Why We Love Music—and Freud Despised It
Did the father of psychoanalysis suffer from music phobia?
Posted November 10, 2012
I've been a musician and lover of music most of my life. Not all music. I never developed a taste for opera, for example. Nor do I care much for country music. I can enjoy classical music, especially that of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Vivaldi. I also like jazz and jazz-fusion, have an appreciation for its complexity and free-form improvisation, but, frankly, don't listen to either much. Unlike my parents, who came of age in the 1940s with the brassy music of big bands led by musicians like Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey, and crooners like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, I grew up hearing, loving and playing pop and rock music. Chuck Berry. Motown. Beach Boys. Beatles. Rolling Stones, Kinks, the Who and the entire amazing musical revolution known affectiionately as the "British invasion." I was twelve and already taking drum lessons in 1963 when the Beatles arrived in America and made their debut television appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Like most impressionable American adolescents, I was hooked. And I'm still hooked. Today, as both an amateur musician and professional psychologist, I pose the following questions: What is it about music that makes it such a popular art form? Why do we humans love it so? And why did Freud despise it?
Fascinatingly, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in general, disliked most music with a passion. With the exception of certain bland operas, he had practically no appreciation of music as an art form. Indeed, he avoided almost all music like the plague. One might even speculate that Freud suffered from a significant fear of music, a "music phobia." Here is how Herr Doktor Freud (1914) himself explained his strong resistance to music:
...I am no connoisseur in art, but simply a layman….Nevertheless, works of art do exercise a powerful effect on me, especially those of literature and sculpture, less often of painting….I spend a long time before them trying to apprehend them in my own way, i.e. to explain to myself what their effect is due to. Wherever I cannot do this, as for instance 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.
Quite a confession. Why would someone with such a penetrating appreciation and comprehension of painting, architecture, sculpture, literature, poetry and other traditional art forms reject music so totally? One possible reason is that Freud, who is known to have suffered from various neurotic symptoms including obsessions, compulsivity, death anxiety, migraines and psychogenic fainting spells, may have also manifested melophobia. Fear of music. (Some even speculate that Freud suffered from an extremely rare form of seizure disorder known as musicogenic epilepsy. In such cases, music, either while played or heard, triggers an underlying neurological dysfunction, resulting in mild to severe seizures, and hence, an understandably powerful fear and avoidance of certain types of music.) As with other specific phobias (e.g., fear of snakes, spiders, flying, heights, storms, elevators, etc.), melophobia involves anxiety reactions to some specific stimulus. In Freud's case, this auditory triggering stimulus seems to have been music of almost any sort. When exposed to music while out on the town in Vienna or Munich, his automatic response was reportedly to immediately place his hands over his ears to block out the sound. What could have caused such a negative reaction? Was Freud's hearing, so finely tuned by decades of psychoanalytic listening, acutely hypersensitive? Or could his problem have been more deeply rooted?
One possible explanation for melophobia is that at some time music--either all music or some specific piece or genre of music--was psychologically linked and negatively associated with a traumatic event or period in the person's past. A Freudian interpretation almost certainly would conclude that the music stimulated some repressed or repudiated unconscious complex, memory or emotional content, typically sexual in nature, which the person feels compelled to avoid becoming conscious of at all costs. (Freud later, in his 60s, would have included repressed aggressive impulses as well.) But let's take that one step further: What if someone's dislike and avoidance or even hatred of music is rooted in a fundamental fear of the unconscious itself? Of the "irrational"? A primal dread of what Rollo May (1969) called the "daimonic"? Or of what Jungians refer to as the "anima" or "feminine"?
For example, I once treated a very angry yet chronically repressed and, therefore, depressed patient who, despite his strong interests in literature, theater and film, could not read, attend or view works of any emotional depth and intensity. He would consciously avoid placing himself in such situations. And, when he did, he would dissociate from his feelings, numbing and preventing him from relating to the material more than merely superficially. My patient felt paralyzed with anxiety by the very activities and artistic endeavors that most stimulated him intellectually and emotionally, calling forth his fiercest passions and providing some sense of meaning and purpose. He feared that if he were to permit his self-imposed defensive walls to be breached by the sublime beauty and power of art, film, music and literature, he might lose all control of himself, go berserk, become mad, psychotic, be overwhelmed or destructively possessed by the daimonic. So he carefully steered clear of such circumstances, concealing his artistic sensibilities behind a crude persona, impoverishing his quality of life and starving his soul. When we chronically deny the daimonic in ourselves, we must preclude activities, relationships or experiences that threaten to waken it from its unconscious slumber. (For more on the concept of the "daimonic," and its connection to creativity, see my book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic.)
Fear of the feminine is yet another way of conceptualizing Freud's hatred of music. Music is all about feeling, emotion, passion, the irrational, the heart, the soul, and is closely associated with the "feminine" mode of being and, in men, what C.G. Jung called the anima. Despite his profound genius, Freud's denigrating antipathy toward the feminine and its embodiment, women, is well known, as seen, for instance, in his controversial concepts of "hysteria" (wandering uterus) and "penis envy." He devalued the feminine in his psychology as in himself, and overvalued the more "masculine" qualities of thinking, reasoning, logic, analysis, intellectualism and scientific reductionism. Did Freud fear his own "feminine side"? His sensitive, "hysterical" inner woman? Did he avoid dealing with his anima in part by excluding music from his world? (Freud allegedly did not allow music to be played at home, including by his children.) Or, to put it another way, was Freud unconsciously afraid of his own feelings? Powerful feelings that would involuntarily and irrationally be stirred up in him by music? Feelings he could not dissect analytically or comprehend rationally? Feelings he strove compulsively to keep under control at all costs? And did the chronic repression of his anima, his divorced inner woman, his dissociated emotional, irrational side, underly Freud's own hysterical or psychogenic symptoms?
According to Freud biographer Peter Gay (1988), "Freud's life...was a struggle for self-discipline, for control over his speculative impulses and his rage--rage at his enemies and, even harder to manage, at those among his adherents he found wanting or disloyal [emphasis mine]." It is precisely this obsessive-compulsive defensiveness against the daimonic, particularly his own anger, resentment or rage, that may have produced Freud's dread of music and its uncontrollable and evocative effects on the human psyche. And soul. Freud possessed a towering intellect and profound insight into the human mind. But, like all of us, he struggled with his own personal demons. His complexes. Music has the power not only to sedate but to summon our demons. Especially long-suppressed emotions, memories and associations. It has been said (by playwright William Congreve) that "music has charms to soothe the savage breast." (Sometimes this is misattributed to William Shakespeare and commonly misquoted as "music soothes the savage beast.")
There is much truth to this. Music, like movies or a good book, temporarily takes us far away from our ordinary troubles and tribulations, transporting us to a different time or another world. It can provide the solace of companionship for the lonely, lessen our sense of existential isolation and convey compassion to the suffering soul. The "blues" is but one example of how listening to music created out of someone else's suffering--unrequited love, loss, trouble, bad luck--helps make us feel less alienated and alone in our problerms. Misery, as the saying goes, loves company. When we hear such tragic tales and the sorrow they engender, whether in folk,country, R&B, standards, rap or rock music, we relate to the performer and feel ourselves to be part of the herd, tribe, the collective, the archetypal, the universal, the human family. For who among us has not felt the angst and confusion of adolescence, the sting of love lost or unreciprocated at some time? So listening to such sounds soothes our souls. When we're feeling sad or down, discouraged and disheartened, music can raise our spirits, be uplifting, inspirational and energizing. Music makes us want to dance, in a joyous, spontaneous expression of the primal life force. It can gently lull us to sleep (lullaby). Or it can make us want to cry or laugh. And, sometimes, music makes us feel angry. When, for example, Bob Dylan wrote, played and sang protest songs like "Masters of War" and " A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," we felt his personal anger and that he was expressing or channelling our own collective rage. This is what differentiates true art from self-indulgent pretension; real music from cacophony or mere commercialism. The best music comes from and most purely expresses personal experiences, but arises and speaks also to what Jung called the "collective unconscious." It taps directly into our psyche at the deepest possible level and addresses archetypal and existential concerns about the human condition, concerns and experiences we all share. And it connects us intimately to each other.
Melody alone can be deeply moving. Consider, for example, Beethoven's Eroica symphony or his late string quartets composed just prior to his death. But when combined with meaningful lyrics, music takes on the additional power of poetry. It becomes synergistic, speaking to us both verbally and non-verbally simultaneously. Of course, this all depends on the quality of the music and/or lyrics, and how well they complement each other. But when the combination is just right, nothing compares to the experience, whether of composing, playing and vocalizing, or passively listening to such sublime creations. Dylan did this. The transcendent yet soul-wrenchingly personal music of Joni Mitchell comes to mind as epitomizing this synergistic marriage of music and poetry. Jackson Browne is another artist whose music, vocals and lyrics work exceedingly well together. The Rolling Stones give evil and the daimonic dark side its due in their hypnotically chilling "Sympathy for the Devil." And then, of course, there is the timeless music of Lennon and McCartney. And many, many others.
But music can do so much more. Music can stimulate emotions, evoke feelings or recollections, much as psychotherapy ideally does. It can trigger childhood memories, both positive and traumatic. Unlike rational conversation, music penetrates our intellectual defenses and speaks directly to the heart and soul of who we are. Music speaks the language of the irrational, and it cannot, as Freud frustratingly found, be broken down, analyzed, intellectualized or rationally explained. Perhaps this is why Freud, the consummate rationalist of the irrational, the unconscious, found music so deeply disturbing: He (his ego) could not tolerate being affected by something without identifying the precise nature and cause of his apparently strong emotional reactions. Being unable to place music under the reductionstic, mechanistic psychoanalytic microsope, and thus, to gain mastery and control over its affects, Freud found music's mysterious power profoundly threatening. It moved him in ways which he was psychologically unprepared and unwilling to contend. Music is often associated with love, eros, romance and sexuality. Music is commonly made use of in erotic relationships to "set the mood" for love, serving as aphrodisiacal "mood music." In this sense, it seems strange that Freud, who did more than anyone of his era to bring eros and human sexuality into the bright light of day and out of the unconscious Victorian shadows, showed so little enthusiasm for music.Quite the contrary. Curiously, in the prodigious fifteen-volume Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, the subject of music is seldom mentioned.
Sigmund Freud, who considered himself inherently "unmusical" or perhaps as having a "tin ear," was not alone in his disparagement of music. But we still don't know why. Was the highly cultured, refined Freud simply unable to appreciate the emotional language of music? Was Freud "tone-deaf"? Maybe, like 4% of the general population, he did in fact suffer from congenital amusia, tune deafness, dysmelodia or dysmusia: an inability to expressively and/or receptively detect tonal pitch or rhythm. To follow or carry a tune. This might be why Freud, a trained neurologist, sought to avoid being constantly and painfully reminded of this partly neurological deficiency or inferiority by despising and dismissing the power of music. Perhaps his disregard for music was Freud's way of trying to compensate for what Alfred Adler (1870-1937) referred to as this shameful "organ inferiority." In any case, not everyone is a music lover. Some philosophers and intellectuals, including Plato, have argued that music is mere entertainment and distraction for those who cannot amuse, converse or think for themselves. A substitute for authentic social intercourse. For intellectual debate. For real intimacy.There is some truth to this. As there is to the fact that music can become a compulsive defense against introspection, silence and existential aloneness.
Not all music is art. Much of it can be banal and pedestrian, or just plain bad, especially when composed or played by unskilled, untalented, uninspired musicians. Consider bad karaoke, for instance. Or the type of lounge music parodied by comedians like Bill Murray. At its best, music conveys feelings and emotions more purely and powerfully than most other art forms. At its worst, it can be banal, offensive, insipid, prosaic, soul-less or simply boring. (Perhaps it was sometimes such vapid background noise or what we today call "elevator" music that Freud found so distasteful.) But even then, music can be entertaining to listen to and see being performed. And it can be even more fun for the musicians themselves. Playing music for others and with others is like no other experience. It is a combination of team sport, interpersonal communication, and collective painting or sculpture combined. It provides the opportunity to express ourselves through a musical instrument, often non-verbally, in ways which we could never do otherwise.Which is what makes music so potentially therapeutic. Indeed, music has been employed in the healing of psychological suffering for thousands of years, from its use by shamans, witch doctors, priests and exorcists to professional "music therapists" today. (See, for instance, this concise descripition of music therapy from Wikipedia.)
Music is an archetypal, primal means of human communication and self-expression, one that has been practiced from time immemorial. Most of us are born with the innate capacity to be musical. Rhythm, played on drum-like instruments, may be the earliest and most primitive form of music. It is in our blood. Deep in our DNA. Every culture makes music of some sort. It can be inspired by tragedy, loss, love, joy, serenity, terror, war or rage. Music, at its height, like art in general, wrote Franz Kafka, "must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us." This is what the best music can do, and music may do it better than most other art forms. Maybe Freud feared this liberating axe. Perhaps he sought to prevent the frozen sea of feelings inside him from freely flowing and potentially inundating or overpowering his ego, fearing some unstoppable tsunami. If so, this certainly seems antithetical to his own psychoanalytic creed: Making the unconscious conscious. Though this task cannot always be accomplished intellectually. But it does comport with Freud's comparatively negative view of the unconscious, the irrational and the feminine as contrasted to that of Carl Jung. In fact, despite, much like Freud, mainly ignoring the subject in his writings, the mature Jung (1956) is reputed to have felt that "music should be an essential part of every analysis. This reaches deep archetypal material that we can only sometimes reach in our analytical work with patients.“ Can music substitute for psychotherapy? Not really. But music can take us places talk therapy cannot. It provides deep emotional catharsis for both creator and listener. And I would argue that the capacity to create and appreciate music and other expressive art forms can not only complement psychotherapy, but may, for some, become the best therapy once treatment ends.
Finally, Freud's famous dislike not only of music, but of religion and spirituality must also be seriously considered. Are they connected? I would say so. For music has long been linked with spirituality and religion, the antithesis of science. And this is because music evokes spirituality, the mysterious, the transcendent, the ineffable, the awesome, which is why it has been for millennia such an integral part of shamanic rituals, prayer and religious ceremonies in Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, etc. Freud denied this "irrational" side of himself, his more mystical, spiritual leanings, his religiosity, and feared and rejected Jung's fascination with such esoteric and "occult" matters, fighting tenaciously to exclude them from his purely rational science of psychoanalysis. But, as Jung rightly pointed out, that which we try to exclude from our conscious personality inevitably becomes part of the "shadow." (See my prior post.) Much like his patients' repressed sexuality, Freud's own repressed spirituality may have expressed itself in his "irrational" obsessive thoughts and fears, including that of music. We could conclude that Freud feared the spiritual power of music because he feared the spiritual side of himself. By completely excommunicating spirituality from psychoanalysis and his own psyche in the holy name of science, Sigmund Freud sacrificed his potential relationship to the enigmatic magic and majesty of music. But, then, great genius always has its price.