Michael Spitzer

Analysing Emotion in Popular Music

In recent years, the affective turn in music psychology (Juslin, Sloboda, et al) has begun to enter the field of music analysis. There is empirical evidence that performers, composers, and listeners associate basic and discrete emotional categories (such as happiness, sadness, tenderness, fear, and anger) with acoustic or secondary parameters (such as tempo, dynamics, articulation, and contour). It is easy to show that, in this respect, emotion in popular song can be analysed in the same way as in classical music. I will demonstrate that with tracks discussed at today’s session, including The Game’s We Ain’t and Suede’s Pantomime Horse. Conversely, I will show that emotion in popular music is distinct from classical in the way it splits acoustic parameters in two directions, towards groove on the one hand; and, on the other, towards what Judith Becker calls, after Bourdieu, “a habitus of listening” (embodied sonic patterns of action and reaction). As I have shown elsewhere, classical music typically unfolds the emotional category captured in its opening gestures as a ‘behavioural’ process; e.g. Schubert’s fearful textures lead to fearful formal trajectories. Such a synchronic/diachronic dialectic is harder in popular song, because it tends to foreground repetition at all levels and is thus less amenable to through-composed formal thinking. However, the relationship between groove and habitus reconstitutes this dialectic on different terms, taking the affect-defining quality of acoustic parameters in opposite directions. Whereas acoustic parameters constantly shift in classical music, groove sustains affect much more than is the case even in a baroque instrumental work, suggestive of Spinoza’s theory of emotion as conatus – a striving to sustain personality through dogged repetition. From an opposite standpoint, the materials of popular music are much more frankly mimetic of real life – of scenes of living and ways of being.