Re-Viewed: "For Free"
Two of the songs I find most emotionally moving, re-viewed.
One of the songs I find most emotionally moving is called “For Free.” It is by Joni Mitchell, on her album Ladies of the Canyon, which was the last record she produced before transcending the world of the attainable into the realm of unequivocal genius. It’s a song I’ve thought a lot about. Not just because I love it or because it taps into a rich vein of feeling, but because the feelings it elicits are ones I didn’t know I had. I’m not sure what to make of that.
The song starts out with the camera focused on Joni. She’s on her way to play a show. She’s spent the previous night in a fancy hotel, and now two men in a limo have come to take her to the concert hall. “And I play if you have the money,” she observes, “or if you’re a friend to me.”
But then, as the limo moves through the city streets, the camera shifts away from Joni. She notices a clarinet player. He’s playing on the street. He’s good, real good. But no one seems to notice. People are waiting for the crosswalk. They don’t even look over at him. “They knew he had never been on their TV, so they passed his music by.” But yet he’s still there. Playing his music. For free.
Joni thinks to herself that she ought to get out of the car. She thinks about going over there, to ask him to play something so she can sing a line of harmony. It’s a symbolic admission of the equivalence of their music—that they’re both serious about their art, that they both play well. She means to do this. But then she doesn’t. She stays in the car. She listens to him play a bit more. Then the light changes from red to green, and she drives off.
Clearly, whatever is happening in this encounter is salient to Joni, and her intention as a songwriter is to convey the weight of this emotional experience to her listener. But what exactly is the emotion? It’s hard to say. Do we feel guilt, because everything worked out for Joni but not for this clarinet player? Do we feel sad, because no one cares about the clarinet player’s music? Or is it something more positive, like a yearning to appreciate all that goes under-appreciated? Then again maybe it’s closer to shame. Joni, like so many of us, received more from the universe than she was strictly owed.
Whatever it is, it’s not an emotion I’m used to encountering on a regular basis. I’m not sure I’d ever felt it before hearing this song. At least not this intensely, with this much pointed specificity. It’s not that it was a feeling I was wholly unaccustomed to. But it wasn’t until someone distilled it—reduced it to it’s purest form, and presented it to me in a four-minute-thirty-second package—that I was really able to feel I had a grasp on it.
There’s a scene from the movie Love Actually in which Emma Thompson’s character is enjoying an evening with her family. She is sitting on the couch, chatting with her husband, played by Alan Rickman, when a song comes on. Inspired by the song, she presents him with a tongue-in-cheek, not-sure-if-I’ve-mentioned-this sort of notion: “Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold, English wife how to feel.” At face value, the line is straightforward: one Englishwoman’s frigid exterior, melted by the warmth of Joni’s soul. But there is, a little deeper down, something strange about this claim. It’s not as if Joni Mitchell could sit Emma Thompson down in a classroom, gesture toward the chalkboard, and teach her how to feel in quite the same way she could teach her, say, how to do math. Emotion isn’t something we learn. It’s just there. Yet I can’t help but come to the same conclusion. Joni Mitchell taught me how to feel. But how?
My initial response to this question was that it has to do with specificity. Music elicits emotions in the same way any story does: by giving us enough insight into the specifics of a situation to put ourselves in the emotional shoes of the characters.
Under this framework, what’s happening in “For Free” is that Joni is providing sufficient detail to achieve a kind of emotional resonance. The situation is nuanced, and we’ve never experienced those particularly nuances in quite that pattern. But it’s built from aspects of emotions we are familiar with—shame, guilt, yearning, etc—and so we can situation ourselves within this new affective state.
It reminded me of a metaphor used by Sam Harris in his book, The Moral Landscape. In this book, Harris argues that morality is like a landscape. There aren’t just clearly delineated areas of “good” and “bad.” Instead there are highs and lows, areas of comparably higher altitude, which are closer to what we might think of as “good.” The book uses this metaphor to ask the question about how we might find ourselves climbing toward an area of comparatively higher moral ground.
I think in many ways the landscape metaphor is also useful for emotions. There are the “big” emotions, the ones that color our daily emotional experience. A classic line of research by Paul Ekman argued that there are six of these basic emotions: anger, surprise, disgust, enjoyment, fear, and sadness. These emotions are universally recognized and expressed by all humans, regardless of their cultural background. They represent large swathes of the emotional landscape. These are like countries on a map: large plots of land that are readily distinguishable from one another, but may have a lot of complexity and heterogeneity within their borders.
On the emotional landscape, like the moral landscape, there are highs and lows, peaks and valleys. In emotion research, psychologists call this the “valence” of an emotion: is it overall positive or negative? Enjoyment is positive and anger is negative, while surprise is somewhere in between. But there are also crevasses, divots, and bumps—minor changes in elevation that aren’t easily spotted when surveying the landscape as a whole. What’s happening in a song like “For Free,” then, is that it introduces you to one of the crevasses, a piece of emotional real estate that’s a bit harder to get to from the areas on the map in which we normally hang out.
But this isn’t the whole story.
There’s a whole other category of song, which this doesn’t help us make sense of. One of my favorite examples is Donny Hathaway’s “Giving Up,” which is about emotionally enthralling as a song can get. In it, Donny takes the opposite strategy. In the opening line, he sings: “Givin’ up is hard to do / when you really love someone.” The emotion he’s trying to convey isn’t difficult to describe at all; he just did it. And when Donny sings it, you get it—all at once and in total.
But when you listen closely to the song, you find he isn’t describing a specific situation, or at least not with any special vividness. You can’t create a mental picture of what you’re saying or put yourself in his shoes—at least not in the same way you can with the incisive imagery of “For Free.” There are no scenes. There is no camera. Rather, he is presenting a feeling at its most general. Instead of picking out a special divot on the landscape, he’s describing an entire valley.
This suggests that specificity is just one strategy for creating emotional resonance. It isn’t in fact necessary, as you can have a song that’s just as moving but doesn’t require you to reconstruct the details of narrative. Personally, I already knew that giving up is hard to do when you really love someone. Yet in the moment when Donny sings that line, the sentiment takes on a new vibrancy, as if it’s only at this moment you realize that giving up is hard to do. No, this song doesn’t work by the same principles as “For Free.” There’s something else going on here.
There’s a famous concept in social psychology developed by a group of researchers led by Matthew Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger at UCLA. It is called “affect labeling.” The idea behind affect labeling is simple: that being able to describe an emotion, to put a specific label on it, is one of the most effective ways to manage the effects of that emotion. This is one of the premises of therapy. Talking through an emotional trauma can help one deal with it. But until Lieberman and Eisenberger came along, no one quite knew why affect labeling worked.
In the original affect labeling paper, published in 2007, they present participants with pictures of faces expressing a particular emotion. Some of them show an individual deep in the throes of anger, others frightened as if they’ve seen a ghost. The participants see the pictures in one of six conditions. The conditions are there to provide different ways of interacting with this emotional content. One of them is affect labeling: the participant selects the word which best describes the emotion. The other five are alternatives: in one of them, the participant only has to say whether the face is male or female; in another, the participant is asked to pick another face which shows the same emotion. Lieberman and Eisenberger presented these pictures to the participants while they were undergoing a functional MRI—allowing the researchers to measure changes in the brain as participants responded in the different conditions.
In particular, they were interested in activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is part of the limbic system, often considered to be the ‘emotional center’ of the brain. A more intense signal from the amygdala implies a more intense emotional response. Decreased signal from the amygdala suggests a more measured emotional response. What they found is that the amygdala response during affect labeling was different from the other conditions.
During the affect labeling condition, participants showed less response in the amygdala. Instead, when participants engaged in affect labeling, they showed greater activation in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. In a loose interpretation, this implies that while participants were “feeling” in the other conditions, what they were doing during affect labeling was something closer to “thinking.”
I think the idea of “affect labeling” helps us make sense of why we can experience emotional resonance both with “For Free” in its specificity and “Giving Up” in its generality. The artists are picking out different parts of the emotional landscape, and giving us a label by which to call it. It’s not longer just some valley in the distance. We’ve seen it up close and personal: it’s “Giving Up” valley. Just as a map, filled with landmarks and delineations, helps us make sense of terrain in the world, songs like these help us make sense of the emotional world.
But there’s still the question of why we want to experience these emotions at all. If I’m never really going to encounter the emotions of “For Free” in the wild or if giving up is so damn hard to do, then why do I turn on these songs at all? Why not just play happy music all the time?
A more recent review of affect labeling, by Lieberman and his colleague Jared Torre, begins to suggest at why this might be. In the review, they argue that fundamentally what affect labeling is about—why putting feelings into words is so helpful—is about emotion regulation. Emotion regulation is essentially the ability to control the volume dial on our affective states, that when we experience the onset of an emotion we can turn the intensity down a notch if we feel it’s necessary.
Affect labeling isn’t a typical item in our arsenal of emotion regulation techniques. Lieberman and Torre write that “When we think about emotion regulation, we likely think of a process that requires effort, whether physical or mental, that ‘removes’ us in some way from the cause of our emotion. We might avert our eyes from a gruesome car crash or try convincing ourselves it isn’t as bad as it looks.” To consider affect labeling a useful means of emotional regulation is to pass a destitute individual on the street and think that commenting “that’s sad” actually makes us less sad.
The basic mechanism behind emotion regulation is reappraisal. This is our ability to take our immediate reaction to a stimulus and modify it in some way, hopefully one that affords us a better chance to cope with it. This can happen in two ways: reinterpretation, in which we try to repaint whatever we’re responding to in a different light, and distancing, in which we find a way of putting space between us and the impact of the situation at hand. In the case of the destitute individual, the reinterpretation strategy might be to say ourselves “Well, it’s not that bad,” while the distancing strategy would be simply to look away.
One thing that Lieberman and Torre note about affect labeling as a potential means of emotion regulation is that people have a strong prejudice that it won’t work. This isn’t true of other emotion regulation strategies, which people do suspect will work. “When asked on a trial-by-trial basis,” they write, “how much distress they would feel in response to an aversive image, participants correctly predicted that they would feel less distress if they engaged in reappraisal.” But this doesn’t hold for affect labeling: they “incorrectly predicted that they would feel more distress if they engaged in affect labeling, even when making these predictions after themselves reporting reduced distress during an actual affect labeling task.”
So an emotionally moving song is not only giving us a label for a particular patch of the emotional landscape. It is giving us a means of dealing with it as well. Lieberman and Torre suggest several possible mechanisms for how this might work.
The first is distraction. This is in line with the original affect labeling study, in which we are less at the mercy of pure feeling and can translate the emotion into something resembling thought. I don’t think this applies to the case of these songs though. If you really want to be distracted from these particular emotions, just take your headphones off and do something else.
The second is self-reflection. “With this evidence in mind, the important component in affect labeling could be self-reflection upon our emotions while the translation of these feelings into language may only serve to initiate the introspection process or as an external indicator that the self-reflection occurred.” This seems closer. We get the opportunity to try these emotions on without having to commit to living out the situations they evoke them. That’s a useful exercise.
But the explanation comes closest is their third candidate: reduction of uncertainty. “Emotions can often be nebulous feeling states,” they write. “By applying a label to those states, or even to evocative but ambiguous stimuli, we may be reducing our uncertainty about them by categorizing them.” I think at the end of the day we all want to feel that we have some control over our emotional experience. In the middle of a breakup, you don’t have the simple clarity of “Givin’ up is hard to do / when you really love someone.” But when Donny sings that, you know it’s the truth. You’ve not only been given the opportunity to locate that feeling on the emotional landscape, but you’ve been told that it’s a real place. It gives the feeling both concreteness and legitimacy. “This is what you’re feeling; others feel it too.”
Why, then, do we willingly engage in negative emotion when when it’s one that we’re not currently experiencing, planning to experience in the near future, or may not even have occasion to experience at all? I think the answer is simple. We want to care about the world. We want to feel things deeply, throughout the full spectrum of experience, the bad as well as the good. We want to engage in raw emotion. And we look to artists like Joni Mitchell and Donny Hathaway to allow us a temporary portal to those far-flung places on the emotional landscape. They not only take us to that place. They teach us how to navigate it.
Thanks for reading. I’m Cody Kommers, and this is my Substack in which I write about psychology, travel, and the science of meaningful experience. I’m a PhD student in social psych at Oxford. If you liked this piece, please consider sharing or subscribing. It’s a huge help in supporting this content. I really appreciate it.
P.S., After taking the summer off I’ve recently begun producing podcasts again! You can find the full list of my Cognitive Revolution guests on my website.
This week, I talked to Rebecca Saxe about her story as a scientist. We talked about her early successes and failures, what inspired her to become a scientist (and more specifically a professor), and the connection between her love of fiction and her cognitive neuroscience research in ‘theory of mind.’
I also recently released an episode with one of my favorite social psychologists, Jay Van Bavel. His new book, The Power of Us, is out now! It’s a great read for anyone who wants the current lay of the land on intergroup neuroscience research. Speaking social psychology, my four-part Gordon Allport bio is now available on audio.
I also appeared recently on a podcast I love, hosted by Ben Kuper-Smith. Ben goes in-depth with academics on their work (way more in-depth on the actual work than I do!). He’s recently begun experimenting with a new format for episodes, which are essentially extended book clubs. They’re really fun, and I really enjoyed doing one with him on the recent biography of Alexander von Humboldt—one of the greatest scientific explorers of all time—by Andrea Wulf. You can find the first episode (of three!!) here.