Sunday, April 23, 2017

Fr. Benedict Ashley on the Different Emotions Evoked by Music

What then about pure music, which seems to be free of any obvious emotional content? When we listen to the music of Bach, we do not sense, to be sure, the same violent and obvious emotions as in a piece by Tschaikovsky [sic], or Wagner. We say that the music seems “intellectual.” The reason for this lies in the fact that there are two kinds of emotion. Some emotions are so violent that they carry us along, blinding our intelligence and clarity of thought. Other emotions are controlled, measured by our intelligence, kept in balance and harmony by our thought. Such emotions do not blind us, but rather sharpen our intelligence and help us to think more acutely.

This is not a difference in the intensity of emotion, but in its discipline. Controlled emotion can be much more profound and intense than sentimental, dissipated emotion. Many people who compare the music of romantic composers like Wagner to classical composers like Mozart and Bach at first find the classical music “cold,” “intellectual,” a mere pattern of sounds; but after they know it better they come to see that it signifies most intense and deep emotion.


Source: Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, The Arts of Learning and Communication: A Handbook of the Liberal Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 253.

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