Appearance emotionalism, a.k.a. the “doggy” theory

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According to Stephen Davies, music is no more expressive of emotion than is the droopy-eared, sad-eyed physiognomy of the basset hound. We read emotion into music (and into the mournful looks of dogs) simply because it resembles the outward appearance of human expressivity. For example, music that is fast and/or makes expansive gestures may seem to be happy, because a happy person often has a spring in his or her step and makes expansive gestures. For Davies [1] and also for Kivy [2], the only genuine emotion elicited by music is the sense of contentment engendered by the listener’s appreciation of the aesthetic properties of a particular work.

Needless to say, the theory of appearance emotionalism has been soundly rebutted by the likes of Jenefer Robinson and Robert S. Hatten [3]. Empirical evidence [4] proves that music is able to arouse emotion in listeners far beyond the joyful feelings of the aesthetician – it can even evoke emotions as subtly shaded as nostalgia, tenderness, and triumph. [5]Nonetheless, musical emotion continues to be an elusive subject. This is unsurprising, as emotion itself is difficult to study or even define. As Fehr and Russell have observed, “everyone knows what an emotion is, until asked to give a definition.” [6]

But returning to the so-called “doggy” theory of appearance emotionalism…reading about it made me google “basset hound” – one of the results is displayed above. Surely those sad eyes do not lie.

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