Real-Fear vs Fear-In-Music (Mu-Fear)

OK, so I’m listening to a performance of  Schubert’s “Erlkonig”, and I have a feeling of “fear”. How do we characterize that feeling of “fear”? It seems natural to call it  “fear”, but at the same time it doesn’t seem to be the same thing as “real-life-fear”.

I’ll use the term “mu-fear”  for the kind of fear that can be experienced during music ; I’ll use the term “real-fear” for the kind of full-fledged fear that one can experience in life (e.g. a big dog growling at me with teeth baring).

The following is a quick, imperfect attempt to characterize the similarities and differences re mu-fear and real-fear. My main point is that there are similarities and differences, and these can be articulated.

Real-Fear typically has these characteristics:

[a] Grabs my attention, almost all of my attention.

[b] Evokes physical reactions – sweat, faster heartbeat, faster breathing, …

[c] Evokes primitive, instinctual thoughts which may or may not be acted upon

(Fight, flight, scream …)

[d] After the threat has passed, the effects are slow to dissipate

[e] In many cases, there are rich psychoanalytic associations which can be very long lasting

(Rage, anxiety, childhood memories, …)

Mu-Fear is typically as follows:

[a] Grabs some of my attention, but not all

[b] Very mild physical reactions

[c] Probably evokes some primitive responsives, but very mild and subtle

[d] Fear reaction is brief, often momentary

[e] Psychoanalytic effect minimal

[f] Notwithstanding the above, it is natural for the listener to use the word “fear” in an attempt to verbalize the experience.

Regarding [f]: (as per Marvin Minsky “Society of Mind”) I would say that part of what mu-fear is about is that it triggers a signal or alert in the listener something like “mild warning: possible danger”. Humans receive many signals/alerts (when listening to music, while driving, in the dog park, …) most of these are “false alarms”. But the signal/alert itself is “real” as far as it goes.

So, what is mu-fear and how does it relate to real-fear? The short answer is that mu-fear is a primitive, light reaction (or family of reactions) which has a certain amount of overlap with real-fear, but not a lot. However, as per [f], a listener finds it natural to use the word “fear” as a label for the reaction. (Very Important: This does not mean that it is an accurate description of the listener’s reaction!)

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