The mystery of musical affect (and effect)

I once found myself unexpectedly moved to tears by the singing of a Flemish folk song. I do not speak Flemish and I don’t have any particular connection to the subject matter, that of a woman whose seven sons immigrate to Canada from Belgium. Later that day I could not even fully remember the melody. But the very visceral effect it had on me ­­— and as I later learned, on others who were in the audience that day — has me thinking about why it is that a musical performance can have more or less impact than expected. Displays of musical virtuosity, dramatic flair, and of course, good material seem like obvious ways to reach an audience. But each live rendition of a piece is unique, with its own circumstances, audience mood, success of execution, and performer’s frame-of-mind, and so one cannot always predict what effect a piece will have.

Diana Taylor, a scholar of performance studies, writes that “Repertoire, etymologically ‘a treasury, an inventory,’ also allows for individual agency, referring also to ‘the finder, discoverer,’ and meaning ‘to find out’. The repertoire requires presence: people participate in the production and reproduction of knowledge by ‘being there,’ being a part of the transmission.”(Taylor, 20). But how is it that we can engage with and discover this meaning, as performers or listeners?

Photo by Tomàs Maxé

At that concert by The Shuffle Season in Toronto, the song, “Moeder Cordula” (Mother Cordula), was sung simply and unaffectedly by Belgian musician Thomas Baeté, who is principally a viola da gamba player. After the concert I confessed my outburst to him and said that frankly, I was a bit surprised that the song had made me feel so emotional.

Baeté looked abashed at first and then began to tell me some facts about the composer, Willem Vermandere, a very famous figure in Belgium. But as we chatted, he slowed down, and began to work through his own ideas about what made the song great that day. He said that he had just realized that Moeder was what he would call his own mother, but not a word he got to sing very often since he was more typically performing Renaissance music with texts in Italian, French and Latin, languages in which even Flemish composers of the time would have used. But in this song he sang Moeder, and he too had found it poignant that day.

Perhaps Baeté’s own emotional connection to the piece come through in his performance, and he somehow conveyed an intimate connection to the material in the moment. Perhaps I would have felt the same welling of emotion at every night’s performance. Perhaps, in truth, Baeté is just that good a performer, or the song itself that well-crafted. I will admit that as I listened, I thought of my own parents’ emigrant experience, and what their mothers must have felt at losing them to Canada. I had never really considered that deeply before.

I suspect that it is a combination of these factors but also my own interaction with the theme. And I also know that perhaps listening to the same song again, even sung by its composer, might never produce the same reaction.


Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s