As I thumbed through a 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, I became thoroughly confused by the author’s eclectic vocabulary of “absolute music,” “theories of continuation,” “tonal organization” and the rest.
Yet, I recall that my professor at the time, synthesized Meyer’s concepts in a way that I could understand and apply them to my performances 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 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. John Dewey elaborated: “If the response was stopped by an unexpected event, then an emotional response would occur over the event’s ‘meaning.'”
Meyer used this paradigm to create “a theory about music, combining musical expectations in a specific cultural context. His work influenced theorists both in and outside music, providing a basis for cognitive psychology research into music and human responses to it.”
Put in simple terms, 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 alludes to the fact that trained musical ears might further an appreciation of these emotional events.
I would add that having a theoretical background, including an understanding of harmonic progressions and their implications, augments an understanding of a composition’s emotional dimension as it unfolds in performance.
I’ve selected the following musical examples in the context of Meyer’s framing psychology:
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) and “Fur Elise.”