Playing With Emotion

What would be my favorite aspect of music? That’s actually an easy answer. For me, it’s one word: emotion. Yes, emotion.

This was originally going to be an observation of emotion in music, but evolved into explaining my favorite aspect of playing, and my main reason for playing. I can remember why I chose the guitar as my instrument to master (or at least try to master!). When I was in the 6th grade, my mom told me I had to do an extra-curricular activity. I chose music. I decided to play the clarinet but by the end of the year I just didn’t feel like it was the instrument for me. The next year I was watching a classical song being performed on a local TV channel, and one main point popped into my head: (Remember, I was only in the 7th grade.) Playing classical instruments meant that you didn’t write music. Only the composer did that.

But why didn’t I choose the bass, or maybe the drums? In my view, with drum playing, you just banged a couple of things and made a rhythmic movement. As for bass, you were only playing a lot of low notes (Sorry, Dan!) Guitar was the only thing in the nuclear band (guitar, bass, and drums) that soared through and made its impression on your mind. When I heard Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing, I experienced what emotion in music really was. As the years progressed, I formed one of many philosophies: that music is made with emotion, played with emotion, and appreciated with emotion.

The Basics

So how do I explain exactly what emotion is in music? For the most part, we tend to think that a majority of emotional music is played with emotion. But instead, it is made with emotion. Intensity plays a major role in playing with emotion. Webster’s dictionary defines intensity as an “extreme degree of strength, force, energy, or feeling.” To make a scientific point, this means to vary the volume from quiet to loud. But this is not just a matter of turning up the volume knob on your amp. Intensity is how hard you pluck the strings, how much effort you put into bending the strings and also how much effort you put into all the other techniques.

Also, timing and speed play major roles in creating emotions through music. Tempo often dictates the differences among a plethora of feelings. A slow song in a minor key can induce gloomy, romantic, or other emotions while a fast song in a major key can induce upbeat, energizing and other motivating emotions.

But apart from all the features of music that almost anyone can relate to, there is another feature to deal with: individual interpretation. Emotion is incredibly interpretive. People grow up differently, live in different cultures, and have different events happen to them in their lives. While we all, thanks to globalization, have more shared or common experiences with people from all over the world than ever before, we still also have to be reminded that individual experiences will always be the strongest triggers for interpretation of emotion.

For example, let’s say a Japanese man and an American man are listening to the same song. Even though they might agree that the melody is melancholy, that a particular minor chord is “sad” or “dark” or one of many other descriptive words, each has a highly personal sense of what is sad to them as individuals. Our societies interact with each other, and in our own society, we communicate with the particular group we’re in. This leads us to the point that we share and feel the same things in some situations, even though we still have a personal rather than a universal interpretation.

Now, I might have just confused the hell out of you, but let me clarify with some distinct examples. Let us look at the song Every Breath You Take by Sting. Let us say me, the metal head, my friend, the acoustic folk guitarist type, and you were listening to our opinions and feelings about the song. I express my feeling that the song is “gleeful” and it contains the melody of some major progression. Most of my sad songs are in minor. And my friend finds it quite depressing, saying, “It seems like a man is trying to express his pains of loss.” You’ve just witnessed that my interpretation was based upon the harmony of the song and his was based upon what it may sound like in real life.

But how does this relate to the styles we play in, and the environment around us? Well, since I’m a metal head, my opinion was based upon the made with emotion concept. Since my friend is a folk guitarist, his was based on the played with emotion concept. Now, suppose we somehow agree that the song is “dark,” and then we compare it to Stevie Wonder’s cover of it. His version, if you haven’t heard it, is almost a total opposite in terms of style and interpretation. It’s an awful lot like Stevie’s Sir Duke — a fast tempo and a lot of horns. There would be no doubt that, when we compared these two versions, we’d definitely say Stevie’s version is a “happy” one. But is it the same song? What are the differences between the two? Well, among other things, the singer’s voice, the tempo, and the different instruments have affected the song’s shape dramatically.

Perception is the reason for interpretation. Perception is what renders or “bends” things differently in our eyes, ears, mouth, nose, skin, and every other sensory organ I didn’t include. Since we live in different places and have different things happen to us, perception is changed and edited subconsciously. We can take the sense of touch as an example. If you and I touched a rug, we would both agree it was “fuzzy,” but I may have a different response than you. This is similar to perceiving music. We may agree on some things, like the overall shape of the song, while we differ on the details.

Almost all societies have languages that can affect its people emotionally and deeply. For music, this is all the more true. What one may call a romantic love song with an odd ending, another can call a sad tale. We must rely on the fact that people have different views on things, and those views are vast and infinite.

Music Appreciation (with Emotion)

For this next concept I will mention an event that happened recently. I was at a Christmas party back in January. (Don’t you love how people plan!). I was quite bored from the lack of things to do except eat. I pulled out my guitar, started playing, and it led to striking up a conversation with a choir teacher. I mentioned my new article, “Playing with Emotion” to him. One of the interesting things he said, which I’ll quote exactly, was, “Well, it’s more like actually taking emotion out of music rather than infusing it with it. It seems to me that the only two things that don’t have emotion are the drained-out pop music and the completely atonal music.” And I highly agree with him.

But how do I listen and appreciate music with the element of emotion? Shouldn’t we already be feeling it? Shouldn’t the artist already have infused some portion of emotion into the song so that automatically it will pop out before we hear it? First, we should clear out all preconceived ideas. You may have heard people say that music, dance, or other non-verbal form of expression is the “universal language.” If we boil down this idea, we get interpretation. So, all in all, interpretation is the universal language. This leads to the taking of emotion my choir friend talked about.

Now, as I already said, each person sees the details differently. So, when we listen to a song, we must start nitpicking specific portions of melodies, lyrics (meanings and tone), the guitar’s tone, the way everything is arranged, and all the other stuff that doesn’t need to be mentioned. If we just listened to music normally, we would retrieve the “overall” look to it. But as musicians, we must look deeper for our inspiration. The reason we appreciate with emotion is for our enhancement and for an extra muse.

I have suggested many times to people looking for inspiration to sit down and concentrate on songs you wish to emulate. If you focus strongly enough, your mind will start retrieving small bits and pieces that you personally enjoy, and next time you begin to write a piece, this subconscious element will start weaseling its way into your style. As for me, I will tend to play whatever I’m listening to at that time, or what I’ve listened to for long periods. I’ll play this way for most of the rest of that period, or until I find something else that I get into.

Our experiences form our perception. Our perception creates our interpretation. Our interpretation affects our writing and playing. Our playing and writing affect the emotion in the song, and the process begins again for the next listener.

We will continue talking about the emotions in lyrics and singing, but not until another time! If you have any questions, please contact me directly at [email protected]

Rock on, everyone!