The method behind music and feeling: Stanford Humanities Center fellow Q & A

Stanford Humanities Center fellow and musicologist Roger Mathew Grant argues that affect theory has its origins in eighteenth-century debates on music.

Stanford Humanities Center fellow Roger Mathew Grant is Assistant Professor of Music at Wesleyan University. His research focuses on the relationships between eighteenth-century music theory, Enlightenment aesthetics, and affect theory.

He recently won an Emerging Scholar Award from the Society of Music Theory for his book, Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era, published by Oxford University Press in 2014. The award recognizes an outstanding first book in the field of music theory.

He is spending his year at the center working on a new book project called Peculiar Attunements: The Musical Origins of Contemporary Affect Theory.

According to Grant, during the eighteenth century, debates within musical aesthetics re-scripted the role that performing musicians play in the creation and communication of affect. Grant’s book project demonstrates how a fresh understanding of this moment in intellectual history is vital to contemporary affect theory.

Recently, Grant answered some questions about his research.

What is affect? How do you define it?

Affect describes the sudden, immediate transformation that takes place when your hands become clammy and your heart beats quickly while listening to a performance with anticipation. Affect gives a name to the flush of your cheeks, the knot in your stomach, or the lump in your throat. Contemporary theorists have recently become interested in affect as a corporeal, immediate, non-discursive alternative to the more general category of feelings.

Grant refers to this close up detail of the sculpture group “Laocoön and His Sons,” to illustrate how visual art uses mimesis to evoke affect.

What is the role of affect in music, especially during the mid-eighteenth century?

During the eighteenth century many critics struggled to identify the force of music’s affective power. Since music does not depict anything clearly — apart, perhaps, from the occasional thunderclap or birdcall — theorists were at a loss to describe the process by which it aroused the affects in its audiences. The result of their quarrels was a theory of affective attunement: theorists eventually came to believe that music created affect through its material reality as sound vibration. According to these thinkers, music passed directly to the soul of the listener though a sympathetic resonance of the body or of the nerves. This materialist theory of affect, grounded in corporeal experience, paved the way for the theories of affect that are popular today.

Depicted above is Robert Fludd’s divine monochord, illustrating “harmonia mundi,” the harmony of the universe. Fludd, like many neo-Platonic thinkers, believed that the human body was also ordered according to the divine ratios: the human was essentially a microcosm of the entire universe. Harmony was, for these thinkers, a way of understanding the order of the entire world.

How long have philosophers been theorizing about our emotions?

Affect theory has a rich intellectual legacy rooted in ancient Greek texts. There are Aristotelian and Ciceronian strands closely associated with rhetoric and a Stoic tradition that negatively theorizes the affects as elements of human experience to be avoided. Two important thinkers in the early modern era — Spinoza and Descartes — are sometimes recalled in contemporary discussions of affect theory’s history. But what I aim to show is that our current model of affect has an unexpectedly musical heritage stemming from eighteenth-century texts.

You have described your project as a genealogical critique of affect theory. Can you tell us more about what this means?

Yes! That’s exactly what I’m up to. I aim to account for the conceptual underpinnings of a phenomenon — affect — that is sometimes treated as though it had no history. Affect is often discussed as though it were a timeless biological fact. My project demonstrates how our twenty-first century notion of affect was made possible by confusing and contradictory historical developments; how seemingly unrelated debates in aesthetic theory, with music at their center, coalesced to create a theory of affective attunement and to form the conditions of possibility for the affect theory we know today. The end result won’t amount to a comprehensive intellectual history of affect (which would be an enormous, multi-volume project), but rather a form of criticism that employs historical sources. In this way I’m hoping to contribute to contemporary affect theory as a living tradition.

Charles Antoine Vion’s “La musique pratique et theorique,” exemplifies eighteenth-century musical taxonomy. This particular image depicts one way in which eighteenth-century musicians tried to categorize music by the intended affect.

In the course of your research, is there anything you found surprising?

I was shocked by the important and fascinating role that comic opera played in the debates concerning affect during the eighteenth century. I never would have believed, even three years ago, that I would be intensely interested in comic opera. I think I probably held a rather low opinion of the form (except for some classics like Mozart’s Magic Flute). But now my appreciation for comic opera and my understanding of its role in intellectual history has completely changed, along with my thinking about comedy itself. I’ve laid out my initial observations about comic opera, affect theory, and eighteenth-century aesthetic theory in a new article: “Peculiar Attunements: Comic Opera and Enlightenment Mimesis,” which just appeared in the most recent Critical Inquiry.

What impact do you hope your research will make on the field of affect theory and possibly beyond?

I have several interrelated goals: the first and primary goal is to draw attention to the importance of eighteenth-century music and eighteenth-century music theory for twenty-first-century affect theory. I’m hoping that this book reaches scholars interested in affect theory across fields in the humanities and social scientists — not just music scholars. Finally, I’m also hoping that contemporary affect theory can learn something from its predecessors; that the way we theorize affect today can both avoid mistakes made in the past and also derive inspiration from the historical sources.

For media inquiry contact Tanu Wakefield at