“...with music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me.”-Sigmund Freud “The Interpretation of Dreams” 1900
It is of no coincidence that Freud is such a popular thinker nowadays. Although he has been dead for some 70 plus years, Freud created a spark in rational thought that both angers and supports the opinions, discussions, beliefs, and even faiths of many. Many of his theories, including some mentioned earlier but certainly not limited to them, have become popular enough to become sort of pop-culture facts. Freud’s philosophical work is some of the most complex and seemingly truthful of any somewhat modern day thinker. You can’t think philosophy without thinking Freud whilst picturing him with a cigar. He seemed cold and calculated; unafraid of anything that he might encounter.
Why then, does Freud have such a well-documented aversion to music?
Music is something so touching; a force so powerful that we could write and talk about it all day. We often do, in fact. Many philosophers of great credit spent a large majority of their lives discussing and writing about music. Many of them were in fact musicians themselves. If philosophy is the study of the fundamental problems, such as why and what is the purpose of anything, surely then it would seek to understand the importance of music? Something that can unite millions of people around the world despite language, experience, financial, religious, and even physical barriers has to be worth the examination of all minds, not only the supposed great ones. One could never argue that music isn’t important to humanity; it is simply a huge force that, while unnatural when commanded by individuals, does exist within nature. In fact, it seems that music has been around as long as anything, even our own concept of humanity and society in general.
Nevertheless, music is such an opaque concept that even the best minds often fall short of explaining it well in any sort of technical language. There are thousands of musical geniuses out there who lecture and write. They may have beautiful things to say, engaging points, and excellent rhetoric. However, no single “theory of why music makes us feel the way it does” has ever truly been accepted as cold hard fact.
While we can examine the nuts and bolts of a piece of music, we cannot explain how these nuts and bolts make a piece a great and, likewise, how these nuts and bolts might make something not so great. There is a technical language of music; a rich vernacular that can be studied forever and yet truly never understood. The great composer/conductor/educator Leonard Bernstein perhaps put it best when he stated that “the only way one can really say anything about music is to write music.”
We can’t sum up music in this sentence or the next. Even this page, or the next several thousand pages, would completely fail to define the reason for the might of music. But it is impossible to ignore it as a force in society. It is impossible to ignore the role of music in shaping our past, and this past is directly responsible for the future. It is also impossible to see the role of music in the future, but we can be assured by our connection to it that it shall be powerful.
And yet, despite our obvious infatuation or even obsession with music, Freud doesn’t like to talk about it. There are a great many subjects that are considered taboo and he touched upon all them. He is infamous for popularizing the Oedipus Complex, a theory that postulates men are jealous of their fathers and sexually enamored with their mothers. This is obviously a pretty radical theory, yet he shies away from discussing music. It is interesting to note, as well, that Freud lived during one of music’s most romanticized periods; one would think or even expect Freud to champion music as of the great arts, especially due to his love of many other artistic mediums. Why leave music out, then? Perhaps because he admits to not truly understanding it and therefore doesn’t seek to make any theories or comments. You cannot blame a man for that which he doesn’t know, so long as he remains quiet with an unbiased opinion on the subject.
But Freud clearly has an opinion on music. Freud states that being a “rationalistic” or “analytic” makes him “rebel against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected what it is that affects me.” This is a dense thought, worth examining with a fine comb or even an analytical microscope. Firstly, Freud claims to use a rational and logical approach to push him towards a contrarian viewpoint on music. This idea of being a contrarian is not uncommon for Freud, as a lot of his viewpoints were unpopular at the time and even now. What is most interesting to me regarding these terms, is that we would be able to deduce and infer that Freud believes music to be something that cannot be explained rationally and with analytics. This sounds a lot more like Leonard Bernstein than we may have originally considered, given Bernstein’s love of music and Freud’s apparent distrust.
A lot of people, both academics and the laymen, like to compare music and mathematics. While that is a discussion for another paper in another lifetime, it is interesting to note that Freud feels appreciating music comes before rational and analytical thinking and/or criticism. Although it is unwise to ignore the connections between the field of math and the field of music, it is interesting to note that Freud almost deems music as being unworldly and unexplainable. Although it seems Freud took this to be a negative cloud that follows pieces of music around, I would argue that many people might agree with Freud on his concept by not his application. Most people have an experienced where, for any amount of reasons, they are moved to tears by a piece of music. Many people have also experienced a time when they were jubilant and joyous upon hearing specific chords played with a certain dynamic. There are myriad reasons for experiencing emotions, but sometimes we lack the technical language or even the wherewithal to understand appreciate why. Freud realized this concerning music; and while it seemed to have scared him, this exact same thought process seems to have excited millions.
Now let’s examine the second part of his quote, that which states Freud needs to react harshly towards music because it moves him in a way that he cannot explain or even internally understand. This idea of fearing the unknown is a pretty common phobia for most people. Think back to a time when you saw a child afraid of the dark; or perhaps think back to a time when as an adult you feared for future circumstances that you did not even know existed. This anxiety of the unknown exists within all of us. For Freud, an examiner of the mind, this must have been atrocious and horrendous. For someone so used to understanding why we feel some of our more basic impulses, Freud could never quite put his finger (or cigar, for that matter) on what it is about music that makes us feel certain things. He knew and appreciated the power of music and its forces, but he couldn’t explain it. This, much like a child’s fear of the dark when he or she goes to bed, is just simply fear of the unknown.
Here exists the central lesson of this prompt. There are a myriad of reasons why music moves us. We could write thousands upon thousands of essays concerning the “whys” of music’s emotional process without repeating a single thought or idea. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel the weight of this idea that Freud may have accidently discovered. Perhaps we are so brilliantly moved by music because we do not understand it. In a world where knowledge is seemingly everywhere for the taking, even more numerous than trees in a forest, the idea that we cannot fully understand something might be as magical to some as it is scary. Although we certainly fear that which we do not know, it can also be exciting. We love horror movies and roller coasters, despite the fear and apprehensive atmosphere they can cause. Of course we like music because it moves us to a point where we don’t understand it. When you don’t understand something, you take it at once, for what it is; the sum of its parts. If we understood every little thing about why music makes us feel the way it does, it would probably cease to make us feel anything. It would simply become a mastered system, when in fact, we know it to be the exact opposite; an almost life force than can move mountains. We often use the terms of music to understand life and its processes. If this is true, we can learn a lot from realizing that we can love the unknown. It’s important to appreciate and feel that which may cause some stress. Sometimes, its important to feel powerless.
Freud may not have loved music for this reason; a man who spent his whole life trying to understand the “why” could never be fully satisfied until he knew the answer to everything. But let us, for a minute, appreciate the significance that one of the world’s greatest thinkers may have been stumped by music. Music; something that we all feel and experience deep within our souls. Music; something that we all almost feel connects us to the universe. Music; something that we cannot possibly explain with any degree of certainty. We can use all sorts of technical language and run all sorts of brain monitoring tests; in the future perhaps, we can find a way to fully grasp the why.
Music is something we should always seek to understand, but ultimately always understand that we’ll never fully get it.
PS: I adopted my ultimate Freud look for this prompt. What do ya think?