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Kohut, H. Levarie, S. (1950). On the Enjoyment of Listening to Music. Psychoanal Q., 19:64-87.

(1950). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 19:64-87

On the Enjoyment of Listening to Music

Heinz Kohut, M.D. and Siegmund Levarie, Ph.D.


We have attempted to clarify only certain genetic, topographic, and psychoeconomic aspects of the problem of the enjoyment of music. From the genetic point of view it was demonstrated that unorganized sound symbolizes primitive dread of destruction. The fear is made unnecessary by the intelligible, though nonverbal, organization of sound in music. Elements in this organization are the clear-cut beginning and end; the use of tones rather than noises; a tonality to which the listener is conditioned; a statement of the tonic at the beginning of the composition; regular rhythm; repetition; traditional formal patterns (for example, fugues or sonatas); and familiar instruments. Topographically, the coexistence of the understanding ego functions (which recognize orderliness in the essentially alarming

nonverbal stimulations) with the ability to experience primitive id mechanisms (which bring about magical omnipotence and loss of ego boundary) appears to be the condition for the ecstatic enjoyment of music. This pleasure is reached not directly but only after the musical composition has playfully repeated the original task and its solution by deviating into dissonance and returning to consonance. Joy and other moods created in the listener discharge themselves predominantly through the listener's identification with the musical sounds. Psychoeconomically, the steepness of the curve of liberated energies seems to contribute to the definition of the special quality that characterizes musical enjoyment.

There is perhaps no better way to summarize these theoretical considerations than by a quotation from a poet.

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