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Motion and emotion

In this interview, Professor Hallgjerd Aksnes discusses her and her colleagues' research into the links between emotion in music and bodily metaphors.
Hi, we are now in the office of Hallgjerd Aksnes. Hello, Hallgjerd. Hello. You have led the research project with the title Music Motion and Emotion. In this title you connect emotions with motions or movement. Can you explain the connection. Yes, I’ve always been fascinated by the etymological connection between motion and emotion. What is the reason why we have put the prefix “e” in front of motion to describe how we feel. And I think that has a lot to do with the fact that emotions are temporal. They are dynamic. They move through time. We can feel a surge of anger, for instance. We all have felt that feeling. And it’s very easy to conceptualise emotions in term of motion.
And that is, in fact, also a very central metaphor for the understanding of music, that we cannot understand music, almost invariably, we use metaphors of motion and space and time, movement through space, when we describe music. And it’s quite fascinating, because music is, in fact, just a constellation of sound waves. And how is it that we imbue these sound waves with such a richness and heterogeneity of meaning. That is precisely through metaphors of motion and the emotions they evoke, give rise to more metaphors. And as you understand, I’ve been working a lot with cognitive metaphor theory, which is a discipline within cognitive science where one focuses on the fact that even literal meanings in language are, in fact, metaphorically based.
For instance, if we say I’ll meet you at the foot of the mountain, we understand intuitively that that’s the bottom of the mountain. A mountain doesn’t have a foot, no? It doesn’t actually have a foot. Well, in the fairy tales it does. They make very much use of these metaphors. And we do so in music as well. We understand music in terms of motion in space. But it is, in fact, just sound waves vibrating in the air. But would you say it’s connected to human movement, then? Certainly.
That is one of the tenets of cognitive metaphor theory, that we use our experiences as embodied human beings in a physical world where we are subject to physical forces, like gravity for instance. We use these experiences to understand more abstract things like language, poetry, music. For instance, if we look at the notion of balance, that is something we all intuitively understand when we speak of emotional balance, for instance, or psychological balance. We can say she’s completely out of balance and everybody understands what that means.
And there we make use of what Lakoff and Johnson call image schemata, image schemas, which are skeletal forms of structure that are amodal, they are independent of the sensory modalities, like vision, hearing, the tactile sense, the kinesthetic sense, which is knowing where the body is, the muscles and joints. And these amodal image schemas, they are used to make sense out of more abstract phenomena, like for instance, feelings or music. We also use the notion of balance to understand music, very much. For instance, the music of Palestrina is heard by many people. And Palestrina scholars, and during the Renaissance period, as something that is exceptionally balanced. And that is something we intuitively understand, that up and down are in equilibrium.
And especially up and down there in Palestrina. He has melodic motion where he can make leaps up and then stepwise downwards. There we make use of the sort of feeling of potential energy, which is a physical phenomenon. When we lift something up, this book for instance, we give it potential energy, which is then, now it’s back to zero, thanks to gravity. And we use gravitational metaphors to understand music as well. And that is another way of understanding balance. And then you have the temporal balance, the balance of tempo. For instance Stravinsky, who changes metrum the whole time. He goes from 3/4 to 4/4 to 2/4, and it has this stumbling effect. It’s like we’re constantly shifting our centre of balance.
And that makes us very awake in his music. I wanted to ask you, a lot of melancholic, sad music, we recognise as melancholic, it’s very often in a slow tempo. Do you think that’s a coincidence? Certainly not. I have, myself, focused on, for instance, Dido’s farewell from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, which is in a very, very slow tempo. And there’s a repetitive pattern in the instruments. It’s like ruminating over these sad thoughts. And in fact, studies of depressed patients show that they have a slower perception of time. They think their whole and their body, their pulse, everything goes more slowly. And we all have loved ones around us.
And we can sense immediately if they’re happy or sad if we talk to them on the phone. And there’s this tone of voice. And if you’re sad the voice is subdued and it goes down. Yes, we have the downward motion, just like the mouth goes down. And if they’re happy, they’re excited and they’re talking fast in a much higher register. And of course, we use those kinds of icons of feeling in music. In music, too, yeah.

In this video you will visit Professor Hallgjerd Aksnes in her office at the University of Oslo.

She has recently completed a large scale project entitled “Music, Motion and Emotion: Theoretical and Psychological Implications of Musical Embodiment”. Here she and the rest of the team have studied the links between emotion in music and bodily metaphors.

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