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The American Journal of Semiotics


published on February 7, 2019

Barry Stampfl

Hypothetic Inference as “Peculiar Musical Emotion”
Interpreting Hüsker Dü

An invitation to consider my own continuing engagement with alternative rock music has caused me to ponder the role of personal history in the development of individual musical preferences. I will rely on Peirce’s concept of hypothetic inference (aka abduction) as an optic for re-seeing some standard distinctions in the discussion of the aesthetic responses of musical listeners. A certain passage from Peirce that interrogates the nature of “peculiar musical emotion” makes it possible to question assumptions regarding the mechanisms that enable music to express and, especially, to arouse emotions in an essay by music theorists Jennefer Robinson and Robert S. Hatten. I will suggest that Robinson and Hatten’s description of episodic memory as a source of musical emotions that is not aesthetically warranted requires reconsideration. By adapting Norman N. Holland’s psychoanalytic analysis of individuals’ responses to literary texts to the aesthetic responses of musical listeners, we can see that between episodic memories and aesthetic responses there is an intervening term, “identity theme”, that cannot be disregarded. Holland’s approach discloses a seamless connection between episodic memories and certain kinds of emotional responses to music that Robinson and Hatten do consider to be aesthetically warranted, those that are comprehended under the persona theory of musical emotions. In the final section of my essay, I will focus on my own obsession with the alternative rock band Hüsker Dü in order to show the unavoidability of episodic memory for the understanding of music’s emotional impact.

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