16. Perception of Music: Emotion and Meaning

A book published in 1956, Emotion and Meaning in Music, by a professor of music, Leonard B. Meyer (1918-2007), had a significant impact on the classical music circles in the United States.1 It constitutes a turning point in music theory.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book, in my view, is its year of publication. Considering what was said and done in linguistics, sociology, psychology, philosophy and science up to that point, 1956 is rather late. We understand that Meyer was influenced by the developments in some areas outside of music to a certain degree (especially by the pragmatist philosophers and Gestalt researchers) and this limited “external” information was sufficient to cause a shakedown in the established theories of music.

[Before Meyer’s book, there were two noteworthy books written on music perception. The first one was Hermann von Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tones, which intended to link theory of music with science (physics), published in 1863. The other was Carl Seashore’s The Psychology of Music, published in 1938.2]

I see this as evidence to the self-absorbed nature of the “classical music world” (as in most circles involving mastery and masters). For example, John Cage’s highly debated piece 4’33’’ was performed in 1952 but this seminal work is not mentioned in the book at all. It is entirely possible that Meyer had not even heard of Cage’s name. If he was told of Cage’s ideas and works, I assume he would have dismissed them instantly, because in those years Meyer belonged to a “serious” world – he lived within the walls of the classical music room. Apparently at some point he stopped by the “twelve-tone” room and mentioned “Schoenberg and his followers” only in a footnote, stating that their music is just as diatonic as any other (Meyer, 288).

I believe that Meyer’s being a member of the “serious” music circles has played a major role in the book’s effectiveness. A radical criticism of the established norms, which could have been easily dismissed if it was raised by the avant-garde, had come from an “insider.”

Meyer indicated that there were three conventional approaches to music and he rejected them all (Meyer, 3-6):


Meyer wrote that aesthetic experience is not a matter of “pleasure” that can be explained with like/dislike, that music is not created to inflict “sensuous pleasure”: “… a Beethoven symphony is not a kind of musical banana split, a matter of purely sensuous enjoyment.” (Meyer, 6)


He wrote that music cannot be explained by dissecting and analyzing the sequences and groupings of sounds. He criticised the music theoreticians for being interested in the grammar and syntax of music as opposed to its “meaning.”


He wrote that the rules followed in the arrangements of sounds and the effects of those arrangements are not universal and valid anywhere, anytime. In that respect, it is pointless to try to explain the communicative aspects of music with physics, such as the rates of the vibrations of pitches, ratios of intervals, etc. 

Then Meyer went on to present his theories on emotion and meaning in music. There are pretty serious gaps and contradictions in what he has written (there are others who agree with me3) and his references are limited to Western classical music, but some of his points were important enough to trigger changes in the rules of the game.

I think Meyer’s most important argument was that music is not something that is “written,” but is something that is “heard.” He said that the meaning and the emotional effect cannot be explained by looking at the producing side, as opposed to the perceiving side. In other words, Meyer was the first to claim that instead of evaluating music in technical terms, such as transitions from one cluster of sounds to another, one should start examining its effects on the listeners.

Nonverbal music does not consist of symbolic signs (as in language) that refer to concepts: a series of notes such as F-G-B-E-C cannot mean “I am very sad today.” Similarly, a description such as “this piece, written for the string quartet, expresses longing and the pain of separation” is irrelevant and totally meaningless. In that respect, Meyer claims that music is perceived only as a result of emotional/psychological responses (and explains his idea that meaning is linked to emotions, through assertions which I find quite patchy and meandering).4

Then, Meyer asks a very critical question: “What is emotional response to music?” How do we tell that a piece of music creates an emotional response? (Meyer, 6-22)

We deduce this from what the listeners, composers, instrumentalists report and from their behaviors and the physiological changes in their bodies which we observe during the performance (crying, laughing, pulsation, sweating, facial expressions). (1) Do these indicate anything about the nature of the response? No. (2) Do these show a cause-effect relationship between the stimulus and the emotional response to it? No.

Meyer points out that when the listeners are asked to describe the aspects of the piece of music that have triggered the emotions, they do not mention things like the tempo, dynamics, instrumentation or harmonic structure. The listeners talk about a general “mood,” evoked memories, reflections, which are not specific to music. Meyer calls the sources of the emotions into question and states the following observations:

  • The listener goes to a concert with specific ideas and beliefs in mind, prepared to experience the behaviors and emotions suitable for the type of music s/he will hear and the matrix of the event. When listeners describe their emotional response to a piece of music, they usually describe emotions which they believe that type of music evokes. For example, the cliché “understanding and appreciation of classical music” usually implies certain types of behavior accepted to be fitting, not a technical or critical listening.
  • Emotional behavior is a part of the general social patterns of behavior, it is determined by the conventional definition of the particular situation (forming a “social frame”). Conventions allow certain types of behavior and reject others in particular contexts. Differentiation in behavior is neither a result of the type of sounds being heard, nor of the difference between particular emotions. If the pianist at a classical concert environment breaks into a joyful jazz tune, the audience would not jump up and begin to dance and shout as if in a jazz club. 
  • Response to a stimulus (if not reflexive or automatic) is usually communicative, it is done to exhibit the emotions or to show that the expected and appropriate behavior is being performed. The individual wants to show to others that s/he is participating in and sharing the social rituals and is communicating through “readable” behavior. For instance, someone silently weeping in a classical music environment would be read as “moved by the music,” but someone sobbing, moaning, punching his/her chest would be found strange and irrelevant.
  • If we leave the external determinants aside and focus directly on music, Meyer says that the listener follows the progress (the timeline) guided by his/her expectations. He claims that the “meaning” the listener assigns to music is defined by the fulfillment and unfulfillment of the expectations (his term for it is “embodied meaning”). Where do these expectations come from? Meyer thinks that innate determinants have a limited role and the expectations are mostly determined by the previous music-related or general life experiences (similar to expecting the letter D to follow when one hears A, B, C, based on our knowledge of the letters of the alphabet). (Meyer, 22-32)

By pointing at the role of learned information in the perception of music and by explaining the tracking of music’s progression with the fulfillment and unfulfillment of expectations, Leonard Meyer’s book, Emotion and Meaning in Music, has formed a link between music and cognitive psychology. Meyer’s efforts have also clarified the fact that nonverbal sounds form mainly indexical signs and that symbolic considerations are inapplicable. The book is considered to be the first step taken towards the study of music cognition.


1 Leonard B. Meyer, Emotion and Meaning in Music (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1956).

2 Hermann von Helmholtz, Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik (Reproduction: Nabu Press, 2011). English: On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music (Dover Pub., 1954).

Carl E. Seashore, The Psychology of Music (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967).

3 David Huron, “Leonard Meyer – Part I” 

4 Arguments over the meaning of music have been voiced by two opposing groups for a long time: (1) Referentialists (heteronomists); (2) Formalists (absolutists, nonreferentialists). Referentialists argue that meaning in music is formed by external references but by “reference” they imply images, feelings, thoughts from life which music evokes or symbolizes. Referentialists did not explain how those connections are formed and Meyer points at that shortcoming. Formalists claim that meaning is formed by the acoustic movements and relationships between components within music. (Meyer, 1-4) We can say that Meyer’s position falls in between these two groups: He asserts that progress in music is tracked according to expectations (formal) and that the expectations are rooted in the associations resulting from prior experiences (referential).