Emotion Universality and the Fabric of Composition

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An article of Music Philosophy by Nicola Canzano for Young Composers.


Yes, music is very mathematical. Music is made up of a series of tone relations due to complicated physics and timbre affiliations of dissonance, and consonance, and all of that fun stuff. Music is loaded with complex terms and principles and formats and distinction, and that’s all fine and dandy, but it is so much more than that. It can be studied from an infinite number of angles, but that my friends, is its truest quality. Why is it so that every single opinion on music is likely to differ, yet remains equally valid? Why is it that the composer can be wrong when he tells someone the meaning of their work (despite what he was going for)? Much like matter is made up of atoms, and the universe is explained and tied together by tiny vibrating strings of energy, music speaks one language. Call it as corny as you want, of the soul, of the heart, of the self. Music is above us! And I’m going to discuss with you my (equally as valid as your) opinion on some philosophical aspects of composition, and the goals of a composer.


Why do we write music? Good question. It can’t be answered. Do you know why? No, not because it is too generic. No, not because it’s a question beyond comprehension and explanation. The reason as to why this is indefinable is nowhere near as complex as such questions as the meaning of life, and all of that what not. No, no, no, the question is contaminated by one word, making it invalid. The question cannot be answered because of the presence of the word “we”.

Yes, music is a universal language that everybody understands in their own way. But “their own way” is almost never the same, so when two people hear the same piece of music, both may claim to have understood its purpose and its idea, and when they discuss…opinions vary, although both are correct because of this universality. What a paradox music is! The composer telling somebody the meaning of his music can indeed offer some insight and further understanding upon the listener, sometimes clearing confusion and thus changing his/her opinion, but the composer being omnipotent in his interpretation is much like a farmer having the final say over which came first: the chicken or the egg? Simply because he produced the animals. Excuse the analogy. Music has endless interpretational possibilities for virtually any field, subcategory, faction, aspect, or quality of music, all with the same aforementioned validity. The purpose of music is often discussed. I would love to share with you my opinion, not that it is any higher than yours, but perhaps it may offer you some insight:

Self-Expression and Communication

A common conception is that music is about self-expression; about manifesting oneself in the form of music. This is not necessarily the purpose of music of course, just an unusually agreeable way of explaining it. First, let me start by telling you I agree with this, but this is only half of music’s purpose.

Tell me: if the purpose of a piece of music is to express oneself and make it notable to others, you’re ultimately going to fail because chances are not everybody is going to think of your piece in the same light as you do, especially for its intrinsic quality. Music needs to be intrinsic AND extrinsic, even if that means its definition may have to vary. What I mean by this is, music cannot only be a form of self-expression, but it is a means for communication. You can try - and succeed by your standards - to express yourself in what you would think to be quite clearly in the form of music. But others may not understand it. In fact, it’s virtually impossible for everybody to understand it, but your GOAL as a composer is to portray yourself in a light as many people as you can are able to see! Now, there will always be exceptions, for example, people might understand a movement less than others because of its complexity or other musical details, but that’s not your fault most of the time. If you are trying to apply this to everybody, you…well, you just can’t, so don’t go sulking if nobody interprets your piece the way you do, and it just means you have to communicate a bit more next time.


For me, music is built off of the quality and human aspect of emotion. Emotions are something that others can really only simply explain by experience or the gravity of a situation, etc. I envy poets for their ability to put these into words, something I find difficult to do. So I write music. Music is a means almost unidentifiable as to why by us emotions can be understood from these tones. But again, you may try to emulate an emotion in your music, and it sparks a different emotion in your listeners. Your even more general goal is for your listener to be inspired. As Beethoven once said, “Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman.” Now, don’t interpret this literally, but good old Ludwig here was trying to tell us that music has different emotional effects on different people, and that is what it should do, not necessarily a miscommunication on the composer’s part.

Many composers also draw inspiration not from their own feelings and others, but from nature, or events/occurrences, etc. The depiction of scenic material in music is a faction in and of itself, and would really better be best described by another, most preferably somebody who writes incidental music. But the way this works in the same way: one sees something, they say “hey…that’s pretty”, or “that’s ugly”, or “how dark”, or “how beautiful!”, and so they describe it in music. Most composers often match these physical aspects such as “dark” and “beautiful” with emotions and thus with the music.

I cannot teach you how to use emotion in your music. I cannot teach you how to channel it, or recognize it, or especially feel it, of course. It most of the time comes from an innate experience and it comes from inside you…it’s not a thing that can be “taught”. If you’re having trouble with some of these things, what I can do is describe to you some of my experiences.

When I sit down to write a piece of music, I have to have desire, inspiration, and purpose. I’ll use a symphony I’ve recently been writing as an example. Don’t worry, I am not advertising, nor have you had to have listened to it to comprehend what I’m going to say. I sat down to write the piece in great distress. This is going to sound just plain ironic, but it was because I couldn’t think of anything to write! When I get these writer’s blocks we all get, I’m a mess…but mine had lasted for, truly, months, VERY irregular for me; why this happened is besides the point. I decided I would channel my distress into the form of music; a mixture of emotions. In it were: sadness, frustration, hopefulness, ignorance, and epiphany (near the end of my little struggle). I arranged this into a musical story in the form of a 5-movement, 2-part symphony. Pure emotion often fits well into a story format, which is an aid in composing; it also fits well with some musical forms such as Sonata-Allegro. Drama is a great help in emotional composition, and has proven so for me time and time again.


Like I said, this is not something I can teach you, nor is what most of what I said a basic tenet of fact of musical composition. It is merely my opinion in my experiences, which have been helpful to me and those who I have “taught” it to, if you can call it that. It would be hypocritical of me to say this article is the be-all and end-all of emotional composition, as I have just described to you how this especially varies! At this point I can only be hopeful that I either: intrigued you, inspired you, or gave you some insight into just one composer’s emotional world. I wish you, the reader, all the best in your musical endeavors.

Happy Composing!