Music and Psychoanalysis

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Sigmund Freud's attitude toward music was very ambivalent. He described himself as being ganz unmusikalisch ("totally unmusical"), despite his familiarity with certain operas, such as Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. In his view, the danger with music was that of losing the rational mastery that he had fixed as his objective.

Historically, the confrontation between these two realms first appeared in the work of Theodor Reik (1888-1969), notably in The Haunting Melody: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Music (1953), where Reik took up the theme of the "haunting melody" in Freud's Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916-17 [1915-17]) to demonstrate, by contrast to Freud, who was interested only in text, that musical structure can represent feelings. In Reik's view, melody can convey emotion far better than words.

There is doubtless a specific mode for mentally registering music that belongs to the preverbal period: Music has been posited as the representation of affect. From contemporary data on intrauterine and postnatal life, it is known that vocal sounds that are emitted or heard are accompanied by various affects, many of which have no equivalent in language but remain registered in the body's memory. Longing for a sense of oneness refers to the attunement of the mother's voice to that of the infant prior to the establishing of a transitional space. Thus, in the earliest part of life the mother's voice is indissociably linked both to harmonious, reassuring feelings and to deathly anxieties of being swallowed up. For Daniel Stern, the changing and discontinuous feelings that make up the fabric of the infant's mental life can be conceived in terms of musical metaphors: Musical tempo is what best captures the mental rhythms of this period of life.

Music is a code of signifiersa coherent whole subject to certain lawsthat structures time. It thus has a therapeutic value. Music therapy, which as of the early twenty-first century is still not sufficiently well defined or systematized, uses listening to and producing music to treat various disorders, ranging from psychosis to neurotic issues, in either individual or group therapy. In psychoanalysis proper, moreover, some analysts are growing more interested in that which is vocal and yet nonverbal: that which is linked, in the analyst, to his or her maternal role and, in the patient, to the movement of his or her affects.

Marie-France CastarÈde

See also: Graf, Max; Group psychotherapy; Listening; Literary and artistic creation; Non-verbal communication; Reik, Theodor; Repetition; Self-object.


Castarède, Marie-France. (1991). La Voix et les Sortilèges (3rd edition). Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

Freud, Sigmund. (1916-1917 [1915-1917]). Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Parts I and II, SE, 15: 9-239; Part III, SE, 16: 240-258.

Mijolla, Alain de. (1982). En guise d'ouvertur. . . . In Jacques Cain, et al. (Eds.). Psychanalyse et Musique. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

Mijolla, Alain de (ed.). (1993).Á la musique. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

Reik, Theodor. (1953). The haunting melody: Psychoanalytic experiences in life and music. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Young.

Further Reading

Cheshire, Neil M. (1996). The empire of the ear: Freud's problem with music. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 77, 1127-1168.

Feder, S., Karnel, R., and Pollock, G. (Eds.). (1990). Psychoanalytic explorations in music. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Feder, Stuart. (Ed.). (1993). Psychoanalytic explorations in music: Second series. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Kohut, Heinz. (1957). Observations on the psychological functions of music. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 5, 389-407.