The Power of Music

2022-04-16 • 6 min read


The sirens mesmerised their victims with song. Snake charmers play their vipers and cobras music that they – the snakes – don’t even perceive. And the Rat-Catcher of Hamelin misled the children of that town with a silver flute. What these stories tell us is that music is an intoxicating drug.

The one philosopher who above all others saw in music this overwhelming power was Arthur Schopenhauer. In The World as Will and Representation, he wrote:

What we recognize in [music] is not an imitation or repetition of some [Platonic] Idea of the essence of the world: nonetheless, it is such a great and magisterial art, it exercises so powerful an effect within us, is understood so deeply and entirely by us as a wholly universal language whose clarity exceeds even that of the intuitive world itself; – that we can certainly look to it for more than an “unconscious exercise in arithmetic in which the mind does not know it is counting”, which as what Leibniz took it to be, although he was entirely correct to the extent that he considered only its immediate and external significance, its outer shell. (Schopenhauer and Janaway 2010)

To Schopenhauer, music was an expression of a blind, monadic, aimless and irrational urge that he called the Will. This Will, roughly speaking, is the thing we would see if we could see the world outside time, space and causality. The world of representation – the world we actually do perceive – is something like the Will viewed from a distance or through a filter; Schopenhauer compares them to two sides of the same coin. That is why music “stands completely apart” from all the other arts. Hearing it, we perceive the world beneath representation.

That is a rosy view of music that is only partially undermined by one of Schopenhauer’s favourite examples of musical transcendence being the operas of Gioacchino Rossini. For a more anguished view, we must turn (as we often do) to Leo Tolstoy (an admirer of Schopenhauer) and his novella The Kreutzer Sonata. That novella was primarily an expression of Tolstoy’s fear and hatred of sexual relations, but it also concerned music. In it, a man named Pozdnyshev tells the story of how he came to murder his wife out of jealousy. As the marriage is unraveling, so he relates, his wife begins to spend time with a violinist. The pair often play music together, her accompanying him on the piano. The story culminates in their performing Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata at a social gathering at the Pozdnyshevs’ home. Pozdnyshev rants:

[M]usic generally is a fearful thing. What is it? I don’t understand. What is music? What does it do? And why does it do what it does? They say music has an elevating effect on the soul – nonsense, lies! It affects one, affects one fearfully, I’m speaking of myself, but not at all in a soul-elevating way. It affects the soul neither in an elevating nor in an abasing way, but in a provoking way. How shall I put it? Music makes me forget myself, my true situation, it transports me to some other situation not my own; under the influence of music it seems to me that I feel what, in fact, I do not feel, that I understand what I do not understand, that I can do what I cannot do. I explain it by the fact that music works like yawning, like laughter; I’m not sleepy, but I yawn looking at a yawning man, I have no reason to laugh, but I laugh hearing someone else laugh.

It, music, at once, transports me directly into the inner state of the one who wrote the music. I merge with him in my soul and, together with him, am transported from one state to another, but why I do that I don’t know. The man who wrote, let’s say, the Kreutzer Sonata – Beethoven – knew why he was in such a state. That state led him to certain actions, and therefore that state had meaning for him, while for me it has none. And therefore music only provokes, it doesn’t conclude. Well, they play a military march, soldiers march to it, the music achieves its end; they play a dance tune, I dance, the music achieves its end; they sing a mass, I take communion, the music also achieves its end; while here there’s only provocation, but what’s to follow from that provocation isn’t there. And that’s why music sometimes has such a fearful, such a terrible effect. In China music is a state affair. And that’s how it should be. As if it can be allowed that anyone who likes should hypnotise another or many others and then do what he likes with them. And, above all, that this hypnotist should be the first immoral man who comes along. (Tolstoy 2010)

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “That is not really about music. Music there is just a metaphor for erotic passion.” Well, maybe. But it seems like a separate thing too. For example, Tolstoy seems to suggest that music can bring about erotic passion. That would not make any sense if the two were the same. Also, Pozdnyshev was not unlike Tolstoy himself; Troyat (1967, 356) writes:

Tolstoy had always been sensitive to music. It acted on him like a drug. It unstrung his nerves and made him lose control of his reactions. Sometimes he even grew angry with the artist for destroying his peace of mind. Stepan Behrs [brother of Sonya Tolstaya, née Behrs] observed that when his brother-in-law was listening to his favourite melodies, he would suddenly turn “very pale”, and “he winced, almost imperceptibly, in a way that seemed to express fear”.


On July 3, 1887 the children arranged a little concert, featuring Liassotta, a pupil at the Moscow Conservatory of Music who had been engaged to give violin lessons to the third Tolstoy son. Liassotta and Sergey, playing the violin and piano respectively, gave a performance of the Kreutzer Sonata. Tolstoy, who was very fond of Beethoven, listened with tears in his eyes; then, during the presto, unable to control himself, he rose and went to the window where, gazing at the starry sky, he stifled a sob. Sonya received the benefits of his transports later that same evening, when they were alone: as she wrote immediately afterward in her diary, under the influence of music he had become “the affectionate and tender Lyovochka of old”. A few weeks later she discovered that she was pregnant. (Troyat 1967, 473–74)

Tolstoy and Schopenhauer both say that music is a powerful force, but while one of them says it’s a force for good, the other says it’s a force for evil. Who’s right? Is either?

First, we should remember that Schopenhauer and Tolstoy were not ordinary people. They were probably relying too much on their own personal experience, a common mistake which I too shall now proceed to make.

I want to say: neither of the two is right. The conclusions they draw are irrelevant because the premise they share is questionable. Is music really that powerful? People listen to music all the time nowadays and it doesn’t seem to make them do crazy things or have utterly transcendent experiences. Otherwise we’d have laws against driving with music.[1]

That is not to say that music does not have an effect on the body. It is only to say that it doesn’t seem much stronger than the first beer. I can’t think of a time when I ever acted against my own reason or in a way that I later regretted due to music, whereas with alcohol I can think of several such cases.

I want to say: music is not an expression of the Will, still less a “merging in the soul” with the composer, but a multiplier. If you’re feeling sad, you put on sad music and feel ten percent sadder. If you’re feeling happy, you put on happy music and feel ten percent happier. If you’re feeling whatever it is we feel when we perceive the Will, … you get the idea.

I want to say those things, but I really have no idea. I know that you can (and scientists do) get people to listen to music and detect increased activity in this or that region of the brain, or spot an aberration in such-and-such a biomarker, or see statistically significant differences from the control group in responses to a questionnaire. What does that say about music’s capacity (or incapacity) for transporting us “to some other situation not [our] own”? Not much, I reckon. And so I demur.

References #

Schopenhauer, Arthur, and Christopher Janaway. 2010. The World as Will and Representation: Volume 1. Translated by Judith Norman, Alistair Welchman, and Christopher Janaway. Cambridge University Press.
Tolstoy, Leo. 2010. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories. Random House.
Troyat, Henri. 1967. Tolstoy. New York: Doubleday.

Footnotes #

  1. It’s possible that music was more intoxicating in the nineteenth century because it was harder to come by. We may be partially immune to its effects now because we consume so much of it. ↩︎