E. Hanslick

In Stecker and Gracyk, Aesthetics Today (2010) 

This document is a summary of Hanslick. 
My personal comments are in red. 

Before we begin, let's make a LIST OF BASIC EMOTIONS:   According to Hindu thought, humans feel eight basic emotions: love, amusement, sorrow, anger, excitement (energy), fear, disgust, surprise. Some traditions add tranquility/peace.

Hanslick explores two different hypotheses about musical expression. He attacks both of them.


Music is expressive of emotion x if the music makes knowledgeable listeners feel x.

This explains nothing about music, because it is not exclusive to music. Furthermore, it is not necessary when appreciating music. Furthermore, it is too inconsistent (sometimes it happens, sometimes not).

To be “inevitable,” it must be what the artist controls. But the artist controls something intermediate, the musical design heard by the listener. 

Not exclusive, because other arts do it, too, and do it better.

Not uniform, because how it “feels” depends on personal and cultural context.


To represent emotion is to be expressive in the way that picture represents its subject, as something we recognize in a musical pattern.

 The association between emotion & musical pattern is too inconsistent to permit music to be an expressive vehicle. Portrayal of a definite emotion requires portrayal of a definite belief or “judgment” (e.g., love is not just a feeling, but a feeling informed by a specific kind of judgment).

Hanslick is endorsing the cognitive theory of emotion. Instead of opposing rationality and emotion, this theory says the knowledge and beliefs are essential elements of emotions. This theory traces back to Aristotle.

ANGER requires a belief that something bad has happened.
ENVY requires a belief that the object of the emotion possesses something desirable.
HATRED requires a desire that misfortune will come to the object of the emotion.
JEALOUSY requires a belief that the object of the emotion is a rival.
FEAR requires a belief that someone is threatened with harm.
GUILT requires a belief that one has done something wrong.
EMBARRASSMENT requires a belief that someone else knows what you have done.

THEREFORE only things with cognitive states can have emotions, and only they can express emotions.

However, instrumental music lacks adequate resources to become definite. Music can capture dynamics but not accompanying judgment. Therefore “whispering may be expressed, true, but not the whispering of love…”

INDETERMINATE or “indefinite” imitation is no imitation at all. Only a “concrete” image can make it determinate.

FINALLY, even if music could be expressive, that is unnecessary for music to be valuable. Evidence: the music that is expressively most clear is musically the least interesting (recitative). The words make music clear, but the musical quality is minimized in passages where the words are important. Therefore, expression is not an "aesthetic principle" (i.e. a test of value) because clear expression is often to the detriment of musical beauty.

Although it is not in our edited reading, he gives another interesting argument to show that music does not represent definite emotions. If the same music can combine with different texts to convey distinct emotions, then music itself does not convey a specific emotion. The words make it determinate. So instrumental music does not represent emotion. Evidence: Handel.

                        Last updated Jan. 24, 2011 ~ All text © 2011 Theodore Gracyk