation of the musical experience, the inner experience, into conceptual terms; an explanation of why certain sounds strike us a certain way, a definition of the axioms of musical perception from which the appropriate esthetic principles could be derived, which would serves as a base for the objective validation of esthetic judgments.”

“Until a conceptual vocabulary is discovered and defined, no objectively valid criterion of esthetic judgment is possible in the field of music. (There are certain technical criteria, dealing mainly with the complexity of harmonic structures, but there are no criteria for identifying the content, i.e., the emotional meaning of a given piece of music and thus demonstrating the esthetic objectivity of a given response.”
Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto

As stated previously, Rand believed that the current situation in psychology was not conducive to the understanding of the psychology of music, and held that the work of Helmholtz was the last great work in the field. Since the time of her writing, many technological advances have been made that allow greater understanding of physiology, which Rand considered the key to musical understanding. She might argue that the field of psychology, still in the anteroom of science in her day, is still in the dark ages. But serious work has been done to understand how music works its wonders on the mind.


(I am unaware of Rand’s understanding of the theory, if anyone knows, feel free to elaborate!)

Rand mused that music seemed to have the power to reach man’s emotions directly. But that would contradict the theory that emotions are products of man’s value judgments. Paul Davies, in the Psychology of Music writes: “…the emotion felt has very little to do with the music itself but becomes attached to the music through a learning process. The feelings are not intrinsic in the music, but come, as it were, from outside.” The answer to how music is experienced as emotion may be found in the Gestalt theory.

The word Gestalt is German for “shape” or “form” and implies the German word for creativity, “Gestaltung.” The Gestalt theory was developed in Germany as a reaction to the Behaviorism. Wikipedia defines Gestalt theory as “a theory of mind and brain that proposes that the operational principle of the brain is holistic, parallel, and analog, with self-organizing tendencies.” The Gestalt effect is defined as “[t]he form-forming capability of our senses, particularly with respect to the visual recognition of figures and whole forms instead of just a collection of simple lines and curves.

Principles of Gestalt Theory:

Principle of Totality - The conscious experience must be considered globally (by taking into account all the physical and mental aspects of the individual simultaneously) because the nature of the mind demands that each component be considered as part of a system of dynamic relationships.
Principle of psychophysical isomorphism - A correlation exists between conscious experience and cerebral activity.

In contrast to the Behaviorist punishment/reward system of response to stimuli, the Gestalt theorists held that the Behaviorists minimized the importance of the cognitive processing of the subject. This theory allows the idea of free will by recognizing that individuals often have differing reactions to identical stimuli (for example, the differing responses to musical patterns that invoke the same emotional responses). The individual’s perception of the stimuli factors in to their response. This would include not only the sense perception, but their reasoning ability. (For example, the child who sees a parent dressed as Santa or the straw bent in the glass of water processes the sense date but is fooled in the interpretation.) This implies that reasoning is accompanied by the subjective interpretations and past experiences of the subject in perception of Gestalt patterns. This does not say that subjective experiences and opinions are proper criteria of definition, but recognizes their existence as having an influence over our interaction with the world and have to be dealt with. This is especially important when considering the “sense of life” reaction in musical appreciation.

Paul Davies explains another aspect of Gestalt:
“So far as music is concerned, the argument from here…when people here a sequence of tones, they group these into perceptual units which will be as ‘good as the prevailing conditions allow.’ Assuming that they can do this with some success, the sequence of tones will become meaningful, and will be a ‘tune’ in the sense in which we have previously defined tunes.”

Davies continues: “This tendency to organic separate units into some sort of whole is one of the central tenets of Gestalt psychology. Kurt Koffka…one of the pioneers of the Gestalt approach to perception, further postulated the ‘law of Pragmanz,’ or ‘law of the best figure’: According to this, there is a natural tendency for observers to prefer the simplest and most stable figure available to them; unfortunately he does not offer an explanation for the terms ‘simple’ or ‘stable’. Applying the law of Pragnanz to the Gestalt theory, Koffka reasoned that ‘The psychological organization will always be as good as the prevailing conditions allow. The act of perception therefore seeks to impose the best and most stable organization possible upon the percepts available…”.

This principle, in a musical context, seems to lend credence to Rand’s theory that people respond to music that suits their particular cognitive styles, whether it matches the cognitive marvel of the diatonic scale developed by the emphasis of reason in the Renaissance, or the repetitious stylings that are used to invoke trances or stupors, or if one prefers the spacious ambience of Pink Floyd as a parallel to finding room to stretch out in the world in luxury to the complicated contrapuntal stylings of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as a parallel to diligently seeking connections through mental integration of the world’s seemingly disparate offerings.

(Personally, I don't see a dichotomy, and even if one has a preferred method of cognition, the more adaptability one has to multiple Gestalt patterns, the better! I think the great composer is one who can go make sense of many styles in an integrated fashion.)

In addition to this, it can be said that in music, some people purposely create or seek out a type of music that does the opposite, creating a complicated, dynamic system of challenging proportions. This can be easily explained by Joe Rowland’s essay “Contentment: The Enemy”:

“A guy I met explained a psychological theory to me. He showed a graph where on one side you had boredom, and on the other you had stress. He then said that people have different thresholds for either. The point of the graph was to show how people live their lives and choose their actions. They avoid doing too little, or they'll get bored. If they did start feeling boredom, they'd pick some activity. But as soon as they do, their stress level would increase. If it got too high, they would slow themselves down. In this way, they bounce back and forth between boredom and stress. This is the reactive life.”

Paul Davies offers an explanation that supports Rowland’s theory that an individual increases his stress threshold in order to grow that correlates in a musical context that supports Rand’s theory as well:

“…it seems likely that there may be changes in an individual’s preferred complexity level with the passage of time. For example, a piece of music which is initially too complex for an individual to like, may, with repeated playings, move down to a lower complexity level at which liking may begin to emerge. There is the possibility, however, that if a person repeatedly exposes himself to tunes of this type, a reciprocal movement might take place…if he listens to music of a type which he initially finds hard to anticipate, it is possible that repeated exposure to music of this type will, in time, cause him to anticipate rather better. In other words, his own subjective level might move upwards, so that music which was of a type judged too complex in the past might, in time, come to occupy the position of preferred complexity level.”

This whole idea of threshold increase can be summed up by the eloquent Chinese aphorism “Crisis is another word for opportunity.”

Jourdain offers another look at this, to put it in context:
“In the classical notion of pleasure and pain, an organism strives to maintain equilibrium…with its environment…pleasures are not absolute but rather are always relative to an equilibrium point. The same taste or feeling or sight or sound that is pleasurable in one context can become painful in another.”

Davies supports this when he writes: “…We have seen that people do not listen to music in a vacuum, but rather that they know certain things about it beforehand. This knowledge leads them to expect certain things to happen, and others not to happen. Events of the past are therefore central in enabling people to have expectancies. These expectations concern not merely the music itself, but extends to a variety of other circumstances which surround the music, including the mood states which they believe to be appropriate in a particular musical context….it follows…that in musical situations where people do not have expectancies…the music will be meaningless for them.”

This idea is very integral to the basis of musical appreciation. As Jourdain explains, music cognition, based on the Gestalt theory, relies on the interplay of expectations versus innovation, or what I call “deviance versus devotion.” Jourdain writes that “[a]ll emotions are either negative or positive. Negative emotions arise when experience falls short of anticipation. You expect your car to start and it doesn’t…Conversely, positive emotions come about when experience exceeds anticipation. You expect to work all day but are given the day off...Because most anticipations are minor ones, and most discrepancies are small, little of our emotional life registers as surges and outbursts. Most emotion bobs up and down at small waves on a sea of motivation. But we experience a feeling of well-being when small positive emotional events occur continuously, and we become depressed or irritable when a train of small negative events accost us.”

This supports Rand’s theory of music quite nicely. Rand wrote that “[a] composition may demand the active alertness needed to resolve complex mathematical relationships-or it may deaden the brain by means of monotonous simplicity…the listener becomes aware of this process in the form of a sense of efficacy, or of strain, or of boredom, or of frustration. His reaction is determined by his psycho-epistemological sense of life-i.e., by the level of cognitive functioning on which he feels at home.”

To give greater context to this theory, one should consider Jourdain’s elaboration of his claim that “musical expression is forever at odds with musical structure”:

“When too many deviations fall together, the listener loses track of the underlying meter and ceases to anticipate coming beats forcefully…For composer and performer alike, music-making is always a tug-of-war between the maintenance of underlying musical structures and the indulgence of musical deviations…

For Jourdain, this is the crux of how music is turned into an emotional experience (as opposed to causing emotions directly):

“From these principles, it’s easy to see how music generates emotion. Music sets up anticipations and then satisfies them. It can withhold its resolutions, and heighten anticipation by doing so, then to satisfy the anticipation in a great gush of resolution.” Jourdain, at this point, also identifies the definition of “expression” in music: “When music goes out of its way to violate the very expectations that it sets up, we call it ‘expressive.’ Musicians breathe ‘feeling’ into a piece by introducing minute deviations in timing and loudness. And composers build expression into their compositions by PURPOSELY [emphasis mine] violating anticipations that have been established.” If this is correct, it would mean that it would almost be pointless to compare compositions as being greater or lesser because the subjective factors and experiences of the listener MUST be taken into account, justifying Rand’s exhortation that in music appreciation, it’s every man for himself. However, it would be an interesting experiment to see how this affects Rand’s claim that to prove her theory would require “a computation of the mathematical relationships among the tones of the melody…the time required by the human ear and brain to integrate a succession of musical sounds…the relationships of tones to bars, of bars to musical phrases…”, etc. She claims that “the work involved is staggering, yet this is what the human brain-the composer’s, the performers, and the listener’s—does, though not consciously.” Does Jourdain’s theory of anticipation and expectation merely rephrase Rand’s idea, or offer an simpler explanation than the one she requires?


The Gestalt theory makes sense of the cognitive aspect of musical psychology, but is not complete without consideration of the somatic component. The Gestalt theory gives us the object of the value judgement, which is a representation of motion. The motion is transferred from the mind to the body, thus completing link between motion and emotion.

Jourdain rounds out the theory with a kinesthetic idea of musculature representation: “…if music does not channel directly to our muscles, then we must consciously put it there. It seems that we use our musculatures to represent music, modeling the most important features of musical patterns by means of physical movements large and small. At one extreme, we bounce up and down to a pulsing beat. At the other, we are immobile yet are racked by anticipations of movement, experiencing the impetus toward motions that we do not actually initiate.” He cautions us, however, that “this view is necessarily speculative, since there is no science of muscular representation. For that matter, there is no hard-and-fast typology of physical movements or of musical devices by which we could compare sonic and somatic experience…yet it is easy to imagine two functions, that such representations would serve. First, representation provides a sort of notation system in which we momentarily inscribe features of music as it passes by, and thereby more easily remember those features over many seconds… A second function of muscular representation is to amplify our experience of music. Musical patterns that produce emotion and pleasure are replicated in a second, particularly extensive neural system-the motor system-and so emotion and pleasure arise in this second medium as well as in the direct experience of sound.” In essence, “…we use our bodies as resonators for auditory experiences.”

Jourdain references Antonia Damasio’s theory of the somatic marker hypothesis in his book Descartes' Error. And this theory can be further explained by the parallel with a person’s reaction to a witness trauma; one can witness another person being injured and “feel” the pain vicariously. Jourdain’s theory would probably be an explanation of the same phenomenon.

Davies offers this:
“Any theory of rhythm which is based on voluntary bodily movements, or which assigns paramount importance to movement would…seem to place the cart before the horse, or, at least, by its side…” Davies references a study that “…carried out experiments in the perception of rhythm, and found that ‘awareness’ of rhythm was accompanied by muscular movement. The conclusion was that rhythmical forms initiate the factor of movement in order that the impression of rhythm shall arise. This does not mean, however, that muscular movement is a cause of rhythmic perception. It could either be a concomitant, or a consequence. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how one could, for example, tap one’s foot to a rhythm that one had not perceived…At the heart of the matter, however, lies a purely mental process involving the subjective grouping of temporarily spaced events into groups. Our own movements might be intimately related to this process…but they are not themselves the process….”

The Gestalt theory of music, if correct, may offer many clues to further Rand's dream of seeing an objective explanation of music. But even if it's not, it's an encouraging sign that man is on the right track, at least, putting aside mystical explanations. The existence of such books by Jourdain and Davies, at least, hopefully signifies a sea change in the intellectual climate, and further analysis and elaboration of these theories can be a stepping stone to the rebirth of reason that will bring about the next great musical innovation.

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Leonid's picture

When my son was 9 years old I did an experiment on him. I played to him “Victory trumpet March from " Aida" and then I asked him:" This is the music which describes an army returning from the war. Do you think that army is a winner or looser of the battle?" His immediate response was "A winner". Now, this child didn't know anything about “Aida’s plot. Just the music itself gave him the correct answer. How? It introduced the feeling of joy, confidence, and triumph. How? We don't know for sure. Apparently music able to activate emotional centre, brain limbic system. Emotions are automatic value-judgments but only on conceptual level of consciousness. However emotions exist on the much lower level. (On this level value-judgment is not internalized but hard-wired into the brain). Our emotional centre, limbic system is essentially reptilian brain, meaning that even on this level emotions play significant role. In high primates emotions are the main tool of communication. They are expressed by body language, gesticulation, facial expression and voice. It quite possible that prehistoric anthropoids and early humans used voice to express their emotions as means of communication to say “Danger! Run, Take cover, Eat it, that good, Don't touch it, that bad, I love you..." In other words they start to sing before they developed full conceptual consciousness and language. It is also possible that music helped them to develop these abilities. Every language has prosody that is musical part in his structure. So it's no wonder that music has such a profound emotional effect. On the level of conceptual consciousness emotions, initially introduced by music may cause reverse effect; namely emotions lead to value-judgment, associations, and ideas and so on.


Jmaurone's picture

(I quoted throughout PAUL Davies as the author of THE PSYCHOLOGY OF MUSIC. This should have been JOHN BOOTH Davies. My apologies.)

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