Book Review: Emotion and Meaning in Music by Leonard B. Meyer

This book has been on my reading list for a while (and I think it got there from its mention in an Adam Neely video), but it was my class on Musical Expectation that pushed me to finally read it, and I’m so glad I did.

Leonard B. Meyer writes from his perspectives as a composer and philosopher. Emotion and Meaning in Music is perhaps his most influential work and one of the most influential works in the field of aesthetic theory in music. In it, he seeks to explain through Gestalt theory the impact of emotion in music.

Style

This book was written in 1956, so it’s representative of academic writing of the time, which can be a little difficult to get into if you don’t frequently read pieces from that era. That said, it’s still completely approachable to anyone who’s been able to make sense of any kind of academic piece.

It is pretty dense. You can read the same sections multiple times and get more information out each time. In fact, it’s one of those books that ought to be read again after you’ve experienced more music. You’ll appreciate it much more.

Meyer’s writing does seem a little repetitive in the first chapter, but the recap at the beginning of each section is grounding and more helpful the further you get into the book. Meyer does an excellent job of reviewing terms as you forget them and when you get bombarded with more information.

Content and Organization

Meyer is meticulously organized, which is vital for a work of this scope. The sheer amount of information within its covers can make you dizzy, but because Meyer is logical in his approach and because he reviews terms at the beginning of every chapter helps you not only keep up with all the new jargon but also helps you better understand each term as the book goes on.

The book is clearly thought out to flow from an introduction of ideas, to examples to aid in comprehension, to a conclusion that really drives home the main points of the book. All this said, the first couple of chapters can be a bit overwhelming, as Meyer introduces term after term and waits to use the illustrations until later.

But in doing so, Meyer gives the reader the ability to truly grasp the relationships of the concepts – like expectation, where meaning comes from, and Gestalt psychology – in light of real musical examples.

The first two chapters cover Theory and Expectation and Learning. These are the more term-heavy chapters, and they provide context to studies of meaning in music and how the music theory field connects with psychology.

Chapters 3–5 provide the principles for pattern perception, which is based on Gestalt psychology. He explains how the patterns of good continuation, completion and closure, and the weakening of shape in particular are experienced through music. For me, this is where the book really began to pick up; there are more examples in these chapters, and the ideas connect to substantial examples that I can look at myself.

Chapters 6 and 7 consist mainly of examples. He names them “Evidence,” so if you’re like me and really learn from watching other people analyze pieces through lenses like psychology, you’ll really enjoy these chapters. These marked the point I felt like I was finally beginning to understand what he meant. Meyer’s choices for examples is also astounding given the period in which the book was written.

Instead of focusing solely on the Western art tradition, he includes works from Asia and Africa as well. Granted, they are seen through the lens of Western art music, but the fact that he even includes world music is really big given he wrote this in the 1950s.

Finally, in Chapter 8, he wraps up the entire work by going back to the concepts from the first chapters. He addresses connotations, images, and moods in music by noting that even though this book was based on a formalist approach to music, meaning he looked at the music itself and not its cultural context, he doesn’t dismiss the importance of a referentialist approach. The idea of expectation is rooted in learning, so you cannot fully dismiss the cultural context, if you truly want to understand why people react certain ways to music.

Overall, very well organized, logical flow, and he addresses the importance of the counterarguments to his approach.

Personal Impacts

This book is so dense that I’ll be processing it and returning to it for many years to come, I’m sure. Since it’s an academic book, and I read it for a theory class, I assumed that it would make me overthink my own music-making process even more, but I found the opposite to be true.

In my own composing practice, I found myself relaxing more and letting myself just write. The main point I gleaned from Emotion and Meaning in Music is that much of our response to music is learned; it’s based on our culture, and this response is largely subconscious. We are not aware of our expectations, and this is true of writing as well.

I’ve always tried to be deliberate in creating music in an effort to write something so meaningful it could change the world for good. But this book showed me that music is very subconscious; the learning involved in expectations is subconscious. So if I just let my pen run, I’ll be involving those expectations.

It’s an experience I’m having trouble putting into words, but I am grateful for it. I’ve written much more in a much more enjoyable fashion since reading this book, and I’m sure this experience is common.

Who is this for?

Emotion and Meaning in Music is for people who want to better understand the way music intrinsically expresses itself to people. This could be composers, performers, producers, theorists, and anyone with a spark of curiosity for the topic.

Be warned that this is not for the faint of heart, however. It is an academic book, but if you press through, even if you don’t fully understand it, you’ll be better off for it.

Available at Thriftbooks for $5 and on Amazon for $22.

What other books have you read about how music intrinsically impacts us? Leave your recommendations in the comments below; I’d love to read them!

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