Art expressing very specific emotions (esp. music)

Dear quartertothree,
I will be teaching a class in a few weeks and I wanted to discuss with my students certain emotional states, and how they do or do not differ. I’d really like to use art, and most likely music, to illustrate the emotions I’m talking about, to give the students something to focus on rather in addition to my descriptions. Unfortunately, I listen to the wrong sort of music. Perhaps you can make suggestions?

Here are the three emotional states I’m interested in right now. I’m not sure they are really different (that’s one of the things I want to discuss with my students):

  1. One is guilt for doing something wrong. 2. One is feeling bad about the consequences of what you’ve done, even if what you did was not itself wrong. 3. One is feeling like a bad person. To illustrate the (possible) differences:

  2. The first would be what someone felt if they intentionally killed someone (which is typically wrong), then felt really bad about it. They might not feel that overall they were a bad person, but they feel their action was wrong and feel guilty about what they did.

  3. The second would be what someone would feel if they accidentally killed someone and were blameless for it. For example, if someone was driving very carefully, and a hidden child jumped in front of their car while playing, and they ran the kid over (and couldn’t stop etc), they might feel really bad, even if they didn’t necessarily feel that they did anything wrong.

  4. The third would be what someone felt who took themselves to be overall a bad person. Perhaps someone who intentionally killed many people over the course of their life, and at some point realized the moral significance of their actions and started judging themselves as a person.

I’d really love any suggestions. Again, songs would be great, because I think songs are really good at conveying emotions, but poems or paintings etc would be great too. Nothing that requires too much time to watch (I don’t have time to show whole movies, or assign anything to read beyond short stories) hopefully.


What’s the age group/grade level you’re dealing with here?

13-16; they’re all gifted. I’m willing to let them read/listen/hear some fairly adult stuff as long as it’s not too gratuitous.

As with any music thread, I’m going to defer to triggercut, but for #2, I would at least consider Pain of Salvation’s “A Trace of Blood.” They’re a moody, Swedish prog-metal band (emphasis more on prog than metal), influenced somewhat by Mike Patton. The track, off their masterful Remedy Lane album, deals with the guilt and agony of miscarriage, from a male perspective. Heavy track.

Or, you know, “Tears in Heaven” or something.

One obvious one that springs to mind is “Blank Page” by Smashing Pumpkins.

This sounds like the most depressing class ever.

For #2: “Pink Frost” by The Chills. It’s always been maintained that Chills leader Martin Phillips wrote this song for band member Martyn Bull, who was dying of leukemia. In reality, Phillips told me it was inspired by hearing of a friend telling about the car crash that killed the friend’s girlfriend. At any event, it fits your second point like a glove.

I’ll see what I got for 1 and 3.

“Welcome to Cutting: 101.”

Despite song titles that might suggest they’re better examples (like “Conscience Killer” for instance), I think the song “Devil’s Waiting” by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club fits the bill for #1. Lyrically it suggests that the narrator killed his girl and knows he’s guilty and knows he deserves to die and knows the devil’s waiting to claim him and the resignation and regret that follows from that.

And for #3, let me suggest “Black River Killer” by Blitzen Trapper. In this song the narrator/protagonist feels helpless in the grip of whatever mania makes him kill. He knows it’s wrong because he keeps talking about getting reborn so he can start over again, bummed out that every time he gets his head on right, he can’t help himself but kill again. There’s a matter-of fact regret combined with a resignation…and an ominous note of knowing he’s a bad motherfucker but being unable to stop himself from that, even though he knows he’s doomed by his own badness. Perhaps in the chorus he’s actually asking God to take him so he can stop killing people?

I’ll hit up art for you:

The Weeping Woman by Picasso

Nothing like seeing it in person, but it’s hard to deny the power of it no matter how you experience it.

For one and possibly three, I would recommend much work by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. For one, The Mercy Seat, particularly if you can get a live recording as they tend to be easier for people who don’t know Cave to listen to.

For three, it’s a bit more difficult as his songs tend toward melancholic. Perhaps Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow or Hallelujah (different song)? They’re not direct but hit at the same sense of underlying self-hatred.

Other music: for number two, Source Decay by The Mountain Goats . For three, and I can’t believe I’m recommending this, Jonny Cash’s cover of Hurt. I can’t stand Reznor’s lyrics in any form except Closer but this might work.

If you’re not afraid of throwing them a book recommendation for their spare time, “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene is a breathtaking tour through one and tow.

Art: you might do well to look at some religious art here. Things like like the conversion of Saul and so on.

Poetry: I know very little. Are they ready for some Elliot (The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock? Bits of The Wasteland?)?

Music is superb at conveying emotional states such as grief, anger, joy, longing, etc., but I think it’s hard to convey more specific contexts without recourse to lyrics or to an external program. I’m trying to think of any instrumental music that might describe what you’re talking about but I’m afraid I’m drawing a blank.

This may not fit with the spirit of the exercise, but might a more pragmatic approach involve presenting a selection of pieces in any medium, then asking the students to offer their interpretation of the emotion or intention of the piece? The same piece might be placed into different “emotions” depending on the position of the observer. Therefore, you might have a more spirited discussion with students explaining their position than if they have to explain where somebody else thinks the piece fits.

Give 'em “Unforgiven” by Metallica, and have at it. :)

Thanks for all the suggestions! I’m not anywhere where I can listen to anything right now, but I’m going to go through them soon. And if any more occur to you, keep suggesting, please.

I know this does sound like a bummer of a class, doesn’t it? But calculus is a challenging subject and I’m always looking for new ways of conveying some of the core concepts.

I’m joking, of course. It’s an ethics class, and I’m interested in the difference between right/wrong, good/bad, and issues of character (in other words, in talking about the distinction between doing something wrong and doing something bad, or doing something right and doing something good, or between doing something right and being a good person, etc.). One possible way of exploring these differences is by talking about whether certain emotions are appropriate in some cases but not others; e.g., is there a way of feeling bad that is appropriate if you’ve done something wrong, but not if you’ve only done something bad but not wrong, etc. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think it’s worth discussing. It’s hard to talk about without something concrete to focus our attention, thus the songs.

We’re going to do something similar when we talk about goodness - I’m going to have the students find images the illustrate various kinds of positive mental states (e.g. joy versus nostalgia). There I feel comfortable letting students do the finding, because there’s no doubt that there’s something for them to find, and it’s not so important to the point I want to make that the find some specific set of emotions.