Emotional Music

I’m soon to facilitate a conversation with Samuel Wagan Watson, Jess Ribiero and Peter Milton Walsh at the upcoming Rock & Roll Writers Festival about music and emotion. This piece has a bit of theory, a lot of music and a little reflection. Come in.

I’m really looking forward to exploring some different perspectives on this topic with both writers and musicians. As part of the preparations for the gig, I was asked to put together a list of songs that connect to the topic. Naturally it’s subjective. Some of these tunes still make my hair stand on end. Others supply a more intellectual sense of being both emotional and about emotion. I’ve drawn on an aggregation by Robinson in terms of what emotions are, and how they might be categorized.

Theories of music and emotion swirl about without settling. Leonard B. Meyer ‘argued that the ‘principal emotional content of music arises through the composer’s choreographing of expectation’ (Huron 2006,2) but he was writing in the 1950’s and working with classical, rather than rock and roll music. Laird Addis (1999,7) groups theories of emotion in music into the two broad categories of composer-causal, and listener-causal. But that doesn’t explain anything really.

One theory that came into prominence in the mid-1990’s holds that there is someone who feels the emotions expressed in music, but it is not the composer, the performer,  or the listener. Rather it is a persona imagined by the listener,  who hears the music’s progress as representing the actions, mental life and affective experiences of this persona. (Davies 2003, 3)

For Domino Records Designed and Directed by Robert Hunter Images from The New Ghost by Robert Hunter published by Nobrow Press

For Domino Records Designed and Directed by Robert Hunter Images from The New Ghost by Robert Hunter published by Nobrow Press

Yet Tia DeNora points out that music is not simply used to express some internal, private feeling or state,  nor does it simply ‘act upon’ individuals,  like a stimulus. ‘It is a resource for the identification work of knowing how one feels – a building material of subjectivity’ (in Juslin and Sloboda,  421). That’s certainly the case in my selection as some of these songs come from early experience, during the intense periods of identity development we all experience when we’re children or young people. This is often the music we return to as we age, and its enshrinement with memory has been shown to help us to collect ourselves (however briefly) from the fog of dementia.

Music doesn’t just exist as sound. Its associated images,  still and moving,  and the writing around the music inform how emotional we feel it is. And let’s not forget the power that lyrics have to open up (or close down) meaning in the life that’s listening to it.

Performers know there’s nothing quite like being right inside a song, and audiences can sense it too.  Music enables a very specific access to the experience and performance of emotion. David Byrne points out that

“…one can sense that the person on stage is having a good time even if they’re singing a song about breaking up or being in a bad way. For an actor this would be anathema, it would destroy the illusion, but with singing one can have it both ways. As a singer, you can be transparent and reveal yourself on stage, in that moment, and at the same time be the person whose story is being told in the song. Not too many other kinds of performances allow that.”  (2012, 73 xiv)

In this selection, If I had to put my finger on it, sometimes the ’emotion’ emanates from the composition (including production) , sometimes it’s in the performance, sometimes it’s related to the context in which the music was first experienced. More likely the three factors dance together.

Notable for its absence in my playlist is anger. I ‘do’ anger & I like angry music, but it’s not my cup of tea generally so those pieces were confined to the long, rather than short list you’ll find here. I’ve excluded classical music, yet drawn in some genres and eras  that aren’t ‘rock’ or strictly popular. Some of the choices are recent, and others relate to early experience, further evidence of the relationship between music, emotion and memory.

MUSIC MAESTRO PLEASE Al Bowlly 1938 (Magidson/Wrubel)

Music and Memory/Sadness

This isn’t the most famous version of this song but this is by my favourite singer, the enigma that is Al Bowlly. There are other songs of his that move me more, but this song’s lyrics offer a sweet vignette about the connection between music and memory that we all have intimate personal (and that there’s increasingly neuroscientific) knowledge of.

The melody and arrangement shift from a mellow swooping gentle swing to a faster dance rhythm, the joyful throb rendered sad because we know the context: the music recalls something the listener has lost.

Play your lilting melodies/Ragtime, jazztime, swing
Any old thing
To help me ease the pain
That solitude can bring

The character offering the song to us, in remembering his lost love, keeps returning to the music like a moth to a flame, reveling in the bittersweet sensations it recreates,  even in their denial. This music comes from an era where the bandleader was the star, and the lead singer incidental. Though now forgotten by many, Al Bowlly changed all that, by becoming Britain’s first pop star,  and indeed pioneering the crooner’s use of the microphone to create a new intimacy.  These days the ‘maestro’ is more likely to be a DJ, an algorithm, or even yourself, as you curate your own music into playlists like this.

JOGA Bjork  1997 (words Sjon, Music Bjork)


Bjork’s emotional commitment is one of the hallmarks of her music in its writing and performance. The moment I heard these lyrics, that voice, and especially the surging string arrangement (opening with the distinct timbre of twinned cellos), I connected with this piece, viscerally. It was probably the last ever CD single I purchased. I’ve kept coming back to this composition over the years, and its emotional power hasn’t diminished.

Like most good songs it sustains multiple interpretations, but on reflection it could be about the affective power of music itself, with its references to ‘follow[ing] the dots’ and apprehension unbound by words: ‘you don’t have to speak/I feel’, and the ‘state of emergency’  being a repurposing of a phrase (normally used by newscasters and governments) to express the deep strangeness of our inner lives.  Dictionaries tell us that an emergency is “a sudden, urgent, usually unexpected occurrence or occasion requiring immediate action” , and the word emotion itself implies action, reaction, change or movement.

Emotional landscapes

They puzzle me

The riddle gets solved

And you push me up to

This state of emergency

I am pretty certain they’ll never definitively know why music does what it does to us. One very engaging theory is that there’s a similarity between the wordless turmoil of  our inner lives,  and some of the characteristics of music; that ‘there are certain aspects of the so –called “inner life” – physical or mental – which have formal properties similar to those of music – patterns of motion and rest, of tension and release, of agreement and disagreement, preparation,  fulfilment, excitation, sudden change,  etc” (Suzanne Langer, 1942, p.228 in Juslin and Sloboda)

I like this version – Howie B’s more open, exposed mix of the song, where the beats are deemphasized. The other versions don’t do it for me which goes to show how subjective and fickle this phenomenon can be.


WEIGHTLIFTING Trashcan Sinatras  2004


The first time I heard this song was driving in a car. It starts modestly, an E-Z play bassline and minimal beat, across a chord that makes it all seventh-ey, waiting for something. Only a band that knows exactly what they’re doing opens up with something as simple and skilled as this. Frank Reader’s imploring tenor :

i discover the wheel and watch the buildings go by

you talk a little soft, turn off the radio

He’s apparently in the car with me. A coincidence, sure. But this song: there’s so little to it in some ways, so little to hang your understanding on: but that’s not what music’s for. Songs are there to be apprehended, not comprehended.

Then the verse releases and the chorus opens up. That’s what I’ve been waiting for, it turns out. Sweet expectation. Twin guitars peal out, winding around the elegance of the change and billow of the backing vocals.

you will find a great weight lifting
easing your mind, a great weight lifting
just leave it behind, a great weight lifting
and you will find a great weight lifting

The words ask the addressee of the song to share what’s inside. The music tells you that it’s going to be OK if they do. Such a desire transcends the particular (the steering wheel, the radio, the winter, the sunlight on the face, the empty nest) and pushes the listener tenderly towards the universal. It’s lush and soothing. A plastic disc, a cassette, or the zeros and ones of an mp3, it doesn’t matter; this music’s been made with love, and it doesn’t matter what format that comes in.

IF I WERE YOUR WOMAN Gladys Knight and the Pips  1970

(Sawyer, McMurray, Jones)


There’s so much emotion in the music of Motown, but this one stands out. To my simple ears it sounds like a mini symphony. Carried by a pulsing, urgent bassline (Babbitt or Jamerson,  depending who you ask), swept by strings and brass,  a song of jilted, mounting,  borderline psychotic desire,  a Greek tragedy with the chorus of the Pips blowing in on the storm. Gladys’ vocal, too goes from restrained to released,  then back again. The whole thing is structured like a deep,  heaving sob in slow motion. I can’t find the studio version online, so this live version will suffice. I’m a secret admirer of the Cholly Atkins choreography of the Pips.

IMMUNITY  Jon Hopkins 2013


In terms of long songs that keep their meanings hidden, yet keep on giving,  this is a musical sibling to Talk Talk’s New Grass, though the depth is more about aural texture than musical complexity. This track begins with its piano chords and a rhythm track (of piano pedals? A door opening and closing?) and keeps on deepening in texture and heart-beats  until the entry of King Creosote’s keening,  indistinct vocal refrain, which reveals only feeling. Of what kind?

I listened to this track for 12 months, walking,  working, but still had no idea what it said until Hopkins released a different mix with the vocals pushed towards me.

You’ve answered my prayer for a worthless diamond in our carbon lives

This one takes the the time it needs. I still don’t know what it means but I keep listening to it and taking action, even if it’s only to re-play – isn’t that just like emotions?

NEW FAVOURITE Alison Krauss and Union Station 2001 (Rawlings/Welch)


This tune is beautifully composed, played and performed, right down to the catch of the vocalist’s breath before the refrain. It’s classic stuff in one way,  very ‘country’ in its lonesomeness,  yet so freshly minted in its coining of new phrases that capture the emotions of the one left behind.

The song is full of holes, with no narrative or detail. To make a net,  you gently sew the holes together,  and this Gillian Welch composition allows us to do this.  Jerry Douglas’s dobro solo yearns to return to a home that was never fully made, and he deserves the applause he gets for his turn – imagine making a career of wordlessly channeling emotion into your instrument like this as it travels in the vehicle of a song this good.

TANK PARK SALUTE Billy Bragg 1991


This is a tremendously vulnerable song of a son’s loss, grief for a father,  one that Billy Bragg has said is ‘the most Billy Bragg song there is.’ His songwriting is a voice of my youth – it was his literate braying that made me consider the possibility that you didn’t have to be a ‘great singer’ in order to be a songwriter. In his recently published collection of lyrics,  ‘A Lover Sings’, he talks about how he sat down to write about something else, and this song emerged,  unbidden, opening up a deeply personal topic he would never have considered writing about before. A risk.

‘when people tell me this song helped them to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, I always smile,  because it had the same effect on me.’ BB

APOLOGY ACCEPTED  (Forster/McLennan) Go-Betweens  1986

Embarrassment, shame,  remorse

Songs can seem to take you so close to the emotional lives of others, they can form part of your own. Sometimes it’s hard to believe how public the private can become. This song takes you into the bedroom, and the tender wounds of vulnerability, guilt and regret that can be experienced and healed there.

A MAN IS IN LOVE The Waterboys 1990


A man is in love
How do I know ?
He came a walk with me
And he told me so
In a song he sang

This is a simple song, and a happy one. Music does sadness so well, but it also performs joy. Its upward-moving chord progression, easy tune and instantly accessible refrain, and ‘wait-for-it’ twist in its lyrical tail meant love at first listen.

It’s here because it instantly recalls a scene of domestic happiness for me, with me playing guitar in the bathroom while my (then) toddler son splashes in the bath, singing the flute line in verse 3, which shows how often I’d played the recording in our house. Though the Waterboys were from the UK, this was recorded in Ireland. There was a lot of Irish music on the longlist for this selection, and the little reel (Kaliope House by Dave Richardson) at the coda of this tune stands for that.

SONG FOR THE ASKING Simon and Garfunkel  1969 (Paul Simon)


I chose this modest song (a live version – Garfunkel’s voice was replaced by a string quartet on the studio version) because it’s built around the songwriter’s assumption that they’re being invited to expose their inner emotional workings through building something structured and beautiful that will allow their listeners to build it into their own lives and loves: I’ll play so sweetly I’ll make you smile.

The relationship between the songwriter and their material (usually their own life); the song and the listener.  It’s intimate and public: a delicate exchange that can make a song mean more than it meant to as it’s deeply absorbed in the lives of others,  or dismissed by the click of a button or the vagaries of marketing, taste or fashion.  For whatever reason,  the songwriter may choose to release through music what they retain in their real life.

Ask me and I will play all the love that I hold inside

This list on Spotify

Tickets to the event

Addis,  Laird (1999) Of Mind and Music

Byrne, David. 2012. How Music Works

Davies,  S (2003) Themes in the Philosophy of Music

Huron,  D (2006) Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Human Expectation

Juslin,  O and Sloboda,  H (2001) Music and Emotion: Theory and Research

2 responses to “Emotional Music

  1. Great choices David. I love Al Bowlly too, having only listened to him since taking up the ukulele. His version of “The Very Thought of You” gets me every time I hear it and has a similarly long intro for the band as “Music Maestro Please” and then a wonderful leap to a new key for the interlude and final chorus.

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