Music is often described as having something to do with emotion. But a song or a sonata can't literally feel happy or sad, so what is the connection to emotion?

You're right that a work of music can't literally feel sad. It's also true that we, the listeners, often (perhaps even typically) don't feel sad when we hear a sad piece of music. In fact, we might feel exhiliration or awe in the presence of a wonderful performance of a sad piece--a slow one in a minor key, for example. (If sad music typically made us sad we probably wouldn't choose to listen to as much of it as we do.) There's no reason to think that the composer or performer(s) of a sad piece of music need to feel sad. So who or what is the subject of the emotions we seem to perceive in music?

And come to think of it, unlike garden variety emotions, the emotions that we perceive in music don't have clear objects either. What is the sadness of the music about?

Even though the emotions we seem to hear in music have no clear subjects or objects, it often (though not always) seems right to describe music in emotional terms. Saying how this can be is one of the central problems--if not the central problem--in the philosophy of music. And there's still significant disagreement because sorting it out touches on broader issues such as the nature of artistic expression and interpretation, as well as the nature of emotions and moods. I won't sketch the options here, but instead recommend Peter Kivy's recent book An Introduction to a Philosophy of Music, which provides a nice account of these issues.

Read another response by Joseph G. Moore
Read another response about Music