Does Music Have to Have Emotion

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Hi, this is Robert Estrin here at, Your Online Piano Resource. Today’s topic is emotion in music. Does Music Have to Have Emotion? There’s a lot to this subject, so let’s dive in!

Throughout the centuries, there have been period styles with varying degrees of obvious emotions. For example, listen to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet or Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. While there may be some people who are put off by the sentimentality of this music, it’s hard to not at least appreciate the rises and falls of phrasing in an attempt to elicit strong feelings of longing, desperation and passion in this music.

But is the emotion in the music?

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In fact, art itself is subjective. Everyone has their own interpretation of what they see and hear. So, how universal emotions are felt in music is one question. But there’s more to this subject.

While there are certainly works of Johann Sebastian Bach which are extremely emotional in nature, such as his B minor Mass, or his Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, there are also works that are masterpieces of counterpoint which primarily hold great intellectual interest. Flash forward to the 20th century with composers who explored 12 tone serialized music which exhibited extreme ordered complexity in works of composers like Anton Webern and Karlheinz Stockhausen and the intellectual demands of listening to this music are predominant. Does this mean that people don’t feel emotion when listening to this music? Not at all! In fact, much atonal music can have a dark mood.

Another aspect to all of this is, how do we as performers address the implied emotions of the musical scores we play? Some people may play even the most blatantly emotional music with reserve so that listeners can take their own cues from the scores. Listen to Sergei Rachmaninoff play his 3rd piano concerto and you will be amazed at how straight he plays his music unlike so many obviously emotional interpretations out there. Performers succumb to emotions to one extent or another.

When I was at the Manhattan School of Music, I had the opportunity to study with a great pianist and teacher, Constance Keene. She described emotions in music like this:

You must play with the memory of the emotion.

She felt that it was self-indulgent to be gushing with emotion while performing music. There are other performers who completely let themselves go with total abandon. Keith Jarrett comes to mind. So, is one type of performance better than the other?

When listening to some of the greatest musicians of all time, there are those who are reserved in their playing allowing the music to speak for itself crafting jewel-like performances of pieces like the great pianist, Josef Lhévinne. Others allow the music to take them to new places every time they perform.

Listen to various recordings of Vladimir Horowitz in concert playing the same piece and you will be amazed at how unique each one of his performances were.

Each performer must find their own balance of emotion versus intellect. I sometimes describe it as the part of you looking down on yourself as you perform making sure you don’t go too far. While performers who let themselves go in performance may hit high points unimagined in practice, it can also lead to disaster!

You can listen to a musical example which demonstrates emotion in music. In the accompanying video, there is original music with unabashed emotions for you.

So, while emotion in music is subjective since music is a language and everyone has their own interpretation of what they see and hear, some composers and performers prioritize control and structure while others allow their emotions to inflict itself one way or another in music. How you feel when you listen to music is a personal thing. Ultimately, the most important thing is to be true to yourself when composing or performing music.

I hope this has been an interesting exploration for you. I welcome more questions and am happy to hear from each of you personally. Again, I’m Robert Estrin here at Thanks for joining me.