Musical Arts

Well-Tempered Bagatelles A Meditation on Listening
in Psychoanalysis & Music

by Alexander Stein, MSSc

"Well-Tempered Bagatelles A Meditation on Listening in Psychoanalysis & Music" (1999) American Imago, 56(4), pp. 387-416.
© The John Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission of The John Hopkins University Press.

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"Teach me half the gladness / That thy brain must know, / Such harmonious madness / From my lips would flow, / The world should listen then, as I am listening now."
Percy Bysshe Shelley

Listening is a cardinal feature of psychoanalytic work. Its elemental importance transcends and unifies all other components of theory and technique. No matter an analyst's theoretical orientation, and irrespective of the conceptual frame in which the listening is organized or of its focus at any given moment during an analytic session, listening is an activity underlying every aspect of the analytic interaction occurring within the auditory sphere.

Separately, a consideration of signal moments of the early part of the twentieth century reveals the coincidental emergence of psychoanalytic thought and the onset of fundamental alterations in music (such as serialism, 12-tone rows, and experimentation with sonority and form). A primary part of the overall task undertaken by early twentieth century composers was the implementation of a replacement system for governing the organization of sound in time. The implications for the project of psychoanalytic listening pioneered by Freud were no less momentous: to listen to the sounds of the human experience in a radically different, and profoundly deeper, way. Both psychoanalysis and contemporary music clearly derive from the breadth of each of their respective histories: Freud no more created the notion of the unconscious, ex nihilo, than could Schoenberg have written his first 12-tone works without benefit of the entire musical corpus which preceded him. Each is rooted in systems of thought, aesthetics and scholarship accumulating since antiquity, yet each is possible only in the twentieth century.

This essay critically examines these two ostensibly different yet related forms of listening in music(2) and in psychoanalysis with a view to yielding an expanded understanding of the nature of and relationship between unconscious processes and the ways in which we hear the evanescent discourse between analyst and analysand. The aesthetic, philosophical and psychological links between and among conscious and unconscious emotional responses in listening to music and in the analytic situation form a complex fugue of inter-weaving yet, at least at first blush, seemingly discontiguous themes. But this dense polyphony finally coalesces in two areas common to both engaged, attuned listening and, most importantly, the communication of feeling. What follows, then, is founded in this rather simple premise.

Not so simple, however, are the ways in which feelings are communicated and registered. In this regard, I will explore the contention that essentially all listening is predicated upon entrenched constructs of harmony, tonality and by-now axiomatically-accepted ideals of beauty, consonance and dissonance. What are the implications of an unheard, that is, unconscious, internalization of hierarchies of harmoniousness and well-temperedness on psychoanalytic listening for both analyst and analysand where contending with the resurgence of or resistance against unconscious conflict necessarily calls for recasting established ways of thinking and feeling? For analysts, this question exceeds the bounds of 'attunement' in its traditional sense or of closely monitoring countertransference responses in that it speaks to an immanent mode of listening which would be left unaddressed, at least explicitly, by even the most thorough psycho-analysis. It also prompts a reconsideration of what is, in fact, heard in even the most creative and attuned listening. Simply put, the issue is to re-think not only what is heard but how it is heard.

I will address this first in a primarily musical context, commencing with a terse historical accounting of consonance, dissonance and the evolution of the most accepted system of temperament.

To be intelligible, we accept that our communication must adhere to particular rules and must conform to the codicils of grammar and syntax which govern usage and meaning. Of course, rules change, reflecting the stylistic fashions of a given time or place, validating, re-validating, nullifying or transforming acceptable doctrine. Similarly, the rebellious anarchy which is one moment's avant garde is inevitably subsumed by some radicalized successor. The fluidity of rules, whether musical or linguistic, being occasioned by such forces as politics, an individual's charisma, technological innovation, or the like, tends to suggest that the fundamental laws upon which they are based are equally unstable or are capable of periodic wholesale revision. Such assumptions can endure and even thrive on their pedigree alone: they are well-founded in Renaissance conceptions of scientific knowledge as empirically demonstrative and immutable. As well, as Kurt Eissler (1953) suggests, no individual can divorce himself from the historical period in which he is living any more than he can put himself beyond time or space . . . Everything that is created by man must be deeply imbued by the historical climate at the time of its creation.

Robert Schumann (1837) has written that it would be just as simple to make the proclamation, that which sounds well is not wrong, and to alter the structure of the sentence to all that does not sound well is wrong (p. 42) without fundamentally changing its intended meaning. As a means of substantiating a stylistic variant of one rule or another, or promoting what is fashionable or acceptable in a given moment, Schumann's aphorism is astute. It also goes a long way toward suggesting how, with regard to musical listening, the principles of physics, acoustics or psychology can seem to be so easily manipulated and so divergently interpreted. Similarly, in his polemical 1941 treatise regarding the underlying philosophy and compositional techniques of twelve-tone music, Schoenberg posited the emancipation of the dissonance, a concept which grew out of the developments of the so-called extended tonality of Wagnerian and Straussian chromaticism and the impressionistic harmonies of Debussy. In Impressionism for example, Schoenberg declared tonality dethroned (p. 216) inasmuch as the harmonies themselves lacked constructive meaning, yet were deployed as coloristic mechanisms within the frame of musical functionality to the end of producing a picture emotional comprehensibility. As audiences became more and more acquainted with and accustomed to Strauss and Wagner's chromatically restless harmonic shifts and Debussy's pentatonic and vaguely-centered harmonic washes, dissonances gradually lost their sense-interrupting effect (p. 216). Thus, in Schoenberg's view, what distinguishes dissonance from consonance are not degrees of beauty but degrees of comprehensibility. Schoenberg further radicalized conceptualizations of classical form and the unity of musical space as an absolute and unitary perception in which it had been held that, within this musical space, there is no absolute down, no right or left, forward or backward. Every musical configuration, every movement of tones has to be comprehended primarily as a mutual relation of sounds, of oscillatory vibrations, appearing at different places and times (p. 223). Schoenberg suggested that our unconscious [or subconscious, as he called it] ability to comprehend tonal relations was more flexible, likening aural apperceptive capabilities to the apprehension of material objects: just as our mind always recognizes, for instance, a knife, a bottle or a watch, regardless of its position, and can reproduce it in the imagination in every possible position, even so a musical creator's mind can operate subconsciously with a row of tones, regardless of their direction, regardless of the way in which a mirror might show the mutual relations, which remain a given quality (p. 223).

Not surprisingly the accepted and acceptable relation between discord and concord, as well as the definitions of each, have also fluctuated from century to century, as current convention might dictate. Yet contemporary acoustic science reveals that the laws of sound which premise our codified psychological understanding of the relationship between emotional response and sound are, strictly speaking, patently inapplicable. The only true consonant interval is the octave;(3) every other is to some degree dissonant, that is, exhibits something our ear experiences as harsh owing to the frequency of its vibrations. The extent, then, to which an ear in Josquin's day could tolerate dissonance (or even what was considered dissonant) in contrast with Bach's, Mozart's, Strauss', Berg's or the musician's of tomorrow is unrelated to anything other than what has been socially prescribed and proscribed. The momentary discord of a suspension, for example, once required preparation, yet at a later time could be accepted with nothing more than an accented passing tone. There are numerous such examples in the annals of music history; and Schumann's exhortation to musicians a hundred years ago remains just as applicable today: remember that once upon a time the seventh startled just as much as the diminished octave now does, and that through the development of harmony, passion received finer nuances by means of which music has been placed among those high mediums of art which have language and symbols for all spiritual states (p. 42). After nearly a thousand years of such revisions and alterations, today's listeners bear the burden of what Peter Kivy (1990) calls inescapable musical historicity (p. 69).

While it is not inaccurate to consider the fundamental structures of musical composition harmony, chords, scales, rhythm as an analog to the grammar upon which spoken and written language operates, it is an incomplete comparison. The doctrines which govern the construction of musical phrases are themselves founded upon something more elemental. In the instance of music, that primordial foundation, the musical arkhe, is ostensibly the combination of the physical laws of acoustics and the anatomy and biology of the human auditory system. However, as Percy Scholes (1938) charmingly states it, as life is necessarily a compromise; perfect truth is unattainable, and so is perfect tuning . . . If we are to mix among men we shall, in conversation, often have to be satisfied to utter and hear hasty generalizations; and if in music we want to move easily amongst the keys (in both senses the tonalities and the ivories), we shall have to accept approximations (p. 1013). The system of equal temperament in widespread use from about the mid-eighteenth century onward was adopted primarily as a consequence of practical, meaning political and economic, expedience. Equal temperament allowed composers to explore increasingly complex chromatic harmonies and remote modulations without increasing the complexity of instrument design or the difficulty of playing techniques.

Writing in The Oxford Companion to Music (Tenth Edition), Scholes defines temperament as an adjustment in tuning in order to get rid of gross inaccuracy in the intervals between certain notes an adjustment by the distribution of the amount of this inaccuracy over the intervals in general (or some of them), so that small disturbance to the ear results (p. 1012).(4)

It is thought that early Egyptians or Mesopotamians experimented with associations of musical intervals and numerical equivalencies. Pythagoras is generally credited with having introduced whole-number-ratio tunings for the octave, perfect fourth and perfect fifth in early Greek music theory. His many followers continued his work, devoting themselves primarily to scale constructions and tuning. Although much of the writings of the Harmonists, as these post-Pythagoreans came to be collectively known, were lost, their legacy was collated, summarized and expanded upon in the second century A.D. by astronomer, geographer and music theorist Claudius Ptolemy in his Harmonics.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the preponderance of western music was theoretically based on Pythagorean intonation, a subset of just intonation based on ratios composed only of multiples of two and three. Pythagorean tuning is characterized by consonant octaves, perfect fourths, and perfect fifths, based on ratios of the numbers one, two, three, and four; all other intervals in Pythagorean tuning are dissonant. This property is consistent with the musical practice of the middle ages, in which polyphony was based on fourths, fifths, and octaves, with all other intervals, including thirds and sixths, being treated as dissonances. The basic premise is that the number of pitches required to play in different keys can be reduced by altering the tuning of certain tones so that they can perform different functions in different keys. Thus, temperament essentially compromises the quality of intervals and chords in the interest of simplifying instrument design and construction, and playing technique. Various schemes and permutations of temperament were proposed and used during the renaissance and baroque eras; but, particularly with the growing advent of keyboard instruments which, owing to their physical construction, presented particular difficulties and requirements with regard to tuning, these eventually coalesced to what became known as meantone temperament. The variety of meantone temperament which established itself in widest favor was a twelve-tone realization which evolved more or less into the system of twelve-tone equal temperament most prominently trumpeted into inexpungible historical acceptance by J.S. Bach, whose forty-eight preludes and fugues of the Wohltemperierte Klavier (Heft I, 1722; Heft II, 1744) constituted not only a towering musical achievement but the most substantial treatise to date in furtherance of the "well-tempered" system.(5)

Notwithstanding over two hundred years of indoctrination calculated to tune our ears to understand and accept very particular brands of consonance and dissonance, the net effect of twelve-tone equal temperament is a relative mistuning of all consonant intervals except the octave. In a sense, the rise of equal temperament can be seen as a partial resurgence of the defunct Pythagorean system. The ostensible primary advantage of equal temperament is that every key is equally good or equally bad. There is no contrast in consonance between keys, so all twelve tones can serve equally well as keynotes of major or minor scales or as the roots of major or minor triads.

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, then, the preponderance of the canon of western music was composed, and all previously written music played and listened to, in the entrenched system of equally tempered scales and the principles of tonal harmony. An advocate of "just intonation," a system which abolishes the restrictions of equal (or "unjust") temperament, states the dilemma of contemporary [equal-tuned] music thus: By substituting twelve equally spaced tones for a vast universe of subtle intervalic relationships, the composers and theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries effectively painted Western music into a corner from which it has not, as yet, extricated itself (Doty 1994).

Examples of the difficulties of listening to justly tuned music are as common as the feeling of discomfort when one hears a singer or instrumentalist whose intonation is imprecise the pitch sounds just "off" enough to make the experience mildly unpleasant. Larger, and more intentional, examples also abound. Ben Johnston, an American composer born in 1926, along with Harry Partch, La Monte Young and Lou Harrison, is one of the most prominent twentieth century composers whose work frequently employs just tuning. Johnston's 1965 Sonata for Microtonal Piano represents a remarkable example of a piece structured in classical sonata form which disintegrates accepted, that is, traditionally utilized, conventions of hearing concord and discord, and which disenfranchises the listener from acoustical terra firma. It is a work, as Johnston describes it, as beauty or the beast, a monstrous parody-enigma, allusive, referential, sometimes derisive, distorted, a tissue of familiarity in radically strange garb.

Contemporary notions of musical temperament, consonance and dissonance have become so inextricably bound-up with virtually every other aspect of the Western aesthetic tradition that the way in which we listen whether to music or, by extension, as I am arguing, to the affect-rich communications in psychoanalytic discourse, cannot be unhinged from any of the other ideals of balance and harmony promulgated since antiquity. It is this point that I will now address, first with regard to some of the conceptualizations historically used to understand and explicate the relationship between music and the emotions, and then extrapolated to psychoanalytic listening.

The application of psychoanalytic theory to art forms such as music, art and literature, typically comports in large measure with the methodology cataloged by Baudry (1984). Baudry synthesized and replied to many of the arguments in the literature regarding both the limitations and contributions of considering a work of art (or the artist who created it) within a psychoanalytic framework of interpretation and meaning. Of the four methodological categories proposed by Baudry, one seems to me to be most applicable to music, an art form not directly addressed in his essay. This, as Baudry writes, concerns itself with the reaction of the reader [or, for the purposes of this essay, the listener] and the production of poetic and aesthetic effect (p. 552). Such a classification cannot, of course, exist in isolation, for, although this approach focuses on the listener, it incorporates by reference the source of that reaction, which, as Baudry delineates, involves the thematic analysis of the text (or, here, a musical score) identifying traces or derivatives of mental contents.

Consistent with such well-founded tenets, resorting to analogy and metaphor in so-called 'applied psychoanalytic' investigations appears unavoidable when comparing what are typically regarded as essentially different modes of expression. In his theorizing about the creative process, Freud saw dreams and dream states as the artist's primary muse. In his 1908 paper, Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming, Freud established the paradigmatic relevant analogy: the poet is like a child at play. In Lacan's reformulations of Freudian theory, he postulated what amounts to an extension of Freud's analogy: the unconscious is structured like a language.

One of the immediately identifiable pitfalls to this analogical approach is its tendency to catagorize in terms of either/or rather than in relation to. For example, the distorted grammar and fragmented syntax manifested via dreams and parapraxes and which are taken to be expressions of our unconscious are, it must not be overlooked, so deemed only insofar as they are distortions or fragments of the structure of that same language in consciousness. In musical terms, the language of consciousness would thus be equated with tonality, in the sense that it has a comprehensibility to it; the unconscious would, in such a formulation, be considered atonal or perhaps poly-tonal. But atonality can only be so construed in relation to tonality: the one does not exist without reference, no matter how obliquely, to the other. The American composer William Bolcom describes this relationality as a fusion of tonality into non-centered sound (often miscalled 'atonal'), as a planet in space draws gravity toward itself. Within this spatial (yet tonal) universe, one can attempt to calibrate one's distance from a strong tonal center with greater accuracy.

As well, such analogical conventions are subject to the vagaries of interpreting the terminology itself. Schoenberg, for example, bemoaned the expression 'atonal music,' considering it equivalently meaningless to calling flying 'the art of not falling' or swimming 'the art of not drowning' (p. 210). According to Schoenberg, all relationships between and among tones are by definition 'tonal,' provided that they form a progression that is logical and comprehensible; thus, as he continues, an opposite, 'atonal,' can no more exist among tones and tone-relationships than can an opposite 'aspectral' or 'accomplementary' [exist] among colors and progressions of colors (p. 211).

There is nonetheless a substantial if interpretively diverse body of literature addressing the relationship between the meaning imputed to music and that meaning as it bears on the emotions of a listener, a brief adumbration of which is useful.

In response to Freud's rejection of music and its metaphors, Stuart Feder (1993) suggests that the auditory sphere of dream symbolization has been greatly overlooked, and that psychoanalysis' bias toward the visual has contributed to the dearth of meaningful applications of psychoanalysis to music. Pinchas Noy offers the view that the preponderance of so-called psychoanalytic interpretations of art (and I would add not only art) is founded on the archeological model of the analytic reconstruction of narrative. Noy criticizes such an approach for its inherent limitation: it is applicable only for interpreting content, but not form. In establishing music as the preferred field of art for presenting and investigating the general problems of the emotional impact of art (p. 128), he enlists, as a start, a view emblematic of the Renaissance, quoting Vincenzo Galile who wrote in 1581 that music exists primarily to express the passions with greater effectiveness and to communicate these passions with equal force to the minds of mortals for their benefit and advantage ("Dialogo della Musica Antica e della Moderna" in Source Reading in Music History. Edited by O. Strunk. In Noy (p. 126)).

Separately, in expanding upon a theory of isomorphism first presented in 1953, Langer espoused the view that the tonal structures we call 'music' bear a close logical similarity to the forms of human feelings . . . music is a tonal analogy of emotive life. In related but independently conducted research, C.C. Pratt (1952) conceived of auditory patterns which find correspondence with organic and visceral patterns in the body, concluding, thus, that music sounds the way emotion feels. This view, defining of the so-called isomorphist school, suggests that a listener's emotions are activated directly by the innate content of the message, a concept akin to the Platonic doctrine of anamnesis the experience of learning as bringing to consciousness what the soul already knows from an earlier existence.

In 1950, Heinz Kohut presented a view essentially grounded in classical drive theory which argued that the effect of music on a listener was the result of mastering activities instigated by the ego as a defense against and attempt to control the anxiety caused by the frightening and misunderstood auditory stimuli. As Noy summarized Kohut and Levarie's thesis, all the emotions experienced as a response to music listening are only the by-product of that organizing activity itself (p. 127). Kohut's proposition departed from the prevailing views of the time by restoring agency to the listener and wresting activity as the exclusive property of the artistic message. According to Kohut, the listener could no longer be considered simply a passive recipient of a musical communication, the meaning of which was pre-embedded, but rather as an active agent in organizing and attributing, albeit unconsciously, his or her own meaning to such communication. In psycho-analytic terms, the music's effect on a listening subject derives from the resistance mounted against the spontaneous recuperation of the repressed memory of an archaic relationship with music qua symbolic representation.

These diverse postulations can be clarified by reference to Baudry's distillation of interpretation and meaning as they are understood in an applied psychoanalytic context. He writes that it is not possible to interpret a text [or, again, a piece of music] without making some systematic, fundamental assumptions on which to base our interpretations. On the simplest level, to interpret is to reveal a new meaning which underlies the text 'a' really means 'b'. (p. 558). Thus, a range of interpretive possibilities is open, depending upon whether one conceptualizes the music as, say, representative of an acoustical mirror, or as a container for a listener's projections.

The proposition that music be considered as a text leads to a problematic question posed by Noy: if music is regarded as referential, to what exactly does it refer? (p. 131). I take Noy's question to be answerable only in theoretical terms; in deciphering the meaning of the concept referential, the complex cognitive process invoked would all but obliterate any affective sense of whatever it was to which the music may have referred. Thinking of music as a narrative text also requires that it be considered in its written form. Those fluent in reading a musical score can 'hear' or intra-vocalize the musical symbolic representations. In terms of being capable of undergoing narrative interpretation, this audio-visual listening to music would be no different from reading any other form of text. The affective response, in the case of audio-visual listening, is triggered by what one knows the notation to imply, although it is 'heard' in silence, without reference to the actual audible sound of the music. As with a feeling of sadness which might arise while reading a work of literature such as Anna Karenina, reading a musical score has the potential to induce the same kind of affective hallucination, and for the same reason: neither because we are sad nor because the text/music is sad, but because we are attuned, perhaps even conditioned, to apprehending the implied primary kernel of pre-signified meaning.

This points to the related philosophical dilemma concerning the interplay between existence and recognition. No matter on which side of the semiotic fence one comes down that music expresses something we recognize and respond to or that in listening to music we simply express something some sign is made which is recognized. Peter Kivy (1989) suggests that narratives can be generally distinguished as being an expression or being expressive of (pp. 12-17), a topic addressed slightly differently by Jerrold Levinson (1990) in Music & Negative Emotion, and in the quandary posed by Stephen Davies (1997) in his essay titled Why Listen to Sad Music If It Makes One Feel Sad? To this question, St. Augustine has the most applicable, if enigmatic, retort: I remember with a joy a sadness that has passed and with sadness a lost joy . . . What is going on when, in gladly remembering past sadness, my mind is glad and my memory sad? (X:xiv(21), p. 191). I offer Augustine's comment because it replies with a thought unencumbered by the array of difficulties inherent in Davies' question, two of the most prominent of which are what is sad music? and how does is it make one feel something?

For Schopenhauer, it is precisely because music appears to circumvent cognition that it is a special form of art:

Music is by no means like the other arts, namely a copy of the Ideas, but a copy of the will itself, the objectivity of which are the Ideas. For this reason, the effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence. (Schopenhauer. The World as Will and Representation. Translated by E.F.J. Payne. Vol. I, p. 257, in Storr, p. 140).

Kohut and Hartmann's (1947) ego-psychological theories regarding organizing processes once seemed acceptable psychoanalytic explanations for musically-induced affective responses. Later, a second distinct type of ego-relating organization in addition to the "defensive" one, which relates to mastering activities designed to alleviate anxiety and overcome instinctual tension, was proposed. "Cognitive organization," as it was termed, is, like the isomorphist approach, firmly grounded in Platonic anamnesis. Leonard B. Meyer (1961) explicates it as:

[T]he significance of a musical event be it a tone, a motive, a phrase or a section lies in the fact that it leads the practiced listener to expect, consciously or unconsciously, the arrival of a subsequent event or a number of alternative subsequent events. Such expectations (or "subjective predictions") are entertained with varying degrees of certainty, depending upon what is felt to be the probability of any particular event in this specific set of musical circumstances ("On Rehearing Music." In Journal of the American Musicological Society. 14:257-267, 259 in Noy, p. 144).

This view still demands that the feelings conveyed (or, more accurately, instilled or instigated) by a particular piece of music, are the result of cognitive elision. As Noy explains it, if the music in its progression surprisingly deviates from [its] expected sequence to present something unexpected, the apparatus of perception will be called into action to edit the musical input to fit the form (p. 145). When considered in the climate of Kohut and Meyer's time, such theorizing could be dismissed as simply a sophisticated reconfiguration of a dogged resistance to the new. In 1950, for example, Kohut and Levarie wrote that when confronted with music the form of which is entirely unfamiliar [and] unable to cope with the unfamiliar sounds of atonal music, for example, large numbers of listeners trapped in the concert hall experience a gradual rise of anxious tension at the strange sounds which they cannot master (p. 76).

Only two years after that idea was proffered, and as if in direct reply to it, John Cage premiered 4'33", a piece which calls for the performer to be seated at the piano with a stopwatch, indicate the beginning and end of each of the three sections at an appointed time by opening and closing the keyboard lid, and play nothing. The pianist David Tudor, a champion of Cage's music, has written that it [4'33"] is one of the most intense listening experiences one can have. You really listen. You're hearing everything there is. Audience noises play a part in it. It is cathartic four minutes and thirty-three seconds of meditation, in effect (in Hitchcock, p. 244).

It now seems clear that encounters with the unfamiliar and modest ego tolerance for anxiety inadequately explain how music is experienced. As already discussed, what a listener of one era will hear as incomprehensible and dissonant, an audience of some later time may consider a masterpiece, the dissonance or tonal and metric instabilities of which are inimitably constitutive of the work's genius, even beauty.

Acceptance of the new cannot thus simply be a factor of acclimatization or the accretion of psychical resistance, nor of a diminution of traumatic affect. Neither can it be seriously entertained that some adjunct of the pleasure principal is the psychical agency responsible for governing the gamut of emotional responses when listening to music such that we instinctually gravitate to works which are pleasing and tension-reducing. Likewise, it seems unlikely that the intelligibility, or enjoyment, of an entire musical sentence is predicated upon an acceptance of the sum of its parts. Or that no matter how bizarre or unsettled the inner clauses of a phrase or musical gesture may sound, we are ultimately contented by at least a tonic resolution.

Yet, as Schoenberg discusses in his essays on style, form and compositional technique, there is an incessant striving for knowability and comprehensibility in the attempt to extricate meaning, aesthetic value and listening satisfaction from the established guideposts of musical form. The suggestion is that we equate a feeling of beauty proportionally to our ability to follow and comprehend the formal unfolding of a musical idea to 'understand' the composer's intent while simultaneously admiring and enjoying the mood evoked.

Feder's observation regarding an over-valuation of the visual in psychoanalytic thinking presents an opportunity to examine, for one thing, the relationship among sensory receptivity, comprehension and feeling. There are profound implications when visual and auditory stimuli ostensibly quite different are considered in the context of Schoenberg's notions of musical comprehensibility. Note first that in attempting to distinguish the tonal from the visual, Schoenberg asks us to conceptualize tonal relations by visualizing them in material terms. Further, there is a necessary consideration of time: the material objects which Schoenberg offers as apperceptively analogous to tonal relations are static images. In contrast, sound in music or language is in constant flux and motion. Listening unavoidably contends with a certain absence of control: in real time, we are not at liberty to manipulate auditory images until some minimal threshold of comprehensibility has been achieved; sounds interact with us, and we with them, in relentless temporality.

I am of the view that the use of analogy and metaphor in attempting to articulate the relationship between music and psychoanalysis, or between music and a listener, ultimately occludes the elemental unifying quality they share, namely, the communication of feeling. Music speaks for itself as music. It is more a primary process experience which defies absolute comprehension or satisfactory secondary elaboration, or, perhaps more accurately, what one is consciously aware of feeling is not contingent upon secondary elaboration. Music is not an absolute equivalent to language, although it is structured like a language. Once we begin to talk about what the music means, or how it makes us feel, or that it makes us feel, resorting to some metaphoric, linguistic referent becomes unavoidable. By naming the feelings felt while listening to music through a process of analogy and symbolization, we effectively translate the feeling into something else.

Turning now to a more clinical view of the expressions and communications occurring in psychoanalysis, the relevance of what is heard and how it is felt in music can be brought into sharper focus.

The analyst's prime function is to listen. Needless perhaps to say, it is neither the listening of an audience-member at a concert, not even the most attentive or involved listener, nor of the musician; it is not the ego of the analyst listening for him or herself. As well, of course, the analytic session is not a performance, attended as if it were a recital. What is heard is not per se increased by knowledge of theory and technique in the way that a musician's sophisticated and well-trained ear is capable of discerning finer detail and nuance. It is, rather, about remaining attuned and focused but not specifically so. Psychoanalytic listening, as Freud (1912) directs, simply consists in making no effort to concentrate the attention on anything in particular, and in maintaining in regard to all that one hears the same measure of calm, quiet attentiveness of evenly-hovering attention (p. 324). Or, as Theodor Reik (1948) so perspicaciously put it, it is listening with one's third ear such that the analytic technique of cognition of unconscious processes is marked by oscillation between the conscious and unconscious labors of the intellect and imagination (p. 389). Isakower's conceptualization of the analyzing instrument (see Balter, Lothane, Spencer 1980) provides a unique amalgam of these two listening perspectives. In discussing the role of empathy as an integral aspect of the analyzing instrument, Lothane (1994) writes that the functional common denominator in both is the pursuit of observation and understanding between two persons engaged in communication; that is, in speaking and listening, acting or gesturing, such that the thoughts, images and feelings in one evoke reciprocal thoughts, images, feelings and enactments in the other (p. 70). This notion of "reciprocal free association," in conjunction with evenly hovering attention and the third ear, begin to, but do not quite, capture the full range of complexities which appear once listening, in all its forms, is placed under a singular conceptual rubric.

In the evanescent discourse between analyst and analysand, we can consider that it is the 'wrong notes' which are, in a sense, exactly right. The aporia, the silences, the spaces between what is said, the lacunae of speech and of hearing, the unexpected and the discordant, the appearance of the unconscious these constitute the beauty of what in a tonal, even-tempered context might be judged as anything but balanced or harmonious. In analysis, often what is not said, the 'music' not uttered musically, can be of greatest import, be the most revelatory, and can have a significance which transcends the explicit.

Perhaps paradoxically, the very invocation of the potential for psychoanalysis' curative or palliative power, as distinct from its efficacy as a means of simply hearing and feeling more, imposes a different listening stance. Implicit is the proposition that the dissonance of the past can or should be transposed into a more even-tempered future. Yet the mere possibility for such a transformation remains an important part of the psychoanalytic process, especially in the transference, a force which baptizes the analyst, as Lacan puts it, as the subject presumed to know. It is, of course, not a true knowing; the analyst divines neither the future nor the past it is, after all, the analysand's past. In the temporality of pasts and presents, in the tenses and subjunctives of language, in the expectation or desire for linear narrativity often imposed on our idealized, tempered and tonal, that is to say, conscious, lives, we tend to anticipate and feel satisfied by 'knowing' what will come. To resort to simile as a means of clarification, perhaps it can be said that a dependence on tonality is a super-ego function.

Stolorow (1988) speaks to this tendency as the fragmentation of psychic reality that artificially sections human subjectivity into cognitive and affective domains, labeling it a false dichotomy which wrongly pits analytic insight against attachment as competing, rather than complementary, agencies facilitating a patient's growth. It is Stolorow's contention that the significant psychological transformations that occur in psychoanalytic treatment always involve the unitary configurations of experience in which cognitive and affective components are virtually indivisible. Meaning the supreme category of psychoanalytic inquiry is, after all, an indivisible amalgam of cognition and affect. By way of expanding the analyst's clinical repertoire, Stolorow suggests a framework for recognizing that insight through interpretation, affective bonding through empathic attunement and the facilitation of psychological integration are indissoluble facets of a unitary development that we call psychoanalysis (p. 246).

Despite the appearance of structural repetition of time and place of meeting, of location within the treatment room (chair or couch), of the analyst's modulated voice and good enough listening the analytic situation is a holding environment which, perhaps paradoxically, is always and nonetheless essentially aleatoric: anything (within certain parameters) can happen, and free association, Freud's golden rule, the only demand, is by definition non-sequential and chaotic. This realization sheds light on what is traditionally deemed as conforming to expectation in a non-aleatoric setting stability, consistency, predictability. Relevantly, from a description of his 1951 work, Music of Changes, Cage wrote of a mobility of sounds (a disappearance into history), where 'interference' is defined as the appearance of a sound having characteristics of the previously sounded situation, a view which also clearly speaks to the long-awaited recognition of repetition: the return of the repressed as a welcome discord rather than as yet another recapitulation of the same old theme as a tissue of familiarity in radically strange garb. Elsewhere in his commentary on Music of Changes, Cage wrote of a continuity which is free of individual taste and memory and also of the literature and 'traditions.' The sounds enter the time-space centered within themselves, unimpeded by service to any abstraction, their 360 degrees of circumference free for an infinite play of interpenetration, a description which appears, in its own way, to pay homage to Bion's admonition to analysts to divest themselves of memory.

In this context, the analytic session might be considered comparable to chamber music, with each element analyst, analysand, time, place, duration, furnishings, speech, expressions, silences representing a different instrument. There is, however, still too much of the performative in that view, no matter how applicable it may otherwise be. I believe that, notwithstanding the apparently unavoidable use of such psychoanalytic jargon as 'interpretation,' a word readily and specifically understood even within its broad palette of possible meanings, the analytic session more closely resembles an act of mutual composition than the enactment of something already created. Another perspective of this point is illustrated by reflecting upon an expression typically used by analysts 'seeing' patients also likely a vestige from psychoanalysis' earliest alliance with medicine, rather than the more accurate and appropriate 'listening' to patients.

As an ineluctable aspect of communication, what of language itself? As mentioned, the language we use to name our feelings (whether with regard to music or otherwise), inverts like a möbius strip such that, as a means of explaining it, we are led right back to the starting place. In Text and Interpretation, H.G. Gadamer offers that language is grammatical insures the self-referentiality of language and that what makes understanding possible is precisely the forgetfulness of language, a forgetting of the formal elements in which the discourse or text is encased. The thesis is that the structure grammar, syntax, metonymy the skeleton upon which is hung the flesh of intelligibility, is abolished and replaced by unmediated meaning.

Language, then, is reducible to a concatenation of symbols. As already discussed, in many art-forms such as literature and the visual arts, symbolism, no matter how obscured, has as its goal to finally be discovered as a symbol, that is to say, to be interpreted such that meaning is discernable. Music is a deceptive case in that the symbolic is seemingly less apparent; it is purely abstract and non-representational (notwithstanding the standard internal lexicon unthinkingly referred to when we attribute meaning to what we hear). In this regard, the relationship between comprehensibility and feeling when listening to music might best be appreciated in the light of a Freudian view of symbolism and the unconscious. There, symbols [implying, for all intents and purposes, symbols appearing in dreams] are deemed symbolic by default. The imagery is a 'disguise,' calculated to permit latent thoughts and wishes (primarily repressed, sexual ones) to be smuggled into [semi-]consciousness, despite one's usually vigilant censorship. In greatly diluted essence, then, Freud suggests a paradoxical formulation. One's unconscious mind creates symbols. To the individual creating them, the fact of their being symbols and an understanding of their symbolism remain a mystery. Yet the impact of their meaning can be viscerally experienced. Despite the connections, the problematics of symbolic representation and interpretability are augmented in the abstract realm of music, and even more so in the case of that particular permutation of symbolic representation and interpretability intrinsic to twentieth century music.

A natural extension of these diverse forms of reciprocal, intersubjective communications, as they pertain to music or psychoanalysis, is the language shared between infants and mothers. As a first step, Winnicott (1960) reminds us that the word infant derives from the Latin word infans, meaning "not speaking." His direct implication is that the infant exists in a state of dependence upon maternal care based on maternal empathy and understanding the mother's attunement rather than what can be verbally expressed.

By her understanding, or at least her reply, the mother affirms her baby's cry as language. But, beyond its apparent monophony, in comparative terms, the infant's cry is atonal: it is a primitive language which lacks the syntactical coherence and richly textured modalities of adult polyphony. Perhaps paradoxically, for the mother, her baby's cry is at once atonal and comprehensible. It is not the meaning of the cry which necessarily has meaning, although sometimes an apparently specific meaning hunger, discomfort, exhaustion can be intuited. Rather it is simply that her child is crying which creates a meaning unto itself. These are, at first, very impressionistic communications, in the sense implied by Schoenberg in his descriptions of the music of Debussy there is emotional comprehensibility within a context of harmonies which themselves lack constructive meaning. In time, the baby will respond to a demand implicitly made to enter the discourse of the grown-up majority by relinquishing what is in essence its mother tongue, a language which is not a language, in order that mother and baby may share one tongue, may be in harmony, may sing-tonically. Both the mother and the infant must learn that listening to speech then becomes an integral part of discourse inasmuch as it is itself addressed to another (p. 329).

This is what Gadamer calls the speculative event of language, and which suggests a consideration of the Lacanian méconnaissance: the process by which we take another's image as our own, repress it as knowledge, and then repeat the process as an ongoing, unthinking act of 'self-discovery' (a notion clearly derivative of Platonic anamnesis). It constitutes the substructure underlying all that we hear.

Such speculative events are not restricted to infancy, of course; they are easily experienced in adulthood in the presence of language which is foreign and thus sounds incomprehensible. This is language as music. The words are heard as nothing more than phonemes, pure sounds which are then adjudicated within a hierarchical schema of aural quality (harsh, pleasant, romantic, beautiful, melodious, recognizable as something), but which otherwise may well remain vacant of any specifically intended meaning.

Can meaning be only a matter of the infinitely combinable permutations of individual idiosyncracy and context? Acknowledging that the force of music, like being in love, can transform our whole existence (Storr, p. 4), consider two sentences, each ripe with apparent meaning, to any English speaker, irrespective of the affect, or affectlessness, with which they are spoken "I love you" and "I hate you." The ascription, respectively, of relative concord and discord appears intrinsic. But there is a further level of relativity with regard to context which is different from mere preparation: these declarations of feeling require at least two (including uttering such sentences to one's self, where the Other is simply an internalized symbolization). One's response of concord or discord, that is, how one hears either of these statements, is inextricably associated with one's feelings regarding the speaker, something even more deeply complicated when considered in terms of transference. If the 'wrong' person says "I love you," or if the 'right' person fails to say it (or any other permutation), an otherwise lovely phrase may seem very dissonant indeed. The phrase is translucent; its meaning is different to each person who hears or utters it, although we all generally agree on what is being said.

One of the great analytic tasks is, in essence, to reinvent language and meaning with each patient. This, of course, is at the core of the art of psychoanalysis. It requires that the analyst attempt to adjust for any predilection to harmonious, consonant resolution or for a fixed expectation of dialectic or emotional trajectory. It asks that the analyst jettison, if only temporarily, accepted constructs of tuning and tempering and to listen truly with new ears.

Inasmuch as each patient presents his or her own unique world of meaning and expression, it seems ultimately ineffective to illustrate my discussion with select clinical vignettes. Instead, while admittedly but a different approximation of the complexities of these evanescent concepts, poetry can be enlisted for purposes of discussion to better and simpler effect. Psychoanalytic discourse and poetry share many bonds as expressions which can offer a purely aural, essentially musical experience, as well as being capable of interpretation and having multiple, highly personalized meanings. In addition, poems are linguistic constructions, whether improvised or thoughtfully crafted, which can mold language and meaning to suit a moment. As Gaston Bachelard writes, the poetic image places us at the origin of articulate being . . . [it] becomes a new being in our language, it expresses us by making us what it expresses. Gadamer's description of the poet Paul Valéry's explanation of the difference between the poetic word and the everyday word provides further clarification of this important point. Compare the two types of words to, respectively, old gold coins and the paper bill of today. If one were to take a hammer to a twenty-dollar gold piece such that the minting became obliterated, and then took the defaced coin to a jeweler, you would nonetheless receive twenty-dollars for it. Thus, as Gadamer writes, the coin is its own value its value is not only printed on it. This is the poem, namely, language which not only signifies something, but is itself that which it signifies. Today's paper bill is worth nothing; its only meaning is its appearance, allowing it to perform its commercial function.(6)

A stanza excerpted from Wallace Stevens' poem "Peter Quince at the Clavier" (1923) vividly captures these complex, inter-twining strands of language, meaning, emotion and listening:

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound.
(lines 1-4)

Heard on the level of the words' pure, manifest meaning, nothing appears to be obscure; the stanza professes self-evidence. The poem itself provides straight-forward interpretive direction: music is feeling; it is not sound. But, as in the creative poeticism of the unconscious, there is an interchangeability of signifiers. The meanings assigned to the language of unconscious discourse are altered. All is what it seems and not what it seems. Even after repeated readings, the line, "Music is feeling, then, not sound," retains a sense of logical, comprehensible symmetry. It is certainly tonal and even-tempered. We succumb to a pre-destined understanding in a well-established paradigm of interpretive possibilities. Yet upon deeper consideration, the logic yields to an illogic; there is something just out-of-tune lurking beneath the luscious veneer of beauty. We know that, strictly speaking, music is sound, not feeling. And still, like an Escher waterfall, it nonetheless remains understandable and perfect. What we 'hear,' which is to say, what we insert, is méconnaissance, the demand to animate the gap between feeling and sound. That is the moment, one which is not in the poem, which gives significance and meaning. The music, then, is only sound, but becomes feeling by virtue of the harmonic overtones what we hear is not what is said but what is implied.

In the analytic frame, it falls to the analyst to assist in the process of decoding the hieroglyphs in listening to the analysand's [re-]telling of archaic experience, that is to say, to hear the feeling, not the sounds.

The last point I would like to make concerns the open spaces where what is being listened to and thus what the meaning may be is even more difficult to make out. I refer to silence. A moment of silence holds boundless possibility for interpretation; it is freedom incarnate. In the absence of anything discernibly tangible, the silent moment becomes a void ripe to be filled that gap between sound and feeling. The desires or meanings conscripted to fill that void remain open and unassigned. What happens when we measure silences and say that a given period of silence lasted as long as a given sound? Augustine asks. Do we direct our attention to measuring it as if a sound occurred, so that we are enabled to judge the intervals of the silences within the space of time concerned? (XI:xxvii(36), p. 242).

As an alternative to attempting to directly answer such pointed questions, it can simply be stated that as a topic for conceptual analysis, a discussion about silence can travel in any number of far-flung directions. Rather than embarking on the clangorous and circuitous journey required to fully invoke what Augustine calls the eloquent silence of truth, then, it is more worthwhile here to explore silence as a form of communication. It has been suggested that silence, within the context of the metaphysics of emotional discourse, is a dual-purpose mechanism, which is either an "instrument of listening or a non-verbal form of communication that can carry a variety of meanings" (Fiumara [1990], p. 101).

It seems readily apparent that silence can be experienced as an absence, as something isolating or in opposition to a dialogical expression. Inasmuch as silence manifests itself, at least in contrast to sound, as something imperceptible, it can be easily mistaken as an empty place. It is, however, a fertile and sonorous place, resonant with qualities of its own; silence is anything but a vacuum. Indeed, the depth and prevalence of the anxiety provoked by it would be evidence enough of its having genetic properties. The spectrum of responses to Cage's 4'33", for example, are clearly illustrative of the range of feelings invoked and provoked by silence. 4'33" is of course a special case, being a scrupulously organized event, notwithstanding all the chaotic possibilities which are, in being unplanned, nonetheless pre-planned. It thus ultimately proves itself insufficient as a meta-metaphor for the psychoanalytic silence to which I refer precisely because it is, in the end, so conventional. By that I mean, adverting to the Kohutian active-passive schema of listening, that it is an imposed silence in which, by virtue of its occurrence within a performance which a listening audience attends, anticipating that it will hear something, all listeners are rendered passive. It is a silence which, like an utterance, cannot be avoided.

However, with only minor and fluctuating reconfiguration of the roles of 'performer' and 'listener,' there is a fascinating parallel between 4'33" and the analytic session, in which the duration of the event is expanded to 45 minutes (or 50 minutes, or, in the case of the Lacanian, some more improvisatorily determined time), with the analyst authoritatively indicating the appointed moments to open and close the aleatoric container (although, of course, the analysand is always free to arrive late or depart prematurely), and with a discursive exchanging of silences, interrupted by bursts of sound speech. What happens to tonality and tempering? Is silence the lapsus between moments of sound or the other way around? In an exchange of uttered silences, as they might called, and listened to silences, who can say where meaning is or is not?

Notions of passivity and activity are thus turned upside down: one may speak when one wishes volition is by definition constitutive of speech acts;(7) but the ear cannot be willfully closed, and there is no escape from hearing even if what one hears is silence. As well, in silence, pre-configured notions and accepted understandings of consonance and dissonance, of varieties of temperament, are nullified. Silence, as M.F. Sciacca (1963) writes, is not an interval . . . but the bridge that unites sounds (Come si Vince a Waterloo. Milano: Msrzorati. In Fiumara [1990], p. 102). And so we must seriously consider what Gemma Corradi Fiumara (1990) calls listening silence, which I take to imply a particularly attuned engagement with a moment of silence. It is a magnificent concept which, I submit, deserves to be inaugurated to common psychoanalytic parlance.

To return briefly to the questions earlier posed regarding the affective responses of music on a listener, silence listening silence can now be regarded as a crucial component, not necessarily as an aspect of the music itself but as a part of the emotional aftermath: music is sound; silence, then, is feeling; or, rather, the feeling is silent: it is present, but makes no noise which distracts; it does not name itself, but simply is. In a sense, this business of naming the feeling (which is really a re-naming), is borne of anxiety in the face of silence. The silent moment becomes a hole to be plugged, a separation to be unified, a feeling to be understood. While there are clear links to the nosologies of defensive and cognitive organizational listening propounded by Kohut and Hartmann discussed above, the cognitive elision in a moment silence is not exactly the same. The primary distinction is in the internalization of the source of the anxiety. If silence is experienced as an impenetrable fortress, it is of one's own making.(8) Different from hearing something which lacks a tonal center a means of locating one's self that the silent moment can also lack a localizing referent cannot strictly be attributed to what is 'heard.' The silence itself lacks nothing; there is no immanent meaning of which a listener is deprived. Responsibility, if it can be put to that, for feelings of loss or displacement, redound to the self, not the Other. If, in this conceptualization, the bi-polar schema of self and object were to be applied such that the musical phrase or discursive expression is the object, in which atonality or incomprehensibility are experienced, correlatively, as failed attunement with the self, the moment of silence represents an incontrovertible internalization of such failure: both self and object are merged within. Projection and splitting are brought to bear, manifest in the personification of the silence as an aggressive agent, acting against the self in what is perceived as its exclusionary absence.

Here, the silent moment, as Lacan (1953) puts it, is the echo perceived from [one's] own nothingness. That nothingness must of course not be taken too literally, particularly in light of his defining a momentary silence as a beneficent punctuation. It connotes the antithesis of a nothingness it is a quiet something, unavoidably present.

A closer inspection of these amorphous presences and absences, in this aural context, illuminates the bridge linking the lyrical, maieutic silence with the justly-tempered, poly-tonal, pan- and non-linguistic expressions of infancy: the moment of silence quiets the din of the present, and liberates us to hear the past; what is revealed, embodied and embedded in the silence, is regression itself.

Now comes the convergence of Peter Quince at his klavier and the psychoanalyst in the consultation room: the regression need not be heard by another to be heard; it is not a fallen tree in some remote forest, demanding external confirmation of its altered existence. Michael Balint's 'two-body psychology,' the topographical sine qua non of analysis, is not a requisite in the realm of music, where listening is intra- not inter-subjective. Because music is feeling, not sound, it is pure emotion, and presents a way of hearing and listening which can (and perhaps should) be a model of psychoanalytic intersubjectivity. The relation of the two bodies in analysis as, albeit differently, in the social realm, and also in the case of the healthy observing ego, the internal surrogate to the second body demands comprehensibility, no matter how long-delayed the moment of ultimate communicative connection may be.

But in the unmediated, ultimately unknowable feeling of musical sound, different even from dreams, we may come closest to truly hearing ourselves. Freud (1912) may have said it best: one has simply to listen.

© 1999 Alexander Stein, MSSc
24 East 12th Street
Suite 501
New York, New York 10003


1. An earlier version of this paper was the recipient of the 1998 Ernest Angel Award of The National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, New York.

2. The important underlying philosophical consideration, what is music?, will not be directly addressed here. Let it simply be accepted that by "music" I mean, in the main, the western classical canon.

3. Absolute consonance has only been possible with the advent of technology capable of producing and measuring pure unwavering tones. That the human ear, if unaided by devices functioning as listening surrogates, is incapable of differentiating such microtonal distinctions with absolute discernment does not materially impact on the philosophical, aesthetic or psychological implications of this line of thought.

4. It is interesting to consider Freud's 1918 case study, From the History of an Infantile Neurosis a/k/a the case of Sergej Konstantinovich Pankejev, the Wolf Man, in light of the fact that, in J.S. Bach's time, many church organs were not tuned 'perfectly' but, rather, were tuned in an alternate system based on the 'mean-tone system' in which certain intervals (major thirds) conformed to well-tempered precepts whereas certain other intervalic relationships did not. The result was an acoustical system in which approximately six major keys sounded "fine" but the remainder caused a wince-producing out-of-tuneness that was colorfully termed "The Wolf." The inherent instabilities in the equal tempered system produce far fewer, and much milder indeed, nearly imperceptible dissonances, which are called "little wolves." The comparison is not simply wordplay; the wolf, as metaphor, can be taken as the sound of that which is ego-dystonic.

5. Bach was not, in fact, the first great exponent of equal temperament; however, a full disquisition of the remaining developmental links, as well as Bach's actual role, are outside of the scope of relevance here.

6. Lacan employs an almost identical explanatory image in his 1953 essay, Function and Field of Speech and Language, wherein he discusses the symbolist poet Mallermé, who compared the common use of language to the exchange of a coin whose obverse and reverse no longer bear any but effaced figures, and which people pass from hand to hand 'in silence.' (in Écrits, p. 43). Lacan suggests that the metaphor is important as a reminder that speech, even when almost completely worn out, retains its value as a tessera [a password or symbolic link of recognition]. Thus, as Lacan writes, even if it communicates nothing, the discourse represents the existence of communication.

7. This is so even in the case of parapraxes. There, it is only the particularity of expression, not speech itself, which shoots unbid, as it were, from the unconscious; it is thus not equivalent to an episode of Tourette Syndrome, for example, where the body utters sounds uncontrollably.

8. This is not meant to imply that silence is never used as a means of exclusion. Certainly, silence can be experienced as a moment of unanticipatable abandonment, something which, when deployed offensively, places it in a special category in the collective social arsenal.


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