The Psychoaesthetics of Musical Experience

by Donald Kuspit

Since antiquity, music has held a special, even privileged place among the arts, a place inseparable from the belief in its healing and educative power, regarded as inseparable. Thus, in Book III of the Republic, Plato has Socrates declare: “musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful.” Music clearly has ethical implications: a “true education of the inner being,” it enables “the soul” to receive into itself “the good, and become noble and good,” and with that “blame and hate the bad.”

In the more elaborate discussion of the significance of music in Chapter 3 of Book VIII of Politics, Aristotle remarks that music is one of the four “customary branches of education,” the others being reading and writing, gymnastic exercises and drawing. Reading, writing and drawing are “useful for the purposes of life in a variety of ways,” but he questions the usefulness of music, noting that “most men cultivate it for the sake of pleasure.” But he quickly adds that “we should be able, not only to work well, but to use leisure well,” raising the question “what ought we to do when at leisure?” “We ought not to be amusing ourselves, for then amusement would be the end of life,” which is “inconceivable,” but nonetheless “amusement is needed more amid serious occupations than at other times (for he who is hard at work has need of relaxation, and amusement gives relaxation, whereas occupation is always accompanied with exertion and effort, we should introduce amusements only at suitable times, and they should be our medicines, for the emotion they create in the soul is relaxation).” “It is clear then,” Aristotle concludes, “that there are branches of learning and education which we must study merely with a view to leisure spent in intellectual activity, and these are to be valued for their own sake.” Music is one of them: “the use of music for intellectual enjoyment in leisure” gives it a place in education.

Continuing his discussion of music in Chapter 5, he notes that “intellectual enjoyment is universally acknowledged to contain an element not only of the noble but of the pleasant, for happiness is made up of both. All men agree that music is one of the pleasantest things, with or without song; as Musaeus says, ‘Song is to mortals of all things the sweetest.’” But the pleasure or “refreshment,” as Aristotle also calls it, provided by music is “not any ordinary or lower pleasure,” involving “the relief of the passions” and “alleviation of past toil,” but the higher, extraordinary pleasure of “enthusiasm…an emotion of the ethical part of the soul.” It is a sort of spiritual pleasure: the pleasure of “being possessed by a god,” which is what the word “enthusiasm” means, and with that, for the musical duration, feeling as powerful and immortal as a god. The Olympian gods were the instruments and enforcers of natural fate, which set the limits to human destiny. They had the power to create and destroy life when fate decreed that it should be created or destroyed. Thus the “power which the songs of Olympus exercise” is Aristotle’s example of the special power of what one might call high, as distinct from low, music. It is the difference between sacred and profane music: music that evokes the heavenly spheres and music that satisfies everyday passions. Olympian music has “influence over the character and the soul,” Aristotle says. It is not amusing but uplifting.   

Antiquity links music and medicine in the person of Apollo, who was the god of both. Apollo was the father of Orpheus, and gave him a lyre and taught him to play it, “which he did with such perfection,” Thomas Bulfinch tells us in The Age of Fable, “that nothing could withstand the charm of his music. Not only his fellow-mortals but wild beasts were softened by his strains, and gathering around him laid by their fierceness, and stood entranced with his lay. Nay, the very trees and rocks were sensible to the charm. The former crowded around him and the latter relaxed somewhat of their hardness, softened by his notes.”1 Orpheus’ mother was Calliope, one of the nine muses, and the patroness of epic or heroic poetry, suggesting that Orpheus was a sort of epic hero. It is important to note that “the Muses were the daughters of Jupiter,” the supreme deity, “and Mnemosyne (Memory),” the daughter of Uranus and Ge, that is, heaven and earth. The muses “presided over song, and prompted the memory.”2

“Oh pure transcendence!/Oh Orpheus sings!” Rilke exclaims in the first of his Sonnets to Orpheus. “Bellow, roar, shriek seemed small inside their hearts,” that is, the hearts of the “creatures of darkness…from the bright/unbound forest.” Addressing Orpheus, Rilke writes: “And where there had been/at most a makeshift hut to receive the music,/a shelter nailed up out of their darkest longing,/with an entryway that shuddered in the wind—/you built a temple deep inside their hearing.”3 In the fifth Sonnet, Rilke writes: “The lyre’s strings do not constrict his hands./And it is in overstepping that he obeys.”4  Orpheus’ music is a means of overstepping, and overstepping is transcendence. It seems that the sound of the lyre was by nature heavenly and healing, that is, had a transcendental and transformative effect—the lyre, after all, was invented by Apollo, a being transcendent by nature, as all gods are—and Orpheus’ creative skill owed as much to his hands as to his music, which was clearly “Apollonian.” For he had his father’s hands—his father had taught him to play or “handle” the lyre, and gave him a musical education—and his music had his father’s power to heal the soul. Orpheus’ songs were, in effect, homages to his father, that is, emulated and worshipped his father.

Orpheus’ parents were gods, and they sent their godly son to earth to heal its creatures despite themselves. The charm of Orpheus’s music and the charisma of his person—and lyre—had to do with the fact he was heaven’s gift to earth. But once he was on earth, he became as mortal as any other earthly creature. It is his songs that are immortal and indestructible, not his body, his songs that live on in human memory, and through which he is remembered. Rilke tried to emulate them in his Sonnets for Orpheus, which also attempted to sweeten the bitter truth of nature. Orpheus is also remembered for his remarkable capacity for love, suggesting the loving quality of his music—it calmed the hate in wild beasts, including the wild beast in human beings. He was a true lover, remaining devoted to his beautiful wife, Eurydice, even after her death. He tried to bring her back from Hades, setting a precedent for Christ’s raising the dead and descending to Hell.

After her death, other women tried to seduce him, but he held himself aloof from them, leading them to think he despised them, which led them to kill him in a drunken Dionysian rage. The female “maniacs,” as Bulfinch calls them, tore his body apart, and threw his head and lyre into a river, where they continued to murmur “sad music.” The Muses gathered the fragments of his body and buried them, and “the nightingale is said to sing over his grave more sweetly than in any other part of Greece.” The civilizing muses served Apollo; the murderous maenads were under the spell of Dionysus, as Euripedes makes clear in The Bacchae, which might be seen as a retelling of the story of Orpheus.  Frenzied, delusional and blinded by drink, Agave, the leader of the band of maenads ripped her son Pentheus’ head off, claiming that it was that of a lion she had hunted and killed. He was indeed a lion, that is, a noble king who tried to stop the beastly behavior of the bacchae. They lost their humanity to drink: Dionysian ritual apparently involved tearing an animal apart and eating the raw parts, like another animal. But it is also worth noting that their wild behavior has been interpreted as a revolt against patriarchy, and their Dionysiac cult as a significant part of religious experience in antiquity.  

Jupiter placed Orpheus’ lyre among the stars, where it exists as the constellation Lyra. It is the instrument of Apollo’s immortality, which is why it is as immortal as he is. It seems to be able to make heavenly music by itself. I will return to the story of Orpheus’ devotion to his wife and his death at the hands of insane women, for it conveys in mythic-symbolic form the paradoxical dialectic of musical experience.

For Luther, music “was next to theology. The Devil hates music because it drives away temptation and evil thoughts.”5 Some forty hymns are attributed to Luther, including the superb Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott.” Schopenhauer wrote that “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 those others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence.”6 Nietzsche argued “that the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and Dionysian duality: just as procreation depends on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations….Through Apollo and Dionysus, the two art-deities of the Greeks, we come to recognize that in the Greek world there existed a sharp opposition, in origin and aims, between the Apollonian art of sculpture and the non-plastic, Dionysian art of music.” Nietzsche “conceive[s] of them as the separate art-worlds of dreams and drunkenness.”7  

Nietzsche does not think there is an Apollonian music, although Orpheus seems to have put all of nature in a sort of dream-like, hypnotic trance, suggesting there is something to Nietzsche’s association of Apollo and dreams. He also seems to associate the dreamy Apollonian with the male, the drunken Dionysian with the female—sexual reserve or aloofness, as opposed to sexual fervor and violence—which correlates with the story of Orpheus. Nietzsche also associates the Apollonian with Schopenhauer’s principle of individuation, and regards Dionysian drunkenness as an antidote to pessimism, in Schopenhauer’s words, the view that “the world is hell, and men are divided into tortured souls and torturing devils,” a view said to be echoed in Baudelaire’s assertion, in one of the Flowers of Evil, “I am the limbs and the wheel/the victim and the torturer.”8 

Orpheus was tortured and torn limb from limb by the maenads, who were themselves tortured and victimized by the devilish feeling that he rejected them, misunderstanding his aloofness as indifference, when all he wanted was to be left alone, tortured by his longing for the dead Eurydice. It is worth noting that the ancient female maniacs—Dionysian maenads—were virgins eager to lose their virginity to the famous musician. Music seems to have aroused their passions rather than relieved them, as Aristotle said it should. But then they were listening to Dionysus’ intoxicating music rather than Orpheus’ individuating music.

Sex and death—the essentials of existence—are intertwined in the story of Orpheus. They meet on the common ground of music. Dionysian music awakens the animal in the human, conveying the urgency and excitement of the instincts, and Apollonian music makes death less dreadful, and thus more bearable, allowing one to die with dignity and serenity, one’s soul at last free of one’s body, and able to rise to heaven. The former is the music of desire, the latter of reverie. Dionysian music engages the body, Apollonian music the soul.

Ego-strengthening, consciousness-raising, emotionally refreshing, harmonious Apollonian music and manic, provocative, discordant Dionysian music dramatically confront each other in the story of Orpheus.  It is about the radically different effects, physical, emotional and behavioral, of radically different kinds of music. As noted, and counter-intuitively, heavenly, dispassionate, controlled, peace-making, moral, healthy Apollonian music is masculine, and profane, passionate, wild, combative, immoral, unhealthy Dionysian music is feminine, which may perhaps be a patriarchal point of view. All one has to do is to contrast the statue of Apollo that is the central figure on the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, (c. 468–60 bce) with Michelangelo’s Bacchus, (1496–97) to get the point. Writing about Michelangelo’s sculpture, Frederick Hartt notes that “the mystery of drunkenness was considered comparable to that of death,” adding that Christ, like Bacchus, was “a god of wine,”9 although he clearly did not encourage bacchanalian festivities, perhaps because he knew that drunks became violent and destructive, as the maenads did. Nietzsche’s Apollonian dreaminess and Dionysian drunkenness seem to come together in Michelangelo’s Bacchus.

Walter Pater famously stated:

“It is the art of music which most completely realizes this artistic ideal, this perfect identification of matter and form. In its consummate moments, the end is not distinct from the means, the form from the matter, the subject from the expression; they inhere in and completely saturate each other; and to it, therefore, to the condition of its perfect moments, all the arts may suppose constantly to tend and aspire. In music, then, rather than in poetry, is to be found the true type or measure of perfected art.”10

Music is composed of sounds, poetry of words, which whatever their sound do not have the same psychoaesthetic effect as the sound of pure music. The poetic lyrics of a song are an overlay on the music, reminding us of its melody. It is easier to hum the song than remember its words, suggesting that its sounds, with their covert meaning, are more fundamental to it than the overt meaning of the words.

This suggests that poetry is a more mature form of art than music, for adults use words to express themselves and understand each other, while infants make sounds and move their bodies and faces to express themselves and make themselves understood, sometimes in vain. Infants are not easily or always readable, as words are. The meaning of the sounds infants make is not always clear; it is open to different interpretative responses. The meaning of words tend to become situationally and culturally fixed, however changing over time, while the meaning of sounds seems to be harder to nail down, especially those an infant makes, presumably to signal its needs and feelings, but what they are is not always transparently clear, even to the mother who responds to them, supposedly instinctively, but never without interpreting them. We presuppose what an infant needs and feels, because, after all, we were once infants, but we have forgotten what it was like to actually be an infant. Helpless no doubt, but also narcissistically grandiose or imperial, as Freud said, which seems a contradictory idea of what it is to be an infant. An infant is “one unable to speak,” which is the Latin meaning of infantus, suggesting that there is something peculiarly infantile about music, which is why it often seems uncanny, and leaves us speechless.

I will develop this idea—that listening to music involves regression to an infantile state of mind, to a situation in which one has no words to express oneself but can only make a variety of sounds in the hope of doing so and being understood, the similar sounds sometimes recurring and seemingly coherent, sometimes idiosyncratically dissimilar and incoherent. Johann Huizinga’s useful view of music as “sacred play”11 leads to the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s view that “the natural and universal thing called playing” is what he calls a “transitional” or “potential space between the baby and the mother.”12 Winnicott is less interested in “the use of play” to understand the “communication” of the child who “does not possess…the command of language” than in “the infinite subtleties that are to be found in [infantile] play.”13 “Formless experience,…creative impulses, motor and sensory,…are the stuff of playing,” which is the basis of “man’s experiential existence.” In play we exist in the “exciting interweave of subjectivity and objective observation, and in an area that is intermediate between the inner reality of the individual and the shared reality of the world that is external to individuals.”14 It is where we exist in music, the primary—one might say primal or “original”—and playful art.  


Kandinsky took music as the model for painting, arguing that music was inherently and simultaneously abstract and expressive. Musical abstract painting plays with pure forms and pure colors—content in themselves—to emotional effect, and with spiritual results, that is, they show consciousness’s ability to transcend and exist without worldly objects. Consciousness does not need an object—have “intentionality,” as Husserl put it—but can exist for itself, indeed, play with itself, that is, its ideas, the purest kind of play, “philosophical” play. Winnicott points out that pure play is often misunderstood as masturbatory, arguing that it has to do with expressive mastery of time and space rather than sexual expression. Thus the spontaneous movement of pure forms in Kandinsky’s playful paintings and the sense of temporal movement and immediacy they generate. They have been called masturbatory, and they do seem to be struggling to master sexual impulses, but their erotic character has more to do with trying to connect spatio-temporal fragments that have been apocalyptically disconnected in an aesthetic unity.  However studied they may be, as has been argued, they are “improvisations,” as he called many, suggesting that our experience of time and space is always “provisional.”

Kandinsky was a synaesthesiac who heard sounds when he saw colors and vice versa. Synaesthesiac experience is apparently common in infancy, when the sensory modalities are not clearly differentiated. Kandinsky was particularly taken with Schoenberg’s atonal music, described by his friend Franz Marc—together they attended a 1911 concert of Schoenberg’s Lieder, piano works and first two string quartets—as “a kind of music in which tonality (that is, adherence to any key) has completely disappeared.” “Schoenberg starts from the principle that the concepts consonance and dissonance simply do not exist. A so-called dissonance is simply a further-removed consonance.”15

Clement Greenberg called Jackson Pollock’s “all-over, “decentralized” paintings, “with [their] lack of explicit oppositions”—and thus perhaps “fatal ambiguity”—“polyphonic,” acknowledging that he “borrowed the term….from music…with particular reference to Schöenberg’s method of composition.” “Just as Schönberg makes every element, every sound in the composition of equal importance—different but equivalent—so the ‘all-over’ painter renders every element and every area of the picture equivalent in accent and emphasis. Like the twelve-tone composer, the ‘all-over’ painter weaves his work into a tight mesh whose scheme of unity is recapitulated at every meshing point.”16 In polyphonic or horizontal music, Jacques Barzun writes:

“the composer writes melodic lines that move forward along four, six, or more paths simultaneously. In these combinations, the notes sound together pleasantly most of the time—hence the other name, counterpoint: one point or note jammed against another. But this piling up occasionally proves harsh or intolerable. Out of this predicament comes the idea of composing ‘vertically,’ that is, taking care about the collisions that occur between horizontal lines. This musical style bears the other obvious name of harmony. It offers the listener a melody as being on top…and having ‘below’ a group of notes (chord) so chosen as not to shock the ear—or, if they do, to do it in a passing way, quickly ‘resolved’ into harmoniousness. Both styles, polyphony and harmony, are equally capable of expressiveness, although harmony is better suited to the lyrical, individual voice and its nuances of feeling.”17

Is it safe to say that Apollonian music—the melodic music of Orpheus—was harmonious, and Dionysian music—the mad music of the maenads—was harshly polyphonic and dissonant, that is, full of collisions and less nuanced? It seems that, in playful modernist musical abstraction, whatever the particular artistic medium, the difference between them breaks down, or becomes at best nominal, suggesting that pure playfulness involves the creative integration of opposites. Kandinsky suggested that his apocalyptic collisions—lines and colors jammed together into incoherent forms (so-called eccentric abstraction)—had a harmony or beauty of their own, reminding us of the old idea that there is always something strange in beauty, if also Breton’s idea that all beauty is convulsive. Orpheus and the maenads could not make beautiful music—even eccentrically beautiful music—together because they could not harmoniously play together. The heavenly music of Apollo and the devilish music of Dionysus were apparently not as playful as Schoenberg’s absurdly abstract music is.

In Homo Ludens, A Study of the Play Element in Culture, Huizinga argues that rhythm is associated with ritual, and “all true ritual is sung, danced, and played.” He notes that the Greek idea of “music” “not only embraced singing and dancing to instrumental accompaniment but covers all the arts, artistries and skills presided over by Apollo and the Muses. Those are called the ‘musical’ arts as distinct from the plastic or mechanical arts which lie outside the province of the Muses. In Greek thought everything ‘musical’ was closely related to ritual.”18 “All true ritual…involves “rhythm and harmony,” which are “factors of all three—poetry, music, and play—in an absolutely equal sense.”19 Ritual is, in effect, organized play, that is, games are ritualized play, which is the fundament of poetry and music, and exists independently of words in music. Huizinga remarks that dance is “music’s twin-sister,” suggesting that dancing to music is “the purest and most perfect form of play that exists,” for it integrates the rhythmic movements of the body and the rhythmic movement of music in a common intimacy.20

One might say that, for Winnicott, the body of the infant and the body of the mother must be playfully coordinated in a common rhythm if their relationship is to be “successful,” that is, if both are to benefit from and enjoy it. Standard communicative verbal language is beside the point of this peculiarly speechless and ultimately unverbalizable primitive musical dance, however many ideas have been used to name, describe, conventionalize and defensively idealize and civilize it, especially the notion that it is pre-ordained by the mother’s natural or innate love and concern for the infant she gave birth to, making her what Winnicott calls an environment that facilitates its natural or innate tendency to grow and develop in a way determined by natural law. The murder of unwanted babies by flushing them down toilets suggests that mother’s possessive love is not all it is supposed to be. The Greeks exposed unwanted infants to the elements, allowing nature to take its deadly course. Oedipus was one of them, for the oracle predicted that he would kill his father and marry his mother, both of which he unwittingly did. Mother and infant do not always make good music and playfully dance together.  

For Winnicott, “cultural experience is a derivative of play,”21, and “play is neither a matter of inner psychic reality nor a matter of external reality,”22 but involves both. More particularly, play is “the interplay between separateness and union,”23 separateness from and union with the mother. The so-called “transitional object, the first not-me possession” is the first symbol, and what it symbolizes is “the union of two now separate things, baby and mother, at the point in time and space of the initiation of their state of separateness.”24 Now I suggest, perhaps improbably, that the first transitional object or symbol is the sound of the mother’s heartbeat that the infant hears when it is in the womb, not knowing its source but knowing that the beat is separate from it, but constantly accompanies it, as though part of it and even its own, thus uncannily united with yet peculiarly separate from it, near yet peculiarly distant from it, as though each was the echo of the other. The primal sound of the mother’s heartbeat is the first, basic music, and the drum is the first, basic musical instrument, for without its constant, resonating beat—the beat of life, spontaneous and instantaneous, organic and mechanical at once—there is no music. If there is no heartbeat, there is no life, and if the mother’s heartbeat happens to stop, the infant loses its life. The beat signals the presence of life, and so does the musical beat, resounding in space and marking time.

This may seem farfetched, so let us say that the first music is the sound of the mother’s voice, commanding or comforting, hard or soft, gentle or stern, warm or cold, cooing like a dove or exploding like thunder, excited or indifferent, appreciative or angry, welcoming or warding off, intense or casual, loud or silent, threatening or calming, happy or unhappy, empty of affect or full of affect. The first song is the mother’s voice—what mother does not sing to her child, rocking it rhythmically as she does, the rocking itself a sort of ritualistic singing—and polyphonic music is the mother’s voice multiplied, its differing tones united in lyric harmony, to epic effect. I am suggesting that the mother’s voice, with its seemingly infinite and contradictory variety of its sounds, constant or inconstant, conveys her epic presence, and exists before her breast, whose goodness or badness psychoanalysts pay so much attention to.

The mother may hold her child to her breast, but she does so not only to feed it but to let it hear the sound of her heart beating—the voice of her body, as it were, which, I suggest, is unconsciously more reassuring to it than her milk may consciously be. The breast is the original part-object, but I suggest that the mother’s voice is there before her breast, and before the voice, her heartbeat, or at least along with her breasts. Her heartbeat and voice—especially when it is heartfelt—bring with them the sense that the mother is mysteriously whole and ever-present, however apart her breast may be. Hearing the mother’s voice, and before that her heartbeat, the infant feels at home and one with her, feels what she feels, identifying with her as though they were psychically the same, that is, on the same emotional wave length, reminding us that infant was once part of her body, and thus physically one with her. Through the heartbeat and voice, they become inseparable, while the breast conveys separateness and dependence. The mother’s voice is music to the infant’s ears. It marks her as a unique and particular individual; in contrast, her breast is an anonymous, general feature of her being.

The mother’s voice, with its changing intonations, continues to be heard when one can no longer hear her heart beat steadily. One can no longer put one’s head to her breast, but one can still hear her voice. Her voice echoes throughout one’s life even more than her breast.  I suggest the Orpheus was attracted to Eurydice not because of her breasts but because of her musical voice, as melodic as his magical music. The voice is more magical—wish-fulfilling or frustrating—than the breast, which can be seen but not heard, for it makes no sound. There is no such thing as a musical breast, but there is a musical voice. The breast becomes sexualized, but the voice signifies the self. To be mature one must have one’s own voice, but it unavoidably has something of one’s mother’s voice and self in it. Thus the truth of Freud’s remark that “the future…has been molded by [one’s] indestructible wish into a perfect likeness of the past,” which is part of the last sentence of The Interpretation of Dreams.  

The therapeutic value of music has been recognized since antiquity. Aesculapius used music and song to cure mental illness. Hippocrates used music to treat emotional ailments.  Aulus Cornelius Celsus used cymbals and running water to do so. We know that David played the harp—a sort of lyre—to cure King Saul’s depression, lift his spirits, as it were. Native American medicine men use chants and dances as healing methods. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, Richard Burton said that music and dance could cure it. Ferdinand Hodler’s depiction of eurhythmic movement demonstrates the therapeutic use of music and dance. In all these instances—and there are many more—music has been used to treat mentally disturbed adults.

But it really shows its therapeutic importance when it is used to treat emotionally handicapped children. Discussing the research confirming this, the Jungian psychoanalyst Anthony Storr writes:

“Some autistic children who did not communicate by means of speech, and who appeared to be almost wholly cut off from human contact, were able to learn to communicate through participating in musical performance, and showed improvement both in spirits and behavior as a result. Other brain-damaged children, unable to control their chaotic and often violent emotions, became able to express these emotions in orderly fashion by means of the rhythmic framework provided by music, and thus gained a sense of mastery over the chaos of their inner world at the same time as finding an emotional outlet. In addition, for children who have lost faith in the emotional reliability of adults, or who have never experienced ‘basic trust,’ music can become a stabilizing influence; a recurrent emotional experience which can be trusted because it is not directly human.”25 

What is missing from all this discussion of the healing power of music is acknowledgement of the mothering role of music, that is, its regressive effect, more particularly, benign “regression in the interests of recognition” and malignant “regression in the interest of gratification,” to use the psychoanalyst Michael Balint’s distinction.26 I suggest that Apollonian music involves benign regression, making it a benign mother, and Dionysian music involves malignant regression, making it a malignant mother. Orpheus clearly had a benign mother as well as father—two good parents—and the maenads seemed to have had a malignant mother, and a drunken father, that is, a father who resembled Dionysius at his most sexually intoxicating and violent. Apollonian music is clearly more healing than Dionysian music, which arouses one’s desire without satisfying it, turning it into violence.

Under the ministrations of Orpheus’ music, nature becomes benign—animals stop killing and eating each other, Mother Nature loses her hardness and softens, as the rocks do under the relaxing spell of Orpheus’ music, and becomes friendly to humankind, as the trees drawn to Orpheus by his music suggest. Nature, in effect, becomes spiritualized without becoming dematerialized. Listening to Dionysus’ music, Mother Nature becomes the immature maenad she once was, wild with rapacious infantile desire, which can only be satisfied by cannibalistically consuming the object of her desire, which happened to be Orpheus’ body. The regressive effect of music can be healing, as the long history of its emotional usefulness indicates, and music can serve as speech to the speechless by nature, making a sort of common communicative sense. But it can also drive one mad, or rather bring out one’s natural, instinctive madness, as it did with the maenads. Whichever, it always plays one’s emotions, as one’s mother did. It evokes her, in ironically memorable form—not as a distinct object, but as an engulfing atmosphere. Through music, we re-experience what it was like to experience her when we were totally possessed by her.

Music possesses us the same way. It puts us in a dream-like state of quasi-infancy, enthralling and entrancing us with its changing, often contradictory movement. The more enthusiastic about music, whether Apollonian or Dionysian, we become, the more we acknowledge, however unconsciously, that we owe our particular existence to our particular mother, who has her universal Apollonian and Dionysian sides. She can quiet the passions or arouse them, purge them or provoke them. The aesthetic effectiveness of music conveys, in generalized form, the mother’s profound and lasting psychological effect on us, which is why the ancients called her Magna Mater, and regarded music as the essential art, indeed, the mother of the arts. Music has unconscious appeal, because the first being we became conscious of was our mother. 

Let me conclude with a quotation from the Franco-German conductor Charles Munch, who reminds us that music conveys the most sophisticated feelings civilized art can afford however humble its origin in our primitive feelings for our mother: “The power of Music lies in the fact that it reveals to us beauties which we cannot find in any other sphere, and the comprehension of these beauties is not transitory but a reconciliation with life itself….Music, more than any other art, contributing directly to the happiness of human beings, must occupy the highest place in life.”27  


1. Thomas Bulfinch, The Age of Fable (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), p. 168.

2. Ibid., p. 10.

3. Stephen Mitchell, ed., Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke (New York: Modern Library, 1995), p. 411.

4. Ibid., p. 419.

5. Quoted in Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), p. 18.

6. Quoted in Dale Jacquette, ed., Schopenhauer, Philosophy, and the Arts (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 16.

7. Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” The Philosophy of Nietzsche (New York: Modern Library, 1927), pp. 951–52.

8. Quoted in Jacquette, p. 251.

9. Frederick Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. and New York: Prentice-Hall and Harry N. Abrams, 1974), p. 415.

10. Walter Pater, “The School of Giorgione,” The Renaissance (New York: Modern Library, n. d. [1873]), p. 114.

11. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), p. 158.

12. D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (London and New York: Tavistock and Methuen, 1982), p. 41.

13. Ibid., p. 31.

14. Ibid., p. 64.

15. Quoted in Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), p. 91.

16. Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), pp. 156–57.

17. Barzun, pp. 157–58.

18. Huizinga, p. 159.

19. Ibid., p. 158.

20. Ibid., p. 165.

21. Winnicott, p. 102.

22. Ibid., p. 96.

23. Ibid., p. 99.

24. Ibid., pp. 96–97.

25. Anthony Storr, The Dynamics of Creation (New York: Atheneum, 1985), p. 186.

26. Harold Stewart, “Michael Balint,” Ferenczi for Our Time: Theory and Practice, Brett Kahr and Peter L. Rudnytsky, eds. (London: Karnac, 2012), p. 60.

27. David Stewart, “Men of High Culture,” Times Library Supplement, vol. 5717, (October 26, 2012), p. 23.