If we are asked about music that we especially like or are moved by, and if we then try to describe what this involves, we are very likely to find ourselves using the word “beautiful.” If we wish to very briefly explain our enthusiasm for one or another particular passage, this may serve as a sufficient answer. But what, in the end, do we mean by this—where, in fact, is the beauty in music located?
With the interplay between sonic object and experiencing subject, pleasant sensations during listening can be evaluated “as the effect of the beauty of what is being heard” (Konrad, 2008). Theodor W. Adorno (1965) describes beautiful passages as unique and irreplaceable, offering us the chance to lose ourselves “unhesitatingly.” At the same time, we experience the individual musical event as what is presently manifest in relationship to what has preceded it and in expectation of what will come, parts of a complete structure.
“The musical whole is rather essentially a whole with parts succeeding each other with reason, and only thereby a whole. For this purpose, they require the boundaries of possible apprehensions of music itself, of the whole, as being extended in time, to be established only in successive passages. It articulates itself through before- and after-references, expectation and remembrance, contrast and proximity; unarticulated and undivided, the whole would dissolve in mere self-identity.” (Adorno, 1997, p. 696. Transl. Robert R. Clewis)
But we by no means have consistently stable expectation and remembrance. And reactions and judgements on acoustic events such as a harmonic progression, a phrase or a special instrumentation can differ as well. We all know the feeling of goosebumps, but we experience it while listening to different music.
The interdisciplinary project on Beautiful Passages in Music investigates this individually different experience by means of peripheral-physiological measurements of participants while listening to self-chosen music. The participants marked the exact duration of their beautiful passages and described their experience while listening. From the point of view of music psychology and music theory, the project approaches the connections between measurable physical reactions, subjective aesthetic experience and musical-acoustic characteristics and structures.
Adorno, Th. W. (1997). Schöne Stellen (1965). In R. Tiedemann (Hrsg.), Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 18., Musikalische Schriften V (S. 695-718). Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.
Konrad, U. (2008). Von den erogenen Zonen des Gehörs, oder: Schöne Stellen in der Musik. Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik, Jg. 38, H. 152, 73-83.
Omigie, D., Frieler, K., Bär, C., Muralikrishnan, R., Wald-Fuhrmann, M., & Fischinger, T. (2019). Experiencing musical beauty: Emotional subtypes and their physiological and musico-acoustic correlates. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/aca0000271
External Research Partners
Dr. Diana Omigie (Goldsmiths University, UK)