Stuart Feder, M.D.

The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics
Michael Kelly, Editor
Oxford University Press (Forthcoming)
[© Oxford University Press. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.]

Although the non-clinical psychoanalytic endeavor which came to be called applied psychoanalysis, was initiated by Sigmund Freud with writings on Leonardo da Vinci and Feodor Dostoevsky, among others,(1) (2) Freud himself never wrote specifically about music and his writings contain few references even of a metaphorical nature. Indeed, he appears to have been least sensitive to music than any of the arts, an anomaly in late nineteenth century Vienna.(3) (4) Until relatively recently, there has been a comparable lack of interest in this area among his followers. Even those most involved with art such as Hans Sachs(5) and Otto Rank(6) failed to deal with music in any specific manner. The reasons for this may lie less in any negative influence on the part of the first psychoanalyst than within the issue of musical literacy itself; that is, the difficulty of bridging the gap between psychoanalytic concept and method and their application in the context of a non-verbal and apparently non-objective medium. After all, clinical analysis was dubbed the talking cure and music, whatever its communicative power does not (at least in its pure form) talk.

There is a second and more complex reason for the lack of development of what might seem to be the promising area of psychoanalysis and music and that is Freud's own visual bias and its tangible issue in the profound scientific and cultural influence of his seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams.(7) It is regrettable that this bias has discouraged rather than inspired the exploration of the psychological ramifications of the auditory sphere. For there is much in it that may be applicable to music, particularly in Freud's discussion of the dream-work itself(8) and the psychology of the dream-processes.(9) Few among his followers have pursued these possibilities, the most notable exception being Otto Isakower (1939) who wrote trenchantly of the exceptional role of the auditory sphere.(10)

Nevertheless, it was inevitable that there would be some interest among the psychoanalytic pioneers of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Indeed, one member of Freud's early circle was the music historian and critic, Max Graf (1873-1958) who undertook the task of applying the psychoanalysis of his time to investigate the psychology of great musicians and the process of composing music(11) a mission yet to be accomplished. The field of psychoanalysis and music has been a latecomer to applied analysis and it was not until the last decade that a field of inquiry was even formulated with the publication of the anthology Psychoanalytic Explorations in Music.(12) This field(13) became further established with its more broadly interdisciplinary sequel containing original contributions of a mutually enriching variety from psychoanalysts and musicians alike (here, musicologists and music historians).(14)

If, as The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians states, ...musical aesthetics has been dominated by a single theme: the nature and import of that powerful yet indeterminate emotional impact that music has...(15) then music and psychoanalysis are drawn together in a community of interest in the nature of affects. Nor is this the only area in which interests of music and psychoanalysis converge. A second important theme the two disciplines share lies in the nature of meaning, the hermeneutic dimension. Thus each in its own way is concerned with the means of representation and the nature of interpretation . The interpretation of latent meanings encoded in mental life and its derivatives lie at the core of psychoanalysis. Music, on the other hand, has in the past fifty years had an uneasy relationship to the interpretation of the musical  text  (so to speak) as opposed to interpretation as audible performance, the result of the positivistic trend in musicology.(16)

Finally, if one considers the relationship each discipline has to the field of biography, an important area of common interest emerges. Despite the fact that there is no entry for  Biography"\  in either the new or old Groves, musicology has necessarily had to come to terms with the life's course of musicians and, pari passu, the subject's early life, family background, psychological development, influences and motivations not to mention possible sources of creativity--all issues which are central to psychoanalytic study. The excesses of the much maligned field of psychobiography, so-called, constitute more of a cultural phenomenon than one that can properly be laid at the doorstep of professional psychoanalysis since much of it has been practiced by journalists and other writers lacking specific and appropriate training.(17) Frequently, the reductionism seen here, which is justifiably deplored, is more the result of parlor psychology than responsible psychoanalytic practice. Thus interdisciplinary literacy is as much an issue from the point of view of analysis as it is from that of music as noted above! The analytic biographer must be sensitive to the fact that any single interpretation may in itself tend toward the reductionistic unless put into a broader interpretive context and adhere strictly to the principles of overdeterminism and multiple function in mental life.(18)

Against the background of the above discussion it may be useful to consider some examples of (1)contributions relating music and affect, (2) psychoanalytic interpretation of musical works and (3) psychoanalytic studies in musical biography. The three areas are not always distinct and often impinge upon one another in any given study. Brief reference will also be made to (4) developmental studies as well as a final, theoretical category, (5) analytic views on the psychology of music, a topic which would require development beyond the bounds of this brief review.(19)

In On Affect and Musical Motion, David Epstein, a music theorist, has provided a framework for an interdisciplinary consideration of affect. Long interested in biological correlates of music, Epstein dialogues with the psychoanalyst Gilbert J. Rose regarding the emotional response of the receptive perceiver resulting from the enhanced rhythms of tension and release.(20) In On Form and Feeling in Music Rose extends his psychoanalytic work in the aesthetics of art to music employing the metaphor of art as transmuter: art facilitates bridging between and transforming perceptual stimuli...and affective meanings.(21) Form is emphasized in the homology between aesthetic structure and perceptual response--analogous to the attunement between patient and therapist in the safe holding environment.(22) Peter Ostwald , an analytically oriented psychiatrist, has explored how the representation of specific affects associated with painful memories of Schumann's childhood served to master an later agonizing separation.(23) Similarly, Stuart Feder has explored an array of affects whose representation in a song was associated with Mahler's fear of death and the mastery of anxiety.(24) The psychoanalyst Morton F. Reiser, in a consideration of Wagner's use of the leitmotif suggests that in music there may extensive vocabulary of emotion--perhaps even a grammar and wonders if communication may be effected by a counterpart physiological vocabulary and grammar, Leitmotifs may comprise an extended nodal memory network and, Reiser writes, the complexities of neurotransmission and neuromodulation are sufficient lend a sense of face validity to such a notion.(25) In music historian Leo Treitler's far-reaching Reflections on the Communication of Affect and Idea Through Music, he similarly explores the kinds of resonances [music] has with the collective experiences that contribute to the makeup of our conscious and unconscious selves. He further emphasizes the significance of form in his consideration of the Adagio of Mozart's Piano Concerto #23 (K. 488) and Bartok's From the Diary of a Fly (from Mikrokosmos) for it is not only the communication of the movement's affective progression but also our apprehension of its structure that depends on its resonance with our inner selves.(26)

Among the several composer who have engaged the attention of psychoanalytic writers, Gustav Mahler has a special place owing perhaps to the single four-hour psychoanalytic session he had with Freud in 1910. Perhaps too, because as is the case in the music of several composers, there is an element which implies the extramusical in the very surface of Mahler's music that invites biographical inquiry. Mahler himself acknowledged the conscious autobiographical impulse, writing early in his career, My whole life is contained in my two symphonies...To anyone who knows how to listen my whole life will become clear...(27) Elements which may be unconscious constitute the challenge of responsible psychoanalytic study. which in any case, Mahler has consistently inspired. since the writings of Theodor Reik. The latter devoted an entire section of his book, The Haunting Melody to a consideration of the creative context of the composition of Mahler's Symphony Number Two in G-Minor.(28) (Reik also included Freud's own scant notes on his meeting with Mahler sent to Reik by Freud in the form of a letter.)

W. E. Mooney noted that Mahler's conscious preoccupation with problems of life and death is reflected in some way in almost every composition..(29) George H. Pollock has explored the multiple losses in Mahler's life(30) and the role of musical composition in the process of mourning.(31) Robert Still's paper "Gustav Mahler and Psychoanalysis"(32) was in part a response to the publication of the first volume of Donald Mitchell's Mahler biography as an example of work by experts in their own field, who have employed or drawn attention to psychoanalytical techniques.(33) This interdisciplinary enthusiasm was short-lived as Mitchell's later volumes proved less analytically oriented.

Feder, in a retrospective study of the events leading up to Mahler's final illness and death has delineated multiple psychological factors involved.(34) Dean Collins, too, discussed the events of Mahler's last summer prior to the final illness.(35) In a later paper Feder explored a major medical event earlier in Mahler's life in which Mahler had, in his own view, narrowly escaped death. The sequelae of this traumatic experience in the life of Mahler included stylistic changes in the music itself which are explored in the analysis of his lied, Um Mitternacht.(36) The analysis of musical materials as data for psychological interpretation is a technique developed further in another study of Mahler's Symphony Number Two which leads Feder to some different (although not necessarily contradictory) views to those of Reik regarding the creative roots of that work.(37) Recently, the psychotherapeutic session within Freud has once again aroused interest with Emanuel Garcia's(38) review of the event and Feder's speculations regarding the nature of the therapeutic process and outcome.(39)

There are two full-scale biographies of composers which merit comment from a specific point of view: the potential organizing power of psychoanalytic concepts. In his Beethoven,(40) Solomon finds a unifying theme in Freud's concept of the family romance.(41) Applied to the life of Beethoven, this underlying (and presumably unconscious) fantasy of royal ancestry cogently draws together many diverse threads of the biography. Solomon, a music scholar who is psychoanalytically oriented, does not pursue possible ramifications of the psychoanalytic concept of family romance in the music itself in this particular work. Conversely, in articles where music is analyzed in detail, for example, Beethoven's Ninth.(42) he prefers to interpret in terms of the symbolic, mythical, and philosophical eschewing psychoanalytic concepts. Nevertheless, his discussion here of the representation of affects if not specifically analytically oriented enriches a psychoanalytic approach to the music.(43)

In Feder's specifically subtitled "psychoanalytic biography" of Charles Ives,(44) several organizing concepts contribute to an analytic view of a complex life. Chief among these is the incomplete mourning for an idealized but ambivalently loved father. The intrapsychic collaboration which resulted was the act of composition and the music thus created is imbued with musical quotation of the tunes of his father's times. Considerable attention is paid to early life influences in the context of the mental development of the composer. In particular, the composer's early auditory environment is stressed. (With regard to developmental studies in general, the contributions of Pinchas Noy from the point of view of ego psychology should be noted).(45)

A third full-scale biography is worthy of mention both in its own right and by way of contrast to the above. The significant organizing element in Ostwald's biography of Schumann(46) is the subject's mental illness, bipolar disease (or manic-depressive disorder). While dealing with the subject's mental life as in the above instances, its purview is necessarily psychiatric as opposed to psychoanalytic with emphasis on psychopathology. Ostwald has also contributed to the literature on Mahler, here in contrast, from the point of view of health rather than pathology.(47)

Several authors have attempted to deal with the psychology of music from a theoretical point of view, Heinz Kohut addressing himself to the psychological functions of music in mental life.(48) and, along with the musicologist Levarie, the nature of musical pleasure as well.(49) This work on the psychoanalytic interpretation of the musical process was later continued by Martin L. Nass(50) who extended his studies into the areas of hearing and inspiration in musical composition(51)as well as studies of the creative process of composition based on extended interviews with contemporary composers.(52)

For an overview of the literature in the field of psychoanalysis and music the reader is further referred to Nass's comprehensive 1989 review(53) and the two volumes of Psychoanalytic Explorations in Music.(54) (55)


  1. Freud, Sigmund, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood (1910), Standard Edition, London, 1962, Vol. 11, pp.59-138.

  2. Ibid, Dostoevsky and Parracide (1928), Standard Edition, Vol. 21, pp.173-194.

  3. Diaz de Chumaceiro, Cora L., Richard Wagner's Life and Music: What Freud Knew, in Feder, Stuart, Karmel, Richard L., Pollock, George H., Psychoanalytic Explorations in Music, Second Series, Madison CT, 1993, pp.249-278.

  4. Diaz de Chumaceiro has developed a samll literature on Freud's relationship to music which includes in addition to the above article: "Was Freud really tone-deaf?," American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol 50, pp. 199-202, 1990, and On Freud's Admiration for Beethoven, Ibid, Vol. 50, pp. 175-181, 1992. A recent article by Neil M. Cheschire re-examines Freud's relationship to music in The Empire of the Ear: Freud's Problem with Music, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol.77, pp.1127-1167, 1996.

  5. Sachs, Hans, The Creative Unconscious--Studies in the Psychoanalysis of Art, Cambridge, 1942.

  6. Rank, Otto, Art and Artist--Creative Urge and Personality Development, New York, 1932.

  7. Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretations of Dreams (1900), Standard Edition, Vols.4 & 5.

  8. Idem, Chapter Six, Vol.4 p.277 and Vol.5 p.338.

  9. Idem, Chapter Seven, Vol 5, pp.509-622.

  10. Isakower, Otto, On the Exceptional Position of the Auditory Sphere, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 20, pp.340-348, 1939.

  11. Graf, Max, Reminiscences of Professor Sigmund Freud, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Vol. 11, pp.465-476, 1942.

  12. Feder et. al. Op. Cit., 1990.

  13. Perhaps a more appropriate term for the unfelicitous applied psychoanalysis might be interdisciplinary psychoanalysis.

  14. Feder, Stuart, Karmel, Richard L., Pollock, George H., Psychoanalytic Explorations In Music, Second Series, Madison CT, 1993.

  15. Sadie, Stanly, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, London, 1980, Vol. I, p. 181.

  16. Kerman Joseph, Contemplating Music, Cambridge, 1985, Chapter Two, Musicology and Positivism: The Postwar Years, pp. 31-59.

  17. Newlin, Dika, The Mahler Brothers Syndrome, Musical Quarterly, Vol.66, pp.296-304, 1980.

  18. Feder, Stuart, Promissory Notes: Method in Music and Applied Psychoanalysis In: Feder et al, Op. Cit. 1993.

  19. Epstein, David, Shaping Time, New York, 1995.

  20. Idem, On Affect and Musical Motion, in Feder, et al, Op. Cit. 1993.

  21. Rose, Gilbert J., Form and Feeling in Music, in Feder, Idem, p. 79.

  22. Idem, p.76.

  23. Ostwald, Peter, "Communication of Affect and Idea Through Song: Schumann's I Was Crying in my Dream (op. 48, no. 13)," in Feder, et al, Idem, pp. 179-194.

  24. Feder, Stuart, Gustav Mahler Um Mitternacht, International Review of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 7, pp. 11-25, 1980.

  25. Reiser, Morton F., Wagner's Use of the Leitmotif to Communicate Understanding, in Feder et. al., Op.Cit., 1993, p. 227.

  26. Treitler, Leo, Reflections on the Communication of Affect and Idea Through Music, in Feder, et. al., Op. Cit., 1993, p. 51.

  27. De La Grange , Henri Louis, Mahler, Garden City, NY, 1973, p.272

  28. Reik, Theodore, The Haunting Melody, New York, 1953.

  29. Mooney, W.E., Gustav Mahler: A Note on Life and Death in Music, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Vol. 37, p. 88, 1968.

  30. Pollock , George H, Mourning Through Music: Gustav Mahler, in Feder, et. al. 1990, pp. 321-340.

  31. Ibid, Mourning and Memorialization Through Music, in Feder,, 1990, pp. 195-208.

  32. Still, Robert, Gustav Mahler and Psychoanalysis, American Imago, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1960, pp. 217-240.

  33. Mitchell, Donald, Gustav Mahler: The Early Years, London, 1980, revised edition edited by Paul Banks and David Mathews.

  34. Feder, Stuart, Mahler, Dying, International Review of Psychoanalysis, Vol.5, pp. 125-148, 1978.

  35. Collins, Dean, Gustav Mahler's Summer of 1910, Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, Vol. 46, No. 3, 1982, pp. 255-279.

  36. Feder, Stuart, Gustav Mahler Um Mitternacht, International Review of Psychoanalysis, 7:11-25, 1981.

  37. Feder, Stuart ,Gustav Mahler: The Music of Fratricide, The International Review of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 8, pp. 257-284, 1981.

  38. Garcia, Emanuel, A New Look at Gustav Mahler's Fateful Encounter with Sigmund Freud, Journal of the Conductor's Guild, Vol.12, Nos.1 & 2, pp. 10-30, 1991.

  39. Feder, Stuart, A Walk in Leyden: Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler, Unpublished MSS.

  40. Solomon, Maynard, Beethoven, New York, 1977.

  41. Freud, Sigmund , Family Romances, 1909, Standard Edition, Vol. 9, pp. 235-244.

  42. Solomon, Maynard, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: A Search for Order, 19th Century Music, Vol. X, Number 1, pp. 3-23, Summer 1986.

  43. Solomon's biography, Mozart, New York: Harper Collins, 1995, which was not reviewed in time for this volume is a major contribution to the field of musical biography and includes some analytically informed commentary on the father-son relationship.

  44. Feder, Stuart, Charles Ives: My Father's Song, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992.

  45. Noy , Pinchas, Form Creation in Art: An Ego Psychological Approach to Creativity (1979), in Feder, et. al.,Op. Cit., 1990, pp. 209-232.

  46. Ostwald, Peter, Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius, Boston, 1985.

  47. Ibid, Gustav Mahler: Health and Creative Energy, in Rondom Mahler VIII, Amsterdam: Concertgebouw.

  48. Kohut, Heinz, Observations on the Psychological Functions of Music (1957), in Feder, et. al., Op. Cit., 1990, pp. 1-20.

  49. Kohut, Heinz and Levarie, Siegmund, On the Enjoyment of Listening to Music (1950), in Feder, et. al., Op. Cit., 1990, pp. 21-38.

  50. Nass, Martin L., Some Considerations of a Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Music (1971), in Feder, et. al., Op. Cit., pp. 39-48.

  51. Ibid, On Hearing and Inspiration in the Composition of Music (1975), in Feder, et. al., Op. Cit., 1990, pp. 179-194.

  52. Ibid, The Composer's Experience: Variations on Several Themes, in Feder, et. al., Op. Cit.1993, pp. 21-42.

  53. Ibid, From Transformed Scream, through Mourning, to the building of Psychic Structure: A Critical Review of the Literature on Music and Psychoanalysis, Annual of Psychoanalysis, 17:159-181, 1989.

  54. Feder, et. al., Op. Cit., 1990.

  55. Feder, et. al., Op. Cit., 1993.

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