Psycoanalytic Approaches to Analysis and Musical Taste

As anyone who has read this blog will know, I have developed an ongoing interest in the ways in which music conveys meaning over the last few years. This has resulted in considering many academics’ thoughts – ranging from philosophers such as Susanne Langer (Philosophy in a New Key, 1941) to musicologists such as Phil Tagg (Musical Meanings, 2013), Alan Moore (Rock the Primary Text, 2001, 2013) and many others. Over the next few weeks, I intend to document short snapshots of some of the philosophical positions I have found either useful or interesting in my work as an academic, in addition to some ideas for areas I would like to explore further. There is no room for real detail here – but the intension is for the ideas to inspire further research for both myself and others. So week one – I would like to start with psycoanalytic approaches and musical taste


I have found basic psychological approaches to understanding music interesting – although I need to say up front it is probably the area I know least about. However, when we consider music psycoanalytically, it is possible to put the songwriter/composer on the ‘metaphorical Freudian couch’ – gaining insights into factors such as personality, family background, political convictions etc – that may not be otherwise apparent. I have found this useful with my Sting book for example, when his music often subtly reflects details such as his upbringing in the north east of England, his political convictions, his relationship with his parents etc . However, where as Sting tends to depict his personality in a relatively straightforward manner (although his personae is more complex), Frank Zappa would often disguise his true self by displaying his deeper views via the lens of a character – what George Lipsetz has described as Strategic Anti Essentialism’. Concisely speaking, it is basically easier to say things when you are saying it the via the lens of someone else!


Although it is more useful in terms of how I personally experience as opposed to analyse music, the impact of music on taste’ – or the phrase I prefer, ‘pleasure’ is also interesting, although as stated above, it is an area I have not researched fully. I have dipped in to the work of Immanuel Kant, particularly his notion of subjective and objective taste, but find the notion of been ‘disinterested’ when looking at an aesthetic object problematic. How can we simply switch off our subjectivity in order to judge something like music? Nevertheless, the difference of a piece of music being objectively ‘beautiful’ or subjectively (what Kant called) ‘agreeable’ is interesting. How can we make decisions on music being objectively beautiful? There are no set rules – so do we consider the popularity of a song As part of this discourse? The problem with this position of course is that it has often been influenced by a body called the music industry! Does the music industry actually tell us what good and bad music is? These are small questions that have big answers – and we may be beginning to move away from psycological approaches to music.

Finally, I know that there has been much research into the physiological impact of music on the senses, but have to confess I have not delved into this in any detail. The only books I have read in any detail (although a few years ago) is Hermann Von Helmholtzs’ On the Sensation of Tone (1875) and the really accessible book by Carl Wilson – Lets Talk About Love: A journey to the end of taste (2007). This book is really is worth a read – as the author attempts to understand his own aesthetic opinion of the music of Celine Deon.

So that’s it for this post. The next post will be on music and emotion

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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