My study of the significance
of music has been slowly progressing since the early sixties 1,2,3, as
a by-product of my psychotherapeutic work, particularly in a therapeutic
community 4 viewed as an ethological laboratory.
as interpersonal process
The cliché "music is expressing feelings", though true, always has
seemed to me to be a mind-stopper, preventing a broader understanding
of the meaning of music. As in a dream, music creates a fantasy world.
It elicits in us tedencies towards others, and lets us feel the impact
of their tendencies. In other words, music creates interpersonal situations
in which we participate, although the narrative is only schematic and
does not describe any concrete situation. Suppressing the tendency to
speculate-not unknown in the field of esthetics- I designed a simple experiment
to test the hypothesis that music has interpersonal meaning, which
is basically the same for different people.
A military march played to soldiers going to war is designed to support
their optimistic attitude of self-confidence, dominance, pride, showing
off and aggression. Such music makes us to identify with its tendencies.
The result could be quite different if these tendencies would be presented
iinstead visually, in posters -- such as pictures of aggressive men who
shoot. Rather than identifying, we would likely have a complementary
reaction -- being pushed into submission, feeling attacked, feeling fear
and running away. The same happens when we hear such music in sleep: we
usually do not identify with it, we feel the dominant and aggressive impact
which pushes us into complementary reactions of submission, avoidance,
fear and flight. In a waking state, music can create both identification
and complementation -- but most of the time it creates identification.
Hypothesis testing: the musical circumplex
In the first experiments, Leary's 5 circumplex with its eight tendencies
was used. But soon, listening to music and ibeing nspired by ethology
(e.g., I missed flight, fear), I changed it. The circumplex (Table and
Picture) has a horizontal (afiliation-avoidance) and a vertical (dominance-submission)
D+ DOMINANCE: Directs, dictates, advises, controls
D- SUBMISSION: Asks for or accepts direction, dictate, advice, control
E+ EXHIBITION+ : Displaying a supposedly valuable quality: I am powerful,
attractive, intelligent, have high status, etc.
E-: EXHIBITION- : Sympathy-, care-, pity-soliciting -- displays a lack
of some quality- I am needy, weak, suffering, ill, depressed
A+ AFFILIATION: Approaches, seeks cooparation, closeness, friendship,
A - AVOIDANCE : Avoids contact, seeks isolation, distance, detach ed
F+ FIGHT : Attacks, shows anger, hostility, aggression
F- FLIGHT : Tries to escape from danger; fears
Since the hypothesis tested deals exclusively with the question of the
interpersonal meaning of music, questions about the psychometric properties
of the circumplex are not important here (such as: Is it psychomentrically
well ordered? -- as, e.g., J. Wiggins 6 tries to achieve -- or the question:
Is the basic idea of interpersonal circumplex psychometrically sound?,
raised by J.D. Jackson 7 "the circumplex structuring is too simple...inconsistent
with much of modern measurement theory" )).
Two tests were used, consisting of 24 and 17 fragments respectively of
European music from the seventeenth to the twentieth centurcies. They
were presented to the ESs who independently answered which tendency or
tendencies they found in each fragment. In the first experriment there
were 3 ESs, in the second 59 and in the third 3 again. In the statistical
evaluation the null hypothesis ("the answers are random") was rejected
on 5% level of confidence in the first and on 1% level of confidence in
the second and third experiment.
Numerous subsequent unpublished experiments both from Europe and North
America showed the same results. The same has been reported by others
(e.g., the musicologist J .Doubravova, 8 .). It is concluded that in
the populations studied, music has basically the same interpersonal meaning
for all people.
Cultural and biological programming
What gives the music its universal meaning? One part of the agreement
about music among listeners is, no doubt, cultural. If one hears organ
music, one thinks about church, something sacred or religious-but only
in certain cultures of the world! On the other hand, some aspects of music
seem to ne universal. Nobody will think about lovers in moonlight or a
sleeping baby when hearing the loud and quick beats of drums or sounds
of loud trumpets. Some sound patterns, such as laughter, crying, male
and female voice, are believed to be evolutionary programmed social releasers
(Lorenz) and are imitated in music by different instruments (flute, violin,
violincello, etc.), possibly as supernormal stimuli. Supernormal stimuli
(K.Lorenz 9) are artificial stimuli which have greater impact as social
releasers than natural stimuli. (E.g., an artifical egg four times larger,
but with a clearer black-and-white pattern than the real eggs of the bird
ring plover is preferred by the parent bird, which throws out of the nest
its own eggs in favor of the artificial eggs.- A gape of the parasitic
cuckoo nestling has a hi gher stimulus value for the parent birds than
of their own nestlings.) Music has in some respects similar complex structure
as language -- possibly sharing with it its "deep structure" (Chomsky)..
The interpersonal character of music is, of course, not the only important
aspect of music. Though this will be likely different in future, the present,
rather simplified interpersonal analysis is not in a position to contribute
to the assessement of the esthetic quality of music. Also, the interpersonal
reactions of people of different cultures have to be studied much more
extensively than has been possible so far. However, the method can be
used already now for studying objectively, e.g., how the musical interpersonal
spectrum of a composer changes during his/her life, and how the spectra
of different composers and of different musical epochs differ. Also the
difference between poetry and music can be studied. For example, there
is a discrepancy in renaissance madrigasls, e.g., those of Orlando di
Lasso, between the text expressing strongly E-("I am desperate and suffering),
and the lack of E- in the accompanying music. And only three decades later,
the E- tendency is strongly expressed both in the text and music in the
madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo, that passionate partisan of chromaticism
and jealous killer of his wife.
What would Nietzsche say today?
When talking about biologicall programming of music, one must think about
Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed that esthetics is "nothing but a kind
of applied physiology" and explained:
What is it that my whole body really expects of music....? I believe,
its own ease: as if all animal functions should be quickened by easy,
bold , exuberant, self-assured rhythms; as if iron, leaden life should
lose its gravity through golden, tender, oil-smooth melodies. My melancholy
wants to rest in the hiding places and abysses of perfection: that is
why I need music.(10]
Today, when evolutionary biology and physiology invaded the territory
of interpersonal relations, Nietzsche might talk about esthetics as applied
ethology or sociphysiology . Encouraged by what he said at different times,
but still with trepidation and apologies to Nietzsche, I will take the
risk and say loud my guess what he might say:
" I, Zarathustra, descended from my mountain because I love people,
that rope between the ape and overman. I am with people all the time --
whether they are real or my phantoms. We are connected -- indirectly by
the illusive bridges of words, and directly by music, dance and laughter.
What is it that my whole body expects from music? Its own ease: as if
all animal functions in me and my friends- love, anger, pride , sadness-
were quickened, and I could reach the essence of people as never before.
Music makes me slip into the dramas and tragedies of others' lives --
and for a while I am even seduced into believing that these concrete scenes
reveal the meaning of music. But that is how music teases me. The scenes
are only illusions, reflections on water. The paradox of music is that
it is a universal language -- and yet, the universality is not an empty
universality of abstraction. Music talks directly to my senses and my
body and reveals the true nature of human beings."
analysis of music may bring us not only closer to the understanding of
music and arts, but also to the understanding of the depths of human nature.
1 Knobloch,F& Postolka M & Srnec, J (1964). Musical experience
as interpersonal process. PSYCHIATRY: J. for the study of interpersonal
processes, 27:4, 259-265.
2 Knobloch et al (1968). On an interpersonal hypothesis in the
semiotic of music. Kybernetika, Prague, 4:4, 364-382.-Experiencia musical
como processo interpersonal. Una contribucion a la teoria de la musica.
In:Rojas-Bermudes JG(Ed.), Cuadernos de Psicoterapia. Buenos Aires: Associacion
Argentina de Psicodrama y Psicoterapia de Grupo. VII:1-2, 1972-3.
3 Knobloch, F. (1998). Musical experience as interpersonal process:
Revisited. In: R. Monelle (ed.) Musica significans (Proceedings of the
International Congress on Musical signification, Edinburgh, 1992). Contemporary
Music Review 17. 2: 59-72.
4 Knobloch F. & Knobloch J. (1979). Integrated Psychotherapy. New
York: Jason Aronson. - Stuttgart: F. Enke, 1983 (German) -- Tokyo: Seiwa
Shoten 1984 (Japanese) -- Praha:Grada, 1993(Czech) -- Shantou University,
5 Leary T. (1957).Interpersonal diagnosis of personality. New York:
The Ronald Press.
6 Wiggins J & Pincus AL.(1992). Personality structure and assessement.
Annual Review of Psychology, 43, 437-504.
7 Jackson DN & Helmes E.(1979). Personality structure and the circumplex.
J. Personality and Social Psychology, 37: 12, 2278-2285.
8 Doubravova J.(1972). Alban Berg's violin concerto from an interpersonal
point of view (In Czech). Hudebni veda, Praha, 9(2), 107-139.
9 Lorenz K.(1981). The foundations of ethology. New York: Springer,.
10 Nietzsche, F. (1888/1968). Nietzsche contra Wagner. In: W. Kaufmann,
The portable Nietzsche. New York: the Viking Press., p. 664
Ferdiand Knobloch, MD, FRCP(C)
Emeritus of Psychiatry University of British Columbia
4137 W 12 Ave Vancouver, B.C., V6R 2P5 firstname.lastname@example.org