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The Craft of Musical Communication - Part Two


  By Keith Hill and Marianne Ploger © 2005

(For a musical example to demonstrate Affect look at the end of this part.)

Music is nonverbal communication in the form of sound. Affect is how nonverbal communication works. Without affect the nonverbal communicative component of music does not exist. What exists in music when affect is missing are pitches (either in vertical structures, Harmony, or in linear structures, Melody) in time (Rhythm). Meaning does not exist except by inference. With Affect, music takes on a life of its own and means what the one(s) playing it intends. For the listener, music without affect is like acting without vocal inflection or facial expression...blank and incongruent...the effect for the listener is confusion and boredom.

Affect, like all of our expressions, is something we can choose to manage or to let it just happen. When we choose to just let it happen, sometimes it works, but most times it comes out as the affect of self consciousness...an unmitigated disaster in music. When we manage our use of affect, we can eventually become masters of affect. Because affect is nonverbal communication, every artistic form, like painting, music, acting, dance, etc., has its own way in which the language of affect is “spoken.” The more diligent we are about learning the language of affect and learning how to “speak” that language fluently, the more masterful our music or art will be perceived to be by the listener.

Until now, learning anything about affect has been, itself, a source of confusion because very few people have understood what it meant and how to express it. Once you have read and incorporated the lessons in this section on affect, you have the possibility of reaching a level of mastery in virtually any art. In the end, talent will have almost nothing to do with becoming a master musician, only the willingness and dedication to the hard work of understanding and learning to "speak" the language of the soul.

What is Affect?

Affect is the suggestion of the expression of an emotion, a state of being, a physical state, a state of mind, or an attitude. The crucial word in this definition is suggestion. It is also the word that makes understanding affect difficult for most people. However, it is not as complicated as it would appear. Remember, affect is the “nonverbal meaning” in nonverbal communication. And most people are well practiced at expressing this type of communication. It is a natural part of human expression. For this reason, everyone has the potential to master the whole range of affective expressions. To reach that potential takes focus, will, determination and a certain freedom of spirit.

Perhaps the most effective way to illustrate exactly what affect means is to examine the most sophisticated use of affect developed in the 20th century, cartoon animation. Let's look, for instance, at Daffy Duck. This character is given to violent outbursts of feeling, insanity, and foolishness. Anyone who has seen this character's antics cannot fail to be convinced of his emotional outbursts. In fact, Daffy Duck does not exist. It is a fictional character that appears on the screen through the magical craft of animation. Because Daffy's animators understood affect, they could create films which would convince an audience that Daffy Duck existed, that he had passionate emotions, and that he was a conniving, greedy, slick, loquacious little duck, totally self centered and conceited. If his animators had not understood affect, Daffy would not feel real and palpable to us. And we wouldn't love this foolish avaricious duck so much.

To make Daffy seethe, the animators had to study all the gestures, poses, expressions, and the order in which they occurred if they wanted to make Daffy feel to us like he was seething. The same is true for when they needed to have Daffy be deliriously happy, or conniving, or indolent, or bored, or irritated, or in love, or any of the other feelings they wished us to know Daffy has. The meaning or the nature of Daffy's character and soul was evident to us because of the careful attention to affect which the animators diligently studied.

The reason why our own anger or confusion or love is not affect is because our feelings are real. Only when we "act" like we are angry or act like we are confused or act like we are in love do we use affect. Affect is the result of really good acting. Poor acting bespeaks a poverty of affect. Boring is the effect of bad acting.

Affect is present when we clearly and unambiguously understand and feel what is being expressed. When affect is missing, we become confused because, especially in music, meaning is complex. Affect makes simple all of the complexities of feeling which music is capable of expressing. When the feeling is clear and unmistakable, the affect or affects being expressed impress themselves upon our soul and we respond.

The reason our soul is impressed by affect is that affect is the language of the soul. That bears repeating. Affect is the language of the soul. What is significant about this statement is that we can communicate with the souls of others by using the language which all souls use to express themselves. This is why learning about affect, thinking about affect, performing with affect, expressing affect, and mastering affect is the most important part of the job of being a musician, artist, dancer, architect, actor, writer, poet, or playwright.

Learning the Language of Affect

Affect is the suggestion of a feeling not feeling itself. Emotion is a feeling, like anger, jealousy, sadness, and joy.

To be an affect, an expression must be a suggestion of something and not the thing itself. In acting, when a character in a play says or does something which suggests that he or she is suspicious, a good actor will do whatever is required to create the suggestion of suspiciousness. The only way an actor will know if he or she is successful is if the audience feels that the character is suspicious. Should the audience think the character is mean instead of suspicious, then the actor has failed. Why? Because an affect has the quality of being completely objective...which is to say, almost everyone "reads" the same meaning from the expression. This is why it is of paramount importance that musicians learn to manage and master affect. Otherwise, those who listen may get the exact opposite nonverbal communication than the one intended.

Furthermore, if the audience merely knows that the character is suspicious but doesn't feel it, then the actor has failed. Why? Because we often know many things which we do not feel. The difference for us is that we tend not to care much about those things which we know and we also tend to care a great deal about those things about which we have feelings. So if the actor has not generated the feeling of suspicion in the audience, the actor has failed. Only when the audience feels conviction about the suspicious nature of the character can we say that the actor has done his or her job well.

Affect communicates directly with the soul of the receiver in an unambiguous manner. How do we know this? Because infants respond to an affect even if they don't understand the words. If you tell an infant in the most loving and adoring manner that it is super intelligent and the next moment say that it is stupid yet still in a loving and adoring tone of voice, the infant will understand the loving and adoring manner not the words. The same is true for dogs, cats, birds, etc. The tone of voice and inflection which suggest love and adoration is received objectively by the infant as the real meaning. That is the power of the nonverbal aspect of the communication. In the same way, if you express loving words in a scolding manner, the infant will feel scolded and start to cry. The manner of expression more than the content of the words is what is objectively received and understood through the senses nonverbally and the infant expresses its comprehension of the real message by feeling loved or feeling hurt or attacked. If the infant reads the tone of voice and the delivery method as love it will respond by smiling and giggling. If the infant reads the tone of voice and the delivery as scolding, it will react with fear and start to cry. The words used are irrelevant. Only when a child becomes verbal do the words themselves become an issue. In music and in art, words are not an issue unless you are singing a song.

It is not a little arrogant to assume that because we are adults that we are above responding to affect as directly as do infants. True, sometimes when others are angry with us we have to learn to be restrained in our responses so we avoid altercations, saying things we don't mean. But in music there is no reason to argue, which is why we usually respond to music in much the same way as infants respond to tone and gesture. It is this specific property in music that makes it so compelling to humans. We respond to music in much the same way we did when we were being loved and adored by our mothers.

Perhaps the best way to learn to express affect is to study children when they are being naturally expressive. What you can notice about the behavior of very young children is that the gestures used to convey affect are similar from one child to the next. These affective gestures are not learned. They are innate to our species. Indeed, expressing all the emotions, states of mind, attitudes, physical states and states of being are part of what it is to be human. Learning to express affect requires paying attention to and remembering the gestures that make up each affect.

Old habits of making music without affect die hard. If you wish to communicate anything meaningful in the arts, establishing the habit of paying attention to affects must be the first order of business. The reason for this is that learning is the most efficient when it means something. Learning to play music without the benefit of knowing its meaning is like learning Chinese by imitating the sounds without ever knowing what the words mean...you plainly don't know what you are saying. The same is true in music. Focus on affect and meaning and everything is made decidedly easier. If only because it is more fun.

The Structure of Human Affect

Affect is the suggestion of the expression of an emotion, a physical state, a state of mind, or an attitude. What is interesting is that we typically express all four of these state simultaneously on a continuing basis for most of our waking lives. The greatest music has as its true nature this feature of human nature, expressing four affects simultaneously. Indeed, when there is inherent conflict in the four affects the aesthetic effect is far more interesting to us...the more paradoxical the better. This is what makes the real difference between great art and less than great art. Good stuff only expresses three affects of the total of four possible. Mediocre stuff expresses two affects. Bad work expresses but one.

Human beings are complex organisms with complex inner lives. Music, in its most elevated manifestation, is the only form of aesthetic expression which is capable of capturing and expressing the inner life of the soul.

Affect is the language of the soul. So it should not surprise us that when it comes to expressing affect, the soul always knows what to do and how to do it. Anyone who has been around infants discovers this rather quickly. Infants have no benefit of language yet are perfectly able to communicate their needs and desires to those around them. Adults who are self involved or are not queued into paying attention to affect may not understand what an infant wants by its expressions and often end up blaming the infant for being irritating. This attitude is not dissimilar to how many classical musicians think about audiences. That is, if concert attendance is declining, they are too quick to blame listeners for their lack of interest in non-affective music making. This attitude is one to avoid like the plague. It accounts for why famous opera houses and many symphony orchestras are in financial insolvency.

What follows is a list of Affects. The list is divided into the four types of Affect. The list is by no means definitive and should serve only as a model for each person to make up his or her own list of affects. Indeed, unless each of us takes the time to make up as large a list as possible for each type of affect, we risk not being able to distinguish or identify affects and how they differ from emotions. Therefore...Make a list of your own. It should look something like this:

Physical Emotional Mental Spiritual

Slothful anguish pensive compassion

brisk loathing serious humility

graceful exuberant ponder forbearance

elegant appalled question patience

pliant frustrated knowing directness

mellifluous rage uncertain intensity

nauseous despair certain love

tired fear remembering joy

painful seething theorize peace

energetic impatient speculate leaping

leaping happy formulate goodness

jumping sad fantasize confidence

running mad predict restraint

wobbling anxious studying impartial

dancing indifferent noticing tolerant

skipping melancholy searching accepting

hopping tormented categorizing encompassing

frolicking nostalgic skeptical multidimensional

striding sentimental provocative greed

strutting yearning confusion hubris

throwing longing judging pride

gesticulating lonely realizing penance

sultry wishing vexation remorse

soothing craving surprise contrition

heaving ardor disputatious sorrow

craving vengeance rationalizing lamentation

pompous fury agitated recognition

restful jealousy dubious miserable

choking desire pleased arrogance

restless revenge alarmed haughtiness

charming guilt routine boldness

flowing scorn mean business perfidy

barrage scolding stating shame

relaxed manipulating descriptive horror

slow dejection sterile acknowledging

smooth jovial trust apologetic

trotting distress mistrust wondering

antiseptic unsureness cognizant directional

sleazy steady controlling characterizing

threatening unsteady calculating beauty

jolly nervous hesitating clean

laughing empty interested cynical

It is an interesting exercise to take one affect at random from each column and invent a moment in one's life when all four affects could reasonably occur simultaneously. For instance: by choosing at random the Physical Affect of trotting, the Emotional affect of empty, the Mental affect of dubious, and the Spiritual Affect of apologetic, think of a moment in any person's life when trotting, emptiness, feeling dubious or doubtful, and feeling apologetic would naturally occur. One possibility might be if you deeply hurt someone close to you without knowing that you did that and the person told you that they never wanted to have anything more to do with you and as that person walks away from you, you start running after to ask them to discuss what has happened because you want to make right any wrong inflicted, intended or otherwise, but because they are so offended you doubt that they will even listen to you which leaves you empty feeling inside.

We call this type of scenario an affective "vignette." Great music is characterized by either a single affective vignette or a series of short affective vignettes which give listeners an affective view of the inside of the soul for a moment or a series of connected moments. Bach's insistence on maintaining a single affect from the beginning of a piece to the end was an indication of the value he placed on integrity of affect in music. Empfindsam music is more like an affective conflict or argument in which, ideally, all four affects are exhibited in a work and are brought together in a harmony of affect at the end of the piece.

No other artform has the power to express affective moments in the lives of ordinary people as much as music. Great music performed without any clear affect is like viewing a great painting in a room that has no light. Everything is there which suggests that an affect was intended but the observer can't access it. The true art of the performer is to create an affect and communicate that affect by every means imaginable so that the ordinary music lover is never in doubt as to the affect being expressed. For a performer to be true to the art in music means being hyperaware of the affective effect of how any three notes taken from any place in the score might appear to an affect sensitive listener. This is why the 11 cognitive techniques exist. Using these techniques ensures that, at very minimum, the score is not inadvertently expressing dullness and boredom...affects that guarantee to put most listeners to sleep, instantly.

Click here for a Musical Example*

This example is a large file to download, but the wait will be worth it. It is loaded with Affect. Enjoy!

*(Here's a trick to hear the sound sample and view the site at the same time. 1.Click on the sound sample to download it. 2.Then, download one of my other sites on your browser, in effect, opening a new window. 3.Click on the SITE button, at that site, relating to this site. 4. Once you have this site accessed from the new page and window, you can to view the site and listen to the downloading sound sample for it.)

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© Keith Hill and Marianne Ploger - Manchester, MI 2005