Sondheim and Pinker on Music and Emotion

When it comes to explanations for human behavior, preeminent experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, Ph.D., adamantly believes that genes matter. When others question this position, claiming that attributing emotion and behavior to genetics is merely a way of evading responsibility, Pinker will often offer a cultural rather than a scientific response:

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,

You gotta understand

It’s just our bringing up-ke,

That gets us out of hand.

Our mothers are all junkies,

Our fathers all are drunks.

Golly Moses naturally we’re punks

The lyrics to “Gee, Officer Krupke!,” written in 1956 by Steven Sondheim of Broadway musical fame, appeared in “West Side Story” well before the heyday of environmental explanations for human behavior. Last week, as part of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series, Pinker sat down with Sondheim to discuss the seemingly universal connection between music and emotion. The sold out event, titled “The Lyric Mind” gave Pinker the chance to ask Sondheim whether this popular song poked fun at the previously standard notion of human behavior as purely an environmental—rather than a genetic—phenomenon. But Sondheim said he simply needed a lighthearted, comic scene to lighten up the mood between more dramatic acts.

As Johnstone Family Professor for Harvard University’s department of psychology, Pinker studies vision, language, and social relations. He and Sondheim’s discussion of “The Lyric Mind” certainly did not disappoint the Broadway buffs and neuroscientists alike who gathered to hear two brilliant minds discuss language, the mind, and human nature. Rubin’s Director of Programs and Engagement, Tim McHenry, seemed to speak for the audience as a whole, when he said he felt privileged to spend the night listening to and learning from this dual masterclass.


Steven Sondheim (left) and Steven Pinker, Ph.D. (right) Photo credit: Filip Wolak

Over the course of the evening, Sondheim and Pinker covered a variety of topics ranging from the musical, creative qualities of profanity to the emotive power of music, which sparked a particularly interesting dialogue. Pinker argued that music does not actually evoke emotion, but rather a bracketed, or synthesized feeling. He explained, “When you hear a sad song, you’re not literally sad; it’s pleasurable. People don’t pay to be saddened, but they will pay to go to a movie and listen to sad music.” Sondheim claimed that the emotional attributes of any song are based solely on preexisting tropes or ideas that have been culturally associated with certain sounds. “If you see an image of Margot Bryant crying on screen, and you play a trumpet, it’s going to sound like a sad trumpet.”

Sondheim went on to wonder aloud whether a child who had never heard a fugue would think it was sad, if they had never seen a movie, or a word, or some other non-musical idea connected with that type of music.

“I wonder if that child would feel sadness when hearing this fugue for the first time, and my guess is no,” he said. “My thought is that if you played The Dying Swan for a five or six year old, that child would have no idea they were supposed to feel sad.”

For more on the connections between emotion, music, and creativity, check out Carl Sherman’s recent article on the Dana website.

This year is the ninth year of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series, where popular personalities are paired with neuroscientists for a themed discussion. Events will continue into July and tickets are available online. The Rubin Museum is a Brain Awareness Week partner.


– Kenzie Novak

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