The Structure of Human Affect
The Craft of Musical Communication by Keith Hill and Marianne Ploger, ©2005
Affect is the suggestion of the expression of an emotion, a physical state, a state of mind, or an attitude. We typically express all four of these states simultaneously, on a continuing basis, for most of our waking lives. The greatest music has as its true nature this feature of human nature, that of expressing four Affects simultaneously. Indeed, when there is inherent conflict in the four Affects, the aesthetic effect is far more interesting to us...the more paradoxical, the better. This is what makes the real difference between great art and less than great art. Good stuff only expresses three Affects of the total of four possible. Mediocre stuff expresses two Affects. Bad work expresses but one.
Human beings are complex organisms with complex inner lives. Music, in its most elevated manifestation, is the only form of aesthetic expression which is capable of capturing and expressing the inner life of the soul.
Affect is the language of the soul, so it should not surprise us that when it comes to expressing Affect, the soul always knows what to do and how to do it. Anyone who has been around infants discovers this rather quickly; infants have no benefit of language, yet they are perfectly able to communicate their needs and desires to those around them. Adults who are self-involved or are not queued into paying attention to Affect may not understand what an infant wants by his expressions and often end up blaming the infant for being irritating. This attitude is not dissimilar to how many classical musicians think about audiences: if concert attendance is declining, musicians are too quick to blame listeners for their lack of interest in non-Affective music making! This attitude is one to avoid like the plague. It accounts for why famous opera houses and many symphony orchestras are in financial insolvency.
What follows is a list of Affects. The list is divided into the four types of Affect: Physical, Emotional, Mental, and Spiritual. This list is by no means definitive and should serve only as a model for each person to make up his or her own list of Affects. Indeed, unless each of us takes the time to make up as large a list as possible for each type of Affect, we risk not being able to distinguish or identify Affects and how they differ from emotions. Therefore...make a list of your own. It should look something like this:
It is a useful and meaningful exercise to take one Affect at random from each column and invent a moment when all four Affects could reasonably occur simultaneously. For instance: choosing at random, we take the Physical Affect of trotting, the Emotional Affect of empty, the Mental Affect of dubious, and the Spiritual Affect of apologetic. Think of a moment in any person's life when trotting, emptiness, feeling dubious or doubtful, and feeling apologetic would naturally occur. One possibility is: if you deeply hurt someone close to you without knowing that you did, and the person told you that they never wanted to have anything more to do with you, as that person walks away from you, you start running after to ask them to discuss what has happened. You want to make right any wrong inflicted, intended or otherwise, but because they are so offended, you doubt that they will even listen to you, which leaves you feeling empty inside.
We call this type of scenario an Affective "vignette." Great music is characterized by either a single Affective vignette or a series of short Affective vignettes which give listeners an Affective view of the inside of the soul for a moment or a series of connected moments. Bach's insistence on maintaining a single Affect from the beginning of a piece to the end was an indication of the value he placed on integrity of Affect in music. Empfindsam music is more like an Affective conflict or argument in which, ideally, all four Affects are exhibited in a work and are brought together in a harmony of Affect at the end of the piece.
No other art form has the power to express Affective moments in the lives of ordinary people as much as music. Great music performed without any clear Affect is like viewing a great painting in a room that has no light - everything is there which suggests that an Affect was intended, but the observer can't access it. The true art of the performer is to create an Affect and communicate that Affect by every means imaginable, so that the ordinary music lover is never in doubt as to the Affect being expressed. For a performer to be true to the art in music means being hyperaware of the Affective effect of how any three notes taken from any place in the score might appear to an Affect-sensitive listener. This is why the 11 cognitive techniques exist: using these techniques ensures that, at very minimum, the score is not inadvertently expressing dullness and boredom...Affects that guarantee to put most listeners to sleep, instantly.