Learning the Language of Affect
The Craft of Musical Communication by Keith Hill and Marianne Ploger, ©2005
Affect is the suggestion of a feeling, not feeling itself. Emotion is a feeling like anger, jealousy, sadness, or joy.
To be an Affect, an expression must be a suggestion of something and not the thing itself. In acting, when a character in a play says or does something which suggests that he or she is suspicious, a good actor will do whatever is required to create the suggestion of suspiciousness. The only way an actor will know if he or she is successful is if the audience feels that the character is suspicious. Should the audience think the character is mean instead of suspicious, then the actor has failed. Why? Because an Affect has the quality of being completely objective...which is to say, almost everyone "reads" the same meaning from the expression. This is why it is of paramount importance that musicians learn to manage and master Affect. Otherwise, those who listen may get the exact opposite nonverbal communication than the one intended.
Furthermore, if the audience merely knows that the character is suspicious but doesn't feel it, then the actor has failed. Why? Because we often know many things which we do not feel. The difference for us is that we tend not to care much about those things which we know, and we also tend to care a great deal about those things about which we have feelings. So, if the actor has not generated the feeling of suspicion in the audience, the actor has failed. Only when the audience feels conviction about the suspicious nature of the character can we say that the actor has done his or her job well.
Affect communicates directly with the soul of the receiver in an unambiguous manner. How do we know this? Infants respond to an Affect even if they don't understand the words.
If you tell an infant in the most loving and adoring manner that he is super intelligent and the next moment (still in a loving and adoring tone of voice) say that he is stupid, the infant will understand the loving and adoring manner, not the words. The same is true for dogs, cats, birds, etc. The tone of voice and inflection which suggest love and adoration is received objectively by the infant as the real meaning - that is the power of the nonverbal aspect of the communication. In the same way, if you express loving words in a scolding manner, the infant will feel scolded and start to cry. The manner of expression, more than the content of the words, is what is objectively received and understood through the senses, and the infant expresses its comprehension of the real message by feeling loved or feeling hurt or attacked. If the infant reads the tone of voice and the delivery method as love, he will respond by smiling and giggling, but if the infant reads the tone of voice and the delivery as scolding, he will react with fear and start to cry. The words used are irrelevant; only when a child becomes verbal do the words themselves become an issue. In music and in art, words are not an issue, unless you are singing a song.
As adults, we are not above responding to affect as directly as infants do; to assume the opposite is arrogant. True, when others are angry with us, we have to learn to be restrained in our responses so we avoid altercations. But in music, there is no reason to argue, which is why we usually respond to music in much the same way as infants respond to tone and gesture - it is this specific property in music that makes it so compelling to humans. We respond to music in much the same way we did when we were being loved and adored by our mothers.
Perhaps the best way to learn to express Affect is to study children when they are being naturally expressive. What you can notice about the behavior of very young children is that the gestures used to convey Affect are similar from one child to the next. These Affective gestures are not learned, but are innate to our species. Indeed, expressing all the emotions, states of mind, attitudes, physical states, and states of being are part of what it is to be human. Learning to express Affect requires paying attention to and remembering the gestures that make up each Affect.
Old habits of making music without Affect die hard. If you wish to communicate anything meaningful in the arts, establishing the habit of paying attention to Affects must be the first order of business. The reason for this is that learning is most efficient when it means something. Learning to play music without the benefit of knowing its meaning is like learning Chinese by imitating the sounds and not ever knowing what the words mean...you plainly don't know what you are saying. The same is true in music. Focus on Affect and meaning, and everything is made decidedly easier (if only because it is more fun!).