Part 2: On Affect
What is Affect?
The Craft of Musical Communication by Keith Hill and Marianne Ploger, ©2005
Music is nonverbal communication in the form of sound. Affect is how nonverbal communication works. Because Affect is nonverbal communication, every artistic form, like painting, music, acting, dance, etc., has its own way in which the language of Affect is spoken. Without Affect, the nonverbal communicative component of music does not exist - what is left in music when Affect is missing are pitches (either in vertical structures, Harmony, or in linear structures, Melody) in time (Rhythm). Meaning does not exist except by inference. With Affect, music takes on a life of its own and means what the one(s) playing it intend(s). For the listener, music without Affect is like acting without vocal inflection or facial expression...blank and incongruent...the effect for the listener is confusion and boredom.
Affect, like all of our expressions, is something we can choose to manage or to let it just happen. When we choose to just let it happen, sometimes it works, but most times it comes out as the Affect of self consciousness...an unmitigated disaster in music. When we manage our use of Affect, we can eventually become masters of Affect. The more diligent we are about learning the language of Affect and learning how to speak that language fluently, the more masterful our music or art will be perceived to be by the listener.
Until now, learning anything about Affect has been, itself, a source of confusion because very few people have understood what it means and how to express it. Once you have read and incorporated the lessons in this section on Affect, it is possible to reach a level of mastery in virtually any art. In the end, talent will have almost nothing to do with becoming a master musician, but the willingness and dedication to the hard work of understanding and learning to "speak" the language of the soul will have everything to do with it.
What is Affect?
Affect is the suggestion of the expression of an emotion, a state of being, a physical state, a state of mind, or an attitude. The crucial word in this definition is suggestion. It is also the word that makes understanding Affect difficult for most people. However, it is not as complicated as it would appear: remember, Affect is the nonverbal meaning in nonverbal communication. And most people are well practiced at expressing this type of communication - it is a natural part of human expression. For this reason, everyone has the potential to master the whole range of Affective expressions. To reach that potential takes focus, will, determination, and a certain freedom of spirit.
Perhaps the most effective way to illustrate exactly what Affect means is to examine the most sophisticated use of Affect developed in the 20th century, cartoon animation. Let's look, for instance, at Daffy Duck. This character is given to violent outbursts of feeling, insanity, and foolishness. Anyone who has seen this character's antics cannot fail to be convinced of his emotional outbursts.
In fact, Daffy Duck does not exist; Daffy is a fictional character that appears on the screen through the magical craft of animation. Because Daffy's animators understood Affect, they could create films which would convince an audience that Daffy Duck existed, that he had passionate emotions, and that he was a conniving, greedy, slick, loquacious little duck, totally self centered and conceited. If his animators had not understood Affect, Daffy would not feel real and palpable to us…and we wouldn't love this foolish, avaricious duck so much.
To make Daffy seethe, the animators had to study all the gestures, poses, and expressions of seething and the order in which they occurred. The same is true for when they needed to have Daffy be deliriously happy or conniving or indolent or bored or irritated or in love or any of the other feelings they wished us to know Daffy has. The meaning or the nature of Daffy's character and soul was evident to us because of the careful attention to Affect which the animators diligently studied.
The reason why our own anger or confusion or love is not Affect is because our feelings are real - only when we act like we are angry or act like we are confused or act like we are in love do we use Affect. Affect is the result of really good acting. Poor acting bespeaks a poverty of Affect; the effect of bad acting is boredom.
Affect is present when we clearly and unambiguously understand and feel what is being expressed. When Affect is missing, we as listeners become confused because, especially in music, meaning is complex. Affect makes simple all of the complexities of feeling which music is capable of expressing. When the feeling is clear and unmistakable, the Affect or Affects being expressed impress themselves upon our soul and we respond.
The reason our soul is impressed by Affect is that Affect is the language of the soul. That bears repeating: Affect is the language of the soul. The significance of this statement is that we can communicate with the souls of others by using the language which all souls use to express themselves. This is why learning about Affect, thinking about Affect, performing with Affect, expressing Affect, and mastering Affect are the most important parts of the job of being a musician, artist, dancer, architect, actor, writer, poet, or playwright.