The Five Elements of Musicality, Part 3: The Emotional Element

Emotional Element

A novel may contain articulate sentences and brilliant plot twists, but if it doesn’t make us care about the characters or capture some truth in a way that resonates with us, we will not consider it a good novel. Similarly with dancing, even when a creative connection with the music is reached, our musicality will feel incomplete – to ourselves and to others – without an emotional connection. In fact, I will go one step further and propose that creativity is made more fully accessible by our emotionality.

In Part 2, I discussed how we naturally and culturally correlate speed, shape, and space with sound. This aspect of the creative element is equally true of the emotional element: Music – by its tempo, pitch, timbre, and other qualities – evokes similar emotions in nearly all listeners (see Why The Music Moves Us), and these emotions in turn prompt us to move in particular ways. Recognizing a song as happy, sad, aggressive, romantic, or calm elicits changes in the speed and quality of our movements: fast or slow, smooth or sharp, dense or sparse, quick or sustained, circular or angular.

This understanding of how the mood of a song influences the qualities of our movement is only the beginning of the emotional element of musicality. That’s because each of these emotions is an average of what someone is feeling over the span of a certain amount of time. For example, two songs of the same musical genre may both be described as “happy” by most people, but each song achieves that “happy” effect in very different ways. The average emotion over the duration of the three to five minutes of each song may be similar, but the nuances used moment by moment to reach that particular shade of emotion are different.

We don’t usually think of these moment to moment nuances as being emotional, but in reality our emotionality is much more subtle and fluid than we usually learn or talk about. In The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, Dr. Daniel Siegel describes happy, sad, angry, excited, etc. as categorical emotions, which are emotions that we neatly recognize and label in ourselves and in each other. But our deeper emotionality exists in our primary emotions, which he defines as “dynamic processes of change… fluctuations in the integration of the energy and informational flow of the mind.” Dr. Siegel explains that our primary emotions flow through time in tandem with our vitality effects: our heart rate, rate and quality of breathing, visceral tone, muscle tone, tone of voice, and subtle facial expressions.

The flow of music through time has the potential to elicit these moment by moment responses in us. If we are able to tap into our primary emotions – which, writes Dr. Siegel, “are expressed in a unique manner in the moment just as an individual’s state of mind at a particular time is a one-of-a-kind state” – then we will have a fuller, more nuanced musicality. If we only feel and express the categorical emotion of a song, our dancing will be flat, quite literally average. But if we feel and express our primary emotions as they flow through time with the music, then we will be as expressive as the music is. This is because primary emotions and music share similar qualities, which is why they call to each other. In fact, Dr. Siegel refers to primary emotions as “the music of the mind.”

This doesn’t mean the mood of a song is not valid: The mood of the music – paired with your mood and the mood of your partner – affects whether you take more or less time, use more or less space, and move sharply or softly, heavier or lighter. But the mood still deals only in general trends. It does not create the accents and stretches, the tensions and resolutions, that make music and musical movement so beautiful and interesting. For this we need the flow of our primary emotions to give life to both our stillness and our movement. (Side note: You may be interested in reading about the concept of cadencia, used in Argentine tango but applicable in all dances, which I believe has a very strong relationship to primary emotions.)

So how does emotion “fill” the creative? We will discuss this more with the somatic element next week, but I want to give one hint by talking about one way the emotional element supports the creative element. James Geary, in his book I Is An Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, writes: “The word ‘emotion’… comes from the Latin verb ‘to move,’ movere. How do we describe the emotional state occasioned by a poignant encounter, a beautiful film, or a powerful piece of music? We are moved. Movement is even visibly ensconced in the word ‘emotion’ itself.” Research links emotion to motivation, showing that when the emotional centers of our brain are active, so are the parts of our brain that prepare us for movement. Emotion is not a disembodied intellectual idea, but rather a “felt sense,” a fluid feeling in our body that desires a response. Our emotion primes us to move, serving as the internal movement that prepares us for outward movement.

This may mean that the emotional is required in order for our creative choices to be truly musical, not just in a poetic way but in a very practical way. Studies show that our emotions work on a physiological level to achieve responses according to our motivation. In order to carry out these desired creative responses in our physical body, certain metabolic shifts need to happen to enable us to accelerate to take space, decelerate to hit an accent, and to make all the other overt and subtle modulations in our movement and connection in a specific time frame.

It is possible that many of the “stuck” moments in getting a particular movement or pattern to work, where the technique doesn’t quite come together even though the pieces are there, could be the result of the emotional aspect – that “felt sense” – being absent or disconnected. It’s quite possible that the emotional element is the spirit and breath that animates the body of the creative element, eliciting subtleties in tone and relaxation throughout the body that are outside of conscious control.

I recall one time in a milonga class trying to lead a specific syncopated pattern. The footwork wasn’t too complex, but for some reason I couldn’t make the rhythm of the pattern work no matter how hard I tried to match my body with the music. Suddenly I stopped intellectualizing it and let myself feel the music in my body. When I made this shift, suddenly the creative footwork happened effortlessly. This could be psychological, the fact that I allowed myself to relax. But what we often think of as psychological or as a matter of relaxation could be masking another factor at play, which is the necessity of allowing the flow of our primary emotions to animate the creative element of our dance.

With a renewed sense of how emotion works in the dance, we can see the emotional and creative elements as two sides of the same coin. Each requires the other for a musical dance. Perhaps this is why musician Victor Wooten has written, “You should never lose the groove in order to find a note.

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For the sake of keeping this series manageable, I have only covered a few concepts to scratch the surface of this element. The full scope of the emotional element is under development for a larger project. I would love to hear your feedback, so feel free to send me a message or leave a comment below!

If you would like to more fully explore your own ideas about musicality and the concepts we’ve just explored in Part 1 of this series before continuing, check out The Five Elements of Musicality: Homework. It includes three practical exercises for exploring the primary emotions we use in our dancing.

Here is the next post in this series: The Five Elements of Musicality, Part 4: The Somatic Element.

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