Doctrine of the Affections

Here you’ll find a brief explanation of the Doctrine of the Affections. Like the use of basso continuo, the practice of composing music that expressed a single emotion (affect) is unique to the Baroque era. Later composers wanted the freedom to express contrasting emotions in a single piece of music. One of the most noticeable results of Baroque composers’ adherence to the Doctrine of Affections was the practice of breaking a longer text up into shorter phrases and setting each as a separate movement with music designed to express a single emotion or affect.

For example, the Utrecht Te Deum by George Frideric Handel (a late Baroque composer) consists of ten separate movements, while the Te Deum No. 2 in C by Franz Joseph Haydn (a composer of the late Classical era) is a single piece of music with no separate movements. Note that those two texts are not exactly the same. Handel’s Te Deum is in English while Haydn’s is in the original Latin. But they serve to illustrate the impact of the Doctrine of Affections on music composition in the Baroque.


The doctrine of the affections, also known as the doctrine of affects, doctrine of the passions, theory of the affects, or by the German term Affektenlehre (after the German Affekt; plural Affekte) was a theory in the aesthetics of painting, music, and theatre, widely used in the Baroque era (1600–1750) (Harnoncourt 1983; Harnoncourt 1988). Literary theorists of that age, by contrast, rarely discussed the details of what was called “pathetic composition,” taking it for granted that a poet should be required to “wake the soul by tender strokes of art” (Rogerson 1953, p. 68). The doctrine was derived from ancient theories of rhetoric and oratory (Buelow 2001). Some pieces or movements of music express one Affekt throughout; however, a skillful composer like Johann Sebastian Bach could express different affects within a movement (Boetticher 2010).

History and Definition

The doctrine of the affections was an elaborate theory based on the idea that the passions could be represented by their outward visible or audible signs. It drew largely on elements with a long previous history, but first came to general prominence in the mid-seventeenth century amongst the French scholar-critics associated with the Court of Versailles, helping to place it at the centre of artistic activity for all of Europe (Rogerson 1953, p. 70). The term itself, however, was only first devised in the twentieth century by German musicologists Hermann Kretzschmar, Harry Goldschmidt, and Arnold Schering, to describe this aesthetic theory (Buelow 2001; Nagley and Bujić 2002).

René Descartes held that there were six basic affects, which can be combined together into numerous intermediate forms (Descartes 1649, p. 94):

  1. Admiration (admiration)
  2. Amour (love)
  3. Haine (hatred)
  4. Désir (desire)
  5. Joie (joy)
  6. Tristesse (sorrow)

Another authority also mentions sadness, anger, and jealousy (Buelow 2001).

Lorenzo Giacomini (1552–1598) in his Orationi e discorsi defined an affection as “a spiritual movement or operation of the mind in which it is attracted or repelled by an object it has come to know as a result of an imbalance in the animal spirits and vapours that flow continually throughout the body” (Giacomini Tebalducci Malespini 1597).

“Affections are not the same as emotions; however, they are a spiritual movement of the mind” (Palisca 1991, p. 3).

A prominent Baroque proponent of the Doctrine of the Affections was Johann Mattheson (Poultney 1996, p. 107).