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Kohut, H. (1957). Observations on the Psychological Functions of Music. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 5:389-407.

(1957). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 5:389-407

Observations on the Psychological Functions of Music

Heinz Kohut, M.D.


The investigation of the psychological functions of musical activity requires a broad approach; it is undertaken in this essay with the aid of two sets of psychoanalytic concepts.

1. The meaning of music for the developed, structuralized psyche can be derived by focusing successively on the three parts of the structure: id, ego, and superego. We are thus enabled to isolate three functions of music: emotional catharsis for repressed wishes, playful mastery of the threats of trauma, and enjoyable submission to rules. Catharsis, mastery, and submission are experienced in a nonverbal medium, i.e., outside the sphere of most structural conflicts.

2. The significance of musical activity for earlier psychological organizations is derived from its capacity to allow subtle regression via extraverbal modes of psychic function. It appears to contribute to the relief of primitive, preverbal tensions that have found little psychological representation and it may provide for the maintenance of archaic object cathexes by virtue of its relationship to an archaic, emotional form of communication.

No attempt is made to discuss the possibility of a scientific music therapy based upon a theory of psychological function and structure. This investigation may, however, illuminate the role of music in a variety of pathological adjustments by its capacity to enter into structural conflicts, by its capacity to serve as substitute for archaic object cathexis, and by its capacity to allow regressive catharsis of the archaic libidinal and aggressive tensions of preverbal organizations. The psychodynamic and psychoeconomic value of musical activity for the normal mind lies in the variety of enjoyable possibilities that may be found on all these levels.

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