Music’s Secret Language

Ever wonder why a certain classical piece evokes a consistent emotional response?

Scientist and musician Manfred Clynes has done extensive research on the topic and discovered that many of the great composers all had their own unique signature of underlying emotional “pulse” in their music. But he was not the first to explore the music’s secret language.

During the Baroque era, there existed a school of thought called the Doctrine of Affects. Composers, theorists, and musicians during that time opined that certain musical styles and techniques could elicit specific emotional responses from the listener. Werckmeister and Heinichen were steadfast proponents of the Doctrine and subscribed to the idea that different keys evoked different moods. Indeed, in these heady days before equal temperament, the sound difference between key signatures was marked and substantial.

At that time, the use of pure intervals, usually pure fifths, in just temperament was in fashion. As one advanced around the Circle of Fifths, one noticed that the last fifth of the sequence was not the same as the beginning note. Eleven of the perfect fifths that existed between the two notes of the octave would have an exact ratio of 3-to-2. As an example, the frequency of a higher note in a perfect fifth might be 300 hertz (cycles per second) while the lower would be 200 hertz. In order to close the circle, Baroque era tuners would have to increase the size of the last fifth to get to the right place. This was called the wolf fifth because the out of tune beating of the two notes sounded almost like a howling wolf. This would mean that key signatures with more than about three sharps or flats would be unusable. Werckmeister created his own tuning system to “tame the wolf,” so to speak. Werckmeister made some of the fifths in his tuning system smaller, some larger, and some pure. In his system, there are two smaller wolf fifths. This would allow a composer to use more keys, and, by extension, evoke more moods.

The basics of how key affects mood are, as experienced by proponents of the Doctrine, thus: large intervals elicit joy, small intervals elicit sadness, rough harmony elicits fury, and the complicated counterpoint of unchanging lines elicits obstinacy. Composers since then have used music to inspire, infuriate, and ingratiate listeners the world over. Baroque proponents of the Doctrine would have been proud of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” no pun intended. They would have marveled at Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” or Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony.” Before Ludwig sat at the brook composing, however, the Doctrine of Affects reached its early pinnacle in Mannheim.

via Piano Street’s Classical Piano Blog.

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