emotion triad

It’s hard to talk about emotions. I don’t mean personally, I just mean that the concept, scientifically, is big and complicated, and human understanding of how emotions work is constantly evolving. But there is a thing that seems consistent among people who talk about this stuff professionally, and that is a three-part system. They generally refer to three levels of depth of consciousness.

I’ve had music history professors talk about how music historians love to group aesthetic movements into chunks, and divide those chunks into three parts. Early, middle, and late Romantic, you know? Can we make distinctions between early and late Romantic? Absolutely! Are the boundaries clear-cut and obvious, without overlap or grey areas? No.

So I suspect psychologists trying to break the working of the mind into a three-part system are also simplifying for the sake of ease and convenience rather than truly communicating something definitely and obviously true about how humanity feels.

Freud started with the three-part id, ego, and superego.

In Interpersonal Neurobiology, Dan Siegel describes the problem of terminology regarding emotion, and comes up with the following solution (Chapter 32, pp. 2-3):

Emotion: process that involves the pathway of a response to a stimulus, including appraisal… arousal [of the nervous system] that evoke particular reaction of thought, feeling, and behavior

Affect: the way an internal emotional state is externally revealed

Feeling: the awareness of an emotional state

I think his definitions are useful but clearly arbitrary  because those words in everyday use mean lots of other things, too. So I keep coming back to Ross Buck as he defined level of emotion in his book Communication of Emotion (which I still think would make a great title for a conducting textbook):

  • Emotion I is basically your immune system, autonomic system, and endocrine system.  Neurotransmitters and hormones.
  • Emotion II is where the spontaneous communication happens.  Emotion II is your involuntary expressive response to feeling: facial expressions, shifting weight, hand gestures, etc.  The key word is involuntary.
  • Emotion III is your subject experience of feeling.  This is where ideas like happy and sad come in, as well as sleepy and hungry.

So, as I’ve been trying to write more about this, and particularly imagining how to translate it for musicians in a way that is memorable and relevant, I propose this model: The Emotion Triad.

The root is Emotion I (“emotion”). It’s the note that serves as the foundation on which all the rest is built, without which the rest would not be interpretable according to common practice. Even if you don’t see the root on the page, you still analyze a triad by its root.

The third is Emotion II (“affect”). It’s the note of expression. It’s the note we look at to see what the quality is by its relationship to the root.

The fifth is Emotion III (“feeling”). It’s totally optional, and you can analyse triads with out even needing to imagine it, but it’s the one that shouts to analysts “hey, here’s a triad! Triad over here! Analyze me!”

This metaphor is a little goofy, I know. But I definitely know more people who understand the function of pitches in triads than levels of emotional response.

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