The Early Documentation of Emotion in Music


Thoughts on The Ear­ly Doc­u­men­ta­tion of Emo­tion in Music

The ear­li­est doc­u­men­ta­tion we have of con­duc­tors is the images we see of them in the tomb paint­ings of ancient Egypt. They are seen stand­ing, usu­al­ly in front of a small ensem­ble of instru­men­tal­ists. But what are they doing? The ques­tion aris­es because dur­ing this entire ancient peri­od in Egypt there was as yet no nota­tion asso­ci­at­ed with music. In spite of no nota­tion, Pla­to wrote in more than one book that Music Edu­ca­tion exist­ed and was high­ly orga­nized dur­ing the peri­od of 10,000 years before his time in the fifth cen­tu­ry BC – a peri­od of time reach­ing back to the era of the cave paint­ing in France and Spain!

Dur­ing the most recent peri­od of ancient Greek cul­ture, the so-called Roman peri­od of 100 BC, there are some frag­ments of a nota­tion sys­tem con­sist­ing of let­ters, but this sys­tem makes no account of rhythm. But our con­duc­tor of the tomb paint­ings, 2,000 years before the let­ter nota­tion could have been giv­ing the beat, which is a large part of what some con­duc­tors con­tin­ue to do today. In the case of one of the ancient tomb paint­ings, what the con­duc­tor was doing was iden­ti­fied in hiero­glyph sym­bols. If all he did was give the beats we might have expect­ed for him to be iden­ti­fied as “giv­er of the beat.” How­ev­er, most extra­or­di­nary, instead we read “music of the arm!” Not only is that a won­der­ful descrip­tion of what the con­duc­tor does with his arms, but con­firms for us that these very ancient musi­cians were mak­ing music.


We see this ancient con­duc­tor frozen in time in the paint­ings and we wish we could see him move. Over a num­ber of years I have won­dered if the move­ment of his hands and arms had some rela­tion­ship with the ear­li­est notat­ed church music of West­ern Europe, the so-called neume nota­tion of the 9th cen­tu­ry. Here, in a dif­fer­ent hand and ink over the Latin text, we see a vari­ety of added marks — dots, lines in var­i­ous direc­tions, includ­ing some with arcs at the top of the line, etc., of which no one knows for sure what they rep­re­sent. They do not rep­re­sent pitch or rhythm, so they can hard­ly rep­re­sent a real nota­tion of the music. Indeed most schol­ars have sug­gest­ed that they are mere­ly a sys­tem of mnemon­ic aids to help the singers remem­ber the music. Willi Apel, in the Har­vard Dic­tio­nary of Music, for exam­ple, wrote:

Evi­dent­ly these signs served only as a mnemon­ic aid for the singer who knew the melodies by heart, or for the choir leader who may have inter­pret­ed them to his choir by appro­pri­ate move­ment of the hand.[1]Print­ing of 1961, 488.

Per­haps anoth­er clue to the role these marks meant above the 9th cen­tu­ry text is found a cou­ple of cen­turies lat­er in the work of the remark­able ear­ly schol­ar, Roger Bacon (1220–1292), who wrote:

For accent is a kind of singing; whence it is called accent from acci­no, acci­nis [I sing, thou singest], because every syl­la­ble has its own prop­er sound either raised, low­ered, or com­pos­ite, and all syl­la­bles of one word are adapt­ed or sung to one syl­la­ble on which rests the prin­ci­pal sound.[2]The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon, trans., Robert Burke (New York: Rus­sell & Rus­sell, 1962), I, 259.

Recent­ly in look­ing again at sev­er­al of these 9th cen­tu­ry exam­ples of neume nota­tion, I had a new thought, a pos­si­ble solu­tion which I have nev­er seen made before in pub­lished stud­ies. I noticed for the first time that all these var­i­ous marks appeared only above vow­els and that it fol­lows, there­fore, that these marks must be sym­bols of feel­ings and emo­tion which the con­duc­tor could com­mu­ni­cate to the play­ers. The vow­els are fun­da­men­tal to the expres­sion of feel­ings. The vow­el “o” could reflect sur­prise, pain, plea­sure and more and the hands alone are capa­ble of many exam­ples of silent emo­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Also, it is impor­tant to recall that the very def­i­n­i­tion of music is as a means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion of feel­ings and emo­tions, which our oth­er means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, speak­ing or writ­ing in lan­guage, are very lim­it­ed in accomplishment.

It is well-known that the ear­ly Chris­t­ian Church had as one of its goals the devel­op­ment of a new type of Roman cit­i­zen, one devoid of emo­tions. The church writ­ers of the first three cen­turies fre­quent­ly remind the pub­lic not to go the the the­ater, or the are­na, for there they will be exposed to emo­tions. St. Basil even sug­gest­ed that a good Chris­t­ian should not even laugh, as that too was a form of emo­tion. There­fore it fol­lowed that when the church math­e­mati­cians were charged with the cre­ation of a new sys­tem of nota­tion, need­ed to speed up the train­ing of boy singers, they were told not to have any sym­bols which expressed feel­ings and emo­tion. And not only were they suc­cess­ful in design­ing such a new kind of nota­tion, devoid of sym­bols of emo­tion, but today, a thou­sand years lat­er, we still have a nota­tion­al sys­tem which has not a sin­gle sym­bol which express­es any feel­ing or emo­tion in notation!


1Print­ing of 1961, 488.
2The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon, trans., Robert Burke (New York: Rus­sell & Rus­sell, 1962), I, 259.