Sincere or Sentimental? An Unanswered Debate

How do you determine if art (such as the music video above) is emotional or just sappy?

The original inspiration for this blog post is actually a bit odd – I was listening to some pop songs on YouTube for a music theory project I needed to do, and I stumbled across Selena Gomez’s The Heart Wants What It Wants music video. I’d heard the song before, and personally I thought it was ok, but I was actually a bit struck by the video. At first glance I thought it was packed quite an emotional punch, but towards the end I decided that it was gratuitously sentimental. The black and white aspect, the multitude of close-ups of her crying face, the slow-motion reminiscences of a past love – it was all a bit much. But I also couldn’t deny the emotional sincerity of the song and her acting. And so it got me thinking – it this song/video emotionally sincere? Or is it just sentimental and sappy? Or is it both?

Good art is usually emotionally charged. Because one of art’s main purposes is to express, and to move, in order for it to be effective it must stir the heart of the viewer/listener/reader. But how much is enough, or too much? While everyone seems to agree that art should move, and stir emotions, what is the proper way to do so? Where is the distinction between art that is emotional, and art that is gratuitously sappy? Is there a distinction? Is it all a matter of taste or preference? Can emotions be false? Can there be too much of a good thing? What is sappy to one may be truly moving to another. How can you tell?

(For the sake of this blog post I’m going to rely purely on musical examples, because they’re what I’m most familiar with, and because the points are a bit easier to get across than they’d be when comparing paintings, for example, which are harder to define emotionally. But these things apply to all branches of art, to some degree.)

Restraint in art, generally, when done in the right amount, seems to be quite effective. A piece of music, for example, that is more restrained but hints at emotions boiling just under the surface can be remarkably powerful. For example, take Beethoven’s early String Quartet No. 18, No. 1, mov. II. This movement is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – an emotionally charged play dealing with love, heartbreak, tragedy, death, and just about every powerful and extreme emotion a person can feel. Nevertheless, the piece never becomes grandiose or tragic – it is quietly sad, and because of this manages somehow to evoke a classical tragedy more than an overtly sentimental interpretation might have. Because of its classical restraint, the listener becomes increasingly aware of what is not being said – what is being implied, what is being held back. This unsettling pull-back is what gives the piece its emotional drama – it is what’s missing that completes its meaning. There is some strife and dynamic contrast towards the middle of the piece, but the main melody soars plaintively above it. Because of this expressive restraint, the piece steers clear of “sentimental” territory and remains sincerely expressive. So is restraint a key in distinguishing the emotional from the sentimental?

I think the key word in the sentence above is “sincere”. Emotional truth and sentimentality seem to be divided based upon intent – a truly emotional piece is something that the artist tries to express, while a sentimental piece is something that an artist is trying to force the audience to feel. For example, here is an aria from Mozart’s final great opera, The Magic Flute. This scene had every potential to be sappy. The opening lines are the rejected, heart-broken princess’s – “This is a fate worse than death”. The words in the actual aria all go in the same vein. But the music is what saves it from being syrupy to being truly heartfelt. There is much less restraint here than there is in the Beethoven quartet – Mozart goes all out to reveal the resigned tragedy and heart-wrenching pain that the character is feeling, but it is from a place of complete honesty. The princess is laying her heart bare, the song revealing every searing emotion she is feeling. The point of the aria is not to make the audience cry, but to make it see that the princess is crying. The emotional gravity never relents, but most will agree that the aria never descends into sentimental territory – it remains sincere, because of its intent. As a point of contrast, here is a piece by Rachmaninov from his famous set of variations for orchestra and piano based on a theme by Paganini. I know this is going to be a controversial selection, because there are definitely plenty of listeners who won’t find this necessarily “sappy”, with good reasons, but it definitely at least leans more towards that than the Mozart aria does. (I certainly am not trying to deny this is a lovely and rightfully famous piece of music by an excellent composer who certainly did not just write “sappy” music.) The main reason for this is sincerity – it’s not exactly clear what Rachmaninov is trying to express here, but it’s certain he’s trying to get the audience to feel something. I don’t deny this is a moving piece, and it definitely fulfills its purpose. But is it sincere? Or is it there for purely for emotional effect without a real expressive cause?

But then again, does a piece of music need a cause to be sincere? And shouldn’t all art be made with the intent to move? That would deny all non-theatrical/program/”story” music the emotional truth it certainly does have. For example, here is another Rachmaninov piece that most people would argue is not sentimental. It’s doesn’t have a “purpose” or story. It just is – but it is expressive, it is moving, and most would agree it is emotionally sincere. It seems to be coming straight from the composer’s heart. But again, that leads back to the sincerity of a piece – here, the composer doesn’t seem to be purely trying to get the audience to feel something, instead he is communicating about something he himself feels. But this is just a matter of opinion. Many will disagree. The emotions communicated, in both pieces, are subtle enough to create different viewpoints in reaction to them.

Subtlety is another key word. It seems like the more subtle and complex a piece’s emotional quality is, the less likely it is to be deemed “sentimental” by most people. Complexity seems to be a proof of sincerity. And perhaps that’s true. For example, here is a famous piece of music by Bach, taken from St. Matthew’s Passion. One can argue that he is trying to get the audience to feel something, which technically would make the piece sentimental (the song is sung by St. Peter’s character, lamenting that he has betrayed the Christ – something that is emotionally charged, and due to the religious nature of the piece, was intended to make the audience feel spiritual remorse.) The piece has every right to be called gratuitous or purposefully sappy. But it isn’t. Why is that? I think it’s because of the subtlety of emotions. It isn’t “tearing my hair out, screaming” sad. It certainly isn’t joyful either. It is somber, lamenting, but has a rhythmic energy underlying it, a sort of forward motion that betrays frantic-ness but also a sense of potential hope. Of course it’s a tragic piece – but it isn’t gratuitously so. It is emotionally ambiguous at times, and layered. That perhaps is the main reason why it doesn’t descend into “sentimental” territory. But must all pieces be this emotionally complex to be deemed sincere? For example, here is a piece by Scarlatti that few would think was necessarily “complex” or layered, but that doesn’t become “sappy”. Why is that? Perhaps it has something to do with dignity.

For example, here is a brief prelude by Chopin from his famous set of 24 Preludes. It doesn’t have a “cause” for it, the way the Mozart aria does. I think Chopin is, indeed, trying to get the audience to feel something. And while subtle and contrasting, it’s also pretty straightforward – describing it in just one or two adjectives would be descriptive enough. And yet it isn’t sentimental. Why? Because it’s dignified. There is something that demands a quiet respect. It is heart-felt, it is expressive, and it represents a composer in full command of his emotional and artistic powers. There is nothing needlessly attention-seeking about it, self-conscious, or gratuitous. It is serious, it is masterful, it is dignified, and it is certainly moving. Compare it with this piece of non-classical music, for example, in order to even better see that quality illustrated. I apologize for having picked an extreme example of a song that a lot of people really like – I’m not trying to bash it in any way, but I think this particular video, with the exaggerated visuals, the plaintive fiddle/recorder, and the truly ridiculous scenery, is a good example of what most people would consider “sappy”. It definitely doesn’t have dignity in a traditional sense – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does illustrate the point I’m trying to make in this blog post.

In the end, the line between sappy and simply emotional is quite blurred. Unless you’re dealing with extremes, such as a Czerny etude (not sappy at all) or the last video I shows you above (textbook definition sappy, truly), most pieces of music and art in general are much harder to characterize. Perhaps most art is in fact a mix of both. What is sappy to someone may be sincere to another. There is no one single unifying characteristic that helps you identify the two. An audience member can’t rely on the characteristic of restraint alone, for example, to determine the emotional quality of a piece. Nor can they rely on purpose, subtlety, or dignity alone. It seems a combination of all of the above, combined with a seemingly hard-to-define but somewhat universal consensus on what it means to be “sappy”, is what categorizes a piece. And at the end of the day, does it matter? If it moves you, if it communicated something relevant to you that makes you feel something, has it not accomplished its purpose? I think the debate between what is sentimental and what is sincere is something that will continue for as long as there is art – which is exactly the point. It’s all personal when it comes to expressiveness, and anything that stirs your emotions and thus such a debate is worthy of both attention and respect.

What do you think characterizes “sappy” or sincere? How would you define the two? Let me know in the comments!


7 thoughts on “Sincere or Sentimental? An Unanswered Debate

  1. I agree that the line’s blurry and I like your image of the emotion boilingAnd just under the surface. When I taught fiction writing classes, I had to give a lot of thought to the range of ways that writing convey emotion–in large part because I had to wade through a lot of attempts that I didn’t think worked. I found myself pushing my students toward creating the emotion but not naming it, leaving that space open for the reader to fill. That can, at its best anyway, create a sense of emotional expansiveness, leaving room for all the contradictions that are part of our emotional lives. As sooon as you name it, you restrict it.

    Coming at it from a slightly different angle, a poet (I’ve forgotten who) said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is such good comment! Eloquently put – I think you hit the nail on the head. “As soon as you name it, you restrict it” is exactly what I was trying to get at, and you summed it up perfectly in just a few words. (And I love the quote – I think it’s Robert Frost 🙂 )


      1. Robert Frost sounds convincing. I’m terrible at attributing quotes and stopped trying–especially when I realized that other people were attributing a few good quotes to a range of writers.

        Apologies for that stray And. I have no idea where it wandered in from.

        And finally, your post made me think of “Lascia ch’io pianga,” which has sublime music that I think tempers the over-the-topness of the words.

        Liked by 1 person

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