In current debates on music and emotion a thorny issue arises time and again: how should we deal with negative emotions in music and with negative res

Marin Mersenne on the Consolation of Sad Music

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2023-09-20 00:30:04

In current debates on music and emotion a thorny issue arises time and again: how should we deal with negative emotions in music and with negative responses to music? It is relatively easy to interpret tears as an expression of sadness in a person. In fact, we usually believe that only sentient beings can express emotions. Given that works of music are not sentient, emotions cannot be expressed in them. However, many scholars have recently begun to show renewed interest in organicist cosmology, in which objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. Similarly, in Western musical culture, it is quite common to believe that music can express emotions such as sadness or happiness. If we accept that music can express a negative emotion such as sadness and that music can communicate this emotion to the listener, another problem emerges. In general, we tend to avoid sad experiences. But at the same time, many people are attracted to sad music, which can induce a negative emotional response in the listener, such as sadness.

How can we explain this? Many explanations have been given, among them explanations in terms of the Aristotelian doctrine of catharsis, according to which it is beneficial for humans to purge their negative emotions by experiencing art. According to this type of theory, the aesthetic context would provide a safe context to experience negative emotions without the problems and dangers with which humans are confronted in the real world. This approach is not new. In the seventeenth century, the polymath and music theorist Marin Mersenne (1588–1648) already presented the doctrine of catharsis as part of an innovative theory about music and emotion (see Fig. 1).

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