Psychoanalysis and Music
François Régnault

Author’s Bio

Translated by Asunción Alvarez, “La Musique ne pense pas seule” is from Séminaire Entretemps Musique/Psychanalyse (2001-2002), which Regnault dictated at Paris VIII.

Taking the non-relation as a starting point is always something fundamental for Lacan. As François Nicolas puts it, “The extreme hypothesis remains which I must count as hypothesis 0 or hypothesis + 1, and which would be that of a non-relation: there would be no relation between music and psychoanalysis. This hypothesis would establish as the aim of our seminar the exploration of a non-existence even more than that of an impossibility” (“How Can Music Think With Psychoanalysis?” II, end).

I have always been struck by the silence of psychoanalysis with regard to music when it comes to the few classic writings on this matter: nothing in Freud, almost nothing in Lacan. One exception is Theodor Reik’s Variations on a Theme by Mahler; but on reading it in more detail, I found that it was only a comment on the texts which Mahler set to music, that is to say, some remarks on Mahler’s fantasies, but nothing at all, for example, on the “inside” of music, such as: what is a dominant seventh for psychoanalysis? By contrast, Schopenhauer, about whom I will write later on, wrote: “The complete cadence requires the preceding chord of the seventh on the dominant; because the most deeply felt satisfaction and the most entire relief can only follow the most earnest longing.” [1]

There was also the 1972 issue 9 of Musique en jeu: “Psychoanalysis and music”, including an article by Guy Rosolato – “Repetitions” – and an article by Dominique Jameux – “Game of evils” to which should be added some writings by Alain Didier-Weil: on perception by the listener: “On four subjetivizing times” (Ornicar? 8, winter 1976-7) and a whole chapter devoted, among other things, to musical timing, “The time of the other: music”, in his work Les trois temps de la loi [The Three Times of Law] (Seuil, 1995).


Is it not that Freud, despite his statements (or denials) was as deaf as he claimed to be regarding music: he analyzed Sarah Bernhardt’s voice (this is drama, but nonetheless), he praised Yvette Guilbert’s songs (although, it is true, he knew her), he narrated in a dignified style worthy of the Marx brothers a performance of Carmen in Italy, and it is obvious that he knew this opera by heart. Maybe he did not wish to give in to Vienna’s conservative conformism, concerning which Theodor Reik described the opposition between Strauss, beloved of the reactionary bourgeoisie, and Mahler, supported by progressives. Lacan stated only that music and architecture are the supreme arts (non-published seminar, the reference for which I am unable to find). Diego Masson introduced him to the work of Gesualdo. He regularly attended concerts at the Domaine musical. He seemed unwilling to decide on music. A symptom, in both writers, of a non-relation. This non-relation might be supported (if I dare say so!) on three chasms which I will briefly describe:

1) If the unconscious is structured like a language (Lacan’s thesis), musical language is not defined as Saussure’s language: or in any case, leaving linguistic considerations aside, no primary processes can be found in music in the sense in which Freud turned them into the process par excellence in dreams, symptoms, etc. and in the sense in which Lacan takes them up (displacement and condensation).

2) The voice taken as Lacan’s object a is not “the human voice”, not even the sense in which Barthes talks about its grain (“The grain of the voice”, an article also published in issue 9 of Musique en jeu), and Jacques-Alain Miller goes so far as to say that the voice cannot be understood as the object a, the cause of desire, and thus in the invocative drive: “The Lacanian voice”, he says, “the voice in Lacan’s sense, not only isn’t speech, but has nothing to do with talking. […] In this regard, the voice, in the very special use that Lacan makes of this term, is without a doubt a function of the signifier, or even better, of the signifying chain as such.” And he goes on: “Thus the voice is not made use of; it inhabits language, it haunts it. It’s enough to say something for it to emerge, for the threat to arise that what cannot be said will come to light. Lacan’s thesis involves that if we speak, if we confer, if we chat, if we sing and if we listen to singers, if we make music and if we listen to it, it is all to silence what deserves to be called the voice as the object a.” [2]

3) Does the field of affects in psychoanalysis correspond better to the effects of music? We can easily see that there is a difference between the passions we experience and the feelings that music arouses in us. Everybody knows that it makes sense to in saying once more, following others, that “music expresses nothing”. Commentators get away with unjustified projections: that day the composer was feeling depressed, triumphant, in love. It is always true, and thus always non-provable. But of course, each of these impossible relations must be turned immediately into a Real (Lacan’s thesis: “the impossible is the Real”).

Applied psychoanalysis:

How should the question be posed? Among the ways for psychoanalysis and music to meet which François Nicolas deduced in his article, I was interested in the category of compatibility, the idea of a reciprocal conditioning due to the times: a certain structuralism located between Lacanian psychoanalysis and serial music, for example (as with Lévi-Strauss’s anthropology and Dumézil’s mythology). [3] Supposing that psychoanalysis referred to music from Freud to Lacan, it would have done so by going from what can be called a “deep way” to a “structural way”. Put otherwise, it would have moved from affective premises regarding music (which can be found in Theodor Reik, for example) to structural premises, in the same way that there was a passage from Impressionism to Cézanne and, in music itself, from impressionistic music to serial music, the abandonment of tonality, etc. This without being too careful about dates, for Freud was objectively a contemporary of the Vienna School in music, but certainly not subjectively. He was even contemporary with Mahler, whom he received for consultation.

This visible (audible) connivance does not arise in any case from applied psychoanalysis. Let us remember: “Psychoanalysis is applied, strictly speaking, only as a treatment and thus to a subject who speaks and hears,” [Écrits, p. 630]. Which would strictly lead to a psychoanalysis of the listening (or listened to) subject, (which partly overlaps with Alain Didier-Weil’s argument), but not to a psychoanalysis of music itself, of thought on music. Lacan’s point of view would thus be: how can music advance psychoanalysis? We will see that in reality, once we are at the heart of the reflection between psychoanalysis and another art, it is hard to tell which one “advances” the other, because bringing them together gives rise to a sort of intersection or non-division between them both. Art decorates the hole of “The Thing”, and the Thing is thus treated through art: as Lacan puts it,  “All art is characterized by a certain mode of organization around this emptiness.” The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. [4]

In the same way, when Lacan talked about Hamlet, whom he refused to turn into a clinical case, nothing prevented him from applying to Shakespeare interpretations that were the theory of desire; but they were also applied, even if only as interpretations, to Shakespeare’s text, which he even changed. Thus, when talking about the sentence “The body is with the king, but the king is not with the body”, Lacan says “Replace the word king by the word phallus and you will perceive what precisely we are dealing with…” (Le Séminaire, Livre VI, Le désir et son interprétation, April 29 1959, in Ornicar ? 26/27, p.43]. Rather, such applications are made; thus, “La confusion d’Ophélie et de Phallos n’a pas besoin de voisins, elle apparaît dans la structure.” [session of 8th April 1959, in Ornicar? 25, 1982. Psychoanalysis, which is not applied to an entire work, nonetheless allows for local applications which are really interpretations. Thus we can distinguish here between the operation of (word) displacement carried out by Lacan, and the clinical diagnosis of Hamlet, something which he refuses to do. Let us start once again from a general point of view, taking into account what is generally said about music: that is has a musical side and an expressive or affective side. Let us not scorn these common views. They encourage me to take as my starting point, by opposition, Schopenhauer’s original point of view on music: one of the most original views in the history of philosophy (no doubt, together with Plato’s). To begin with, Schopenhauer takes up Leibniz’s definition: “Exercitium arithmeticae occultum nescientis se numerare animi” (“A concealed exercise in arithmetic in which the mind ignores [the fact] that it is counting”). This concerns the mathematical part of music. Schopenhauer replaces this accurate, but in his view “inferior” definition, by another one, which according to him takes in account an “infinitely elevated” point of view: “Musica est exercitium metaphysices ocultum nescientis se philosophari animi” (“Music is a concealed exercise in metaphysics in which the mind ignores that it is philosophizing”). [5] We will take our inspiration from this point of view.

A Borromean knot: can a definition of music by psychoanalysis be given? Yes, if psychoanalysis becomes aware of its impossible relations to music, which, it seems to me, are of three orders (taking up the three impossibilities mentioned at the start):

1) From the structural point of view, which must be preferred to the question of language.  For the “most broadly practical structure of the data of analytic experience” in psychoanalysis is, for Lacan, retroactivity [Écrits, p. 681]. The subject becomes aware that the afterthought returns upon what was already there, etc. In the same way, music delineates time, to the point that Mozart claimed in a letter that he could encompass in one single look or one single inner perception, immediate or instantaneous, the entire piece which he had just composed in his head, and which he only had to transcribe. [6]But this impression of a unity of vision only takes place in the mathematical space of music, in which the pleasure of numbers that cannot be named is directly experienced: the pleasure of calculations that cannot be carried out, of balances that cannot be evaluated, of temporalities that are exactly divided or not, of commensurabilities or incommensurabilities, of anticipations and retrospections, and all this unawares: there are laws there, but they are unknown to us, and this goes also for the composer, who knows the laws for the composition of a sonata, a fugue, but also faces laws of a different order, which he gradually discovers. In the same way as every clinical case is an exception to the structure within which it would be placed, in the same way every Bach fugue reveals what escapes the laws of fugue. That is why every great musical work is pregnant with possibilities: think about everything that Schönberg claimed to owe his predecessors, and which he nonetheless experienced in a creative way.

2) It is not the voice, no doubt, but something similar to discourse, for in music there are phrases, affirmations, interrogations, etc. – briefly put, something that makes the Other’s discourse audible, as Lacan says about drama, in which “il est clair que l’inconscient se présentifie là sous la forme du discours de l’Autre, qui est un discours parfaitement composé.” (Seminar 4, session of 18th March in Ornicar ?25), save for the fact that in music we are dealing with no explicit senses. (It is a well-known fact that many popular songs served as cantus firmus for religious music – not because, in those happy times, the difference between the sacred and the profane was ignored, but rather because there was a discourse effect (affirmation) in such phrases. This is the “it speaks” of music. From this point of view, music is the unconscious itself. A sentence that must be withdrawn as soon as it is stated, but anyway. It is even a non-barred Other to which we would have some sort of access, while ignoring nonetheless what he may say: a latent discourse become manifest while remaining incomprehensible. (Alain Didier-Weil even alludes to the idea of the “trustworthy Other”, op. cit. p. 270).

3) Finally, affect. It is an (oral) thesis of Alain Badiou that music deals with the two passions of joy and sadness and with no other – or at least other passions must present themselves through the mediation or under the guise of these two. These are analogical affects: the proof lies in the distribution that Greek modal music made between the contrasting natures of these modes, through the distribution made by tonal music between the major and the minor mode (that is to say, between diatonic and chromatic scales), or the distribution made by a large number of extra-European musical theories between pacifying and exciting modes, to the political fears of certain States regarding the effects of jazz, etc. These are aesthetic feelings, as proven by the fact that joy and sadness in music are supposed to be pleasurable, in the same way that the Lessons in Darkness must cause the supreme enjoyment of redeemed pain, or in the same way that Wagner’s music makes Madame Verdurin ill, albeit because of its happiness.

Music has a therapeutic function in the largest (non-clinical) sense: it saddens, annihilates, appeases, wakes up, reassures, encourages, etc. by means of musical joy and musical sadness. Referring to gay science as the virtue opposed to sadness qua moral cowardice, Lacan defines it as follows : “not understanding, not a divining at the meaning, but a flying over it as low as possible without the meaning’s gumming up this virtue, thus enjoying the deciphering.” [Television, p. 22]  Is not the question in music not to express contents, but rather to propose a deciphering? This is even a music term which has its own price. Hence the idea of a Borromean knot which would fasten the structure of music, which is of the order of the Real; Discourse, which is of the order of the symbolic; and the two affects of joy and sadness, which are of the order of the imaginary. From the point of view of psychoanalysis, there is then the following triple relation: analogy with the structure, allusion to discourse, catharsis in affects. The question here is not effects on the listener, but rather what is plotted, what is fastened in the composition itself (a “parfaitement composé” unconscious, says Lacan, which is precisely the paradox!), in the same way as the commentators of Aristotle’s Poetics clearly explain that fear and pity lie in the tragedy itself, not in the spectator’s soul. [7]Catharsis lies in the thing, not in the subject. But at the same time, and as far as the symptom joins the Borromean knot as the fourth loop in the knot, a “musical knot” can be added to the loop in order to account for the integration of the listener in the process. For the subject is in the structure.

This will yield – for there is nothing to stop us in this speculation – two definitions of music from the point of view of psychoanalysis (for two are required: not, as for Schopenhauer, the inferior Leibnizian definition and  his own superior one; but rather a structural and a subjective definition). Theoretical definition: “Music is the exercise of unconscious psychoanalysis by the subject who is unaware that he is enjoying the deciphering”. Clinical definition: “Music is an unconscious exercise of a cure where the subject is unawares that he is healing”. [8]

Of course, this is a musical cure, Vinteuil’s little phrase, if you will. It is a (symbolic) phrase. It returns (Real), and it saves (imaginary).

– Saturday 12th March 2002


[1]Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, §52 (end of Book III). Translated by J. Kemp. London: Kegan Paul, 1909.

[2]Jacques-Alain Miller, « Jacques Lacan et la voix », in Quarto (journal of the École de la Cause freudienne  ACF  Belgique) N°54, June 1994 (repetition of a presentation given in a conference on voice in Ivry on 23rd January 1988). If Miller is right, the analytical cure, which supposes that the subject gains some sort of access to the object a, excludes music. Thus there is no music therapy. Or rather, in the same way as there is psychotherapy in disjunction with psychoanalysis, music therapy and psychoanalysis exclude each other. Of course, “in practice”, as we say, everything can be mixed.

[3]A review of these conditions can be read in Jean-Claude Milner’s Le périple structuraliste (Seuil, 2002). In particular p.62, footnote 9, and the rejection of Fraser. In a certain sense, Lévi-Strauss are Dumézil are to Lacan what Robertson Smith and Frazer were to the Freud of Totem and Taboo.

[4]Lacan, Seminar 7. Later on, Lacan says that in art there is “un refoulement de la Chose”. For example, he characterizes architecture as organization around the void, and gives the temple as an example. We might easily deduce from this that music organizes silence, in the sense that voice as object a is a guise of the Thing, of the void (see footnote 2). Hence the banalities about the silence following Mozart’s music being also Mozart, etc.

[5]It is well-known that in The World as Will and Representation, his main work, Schopenhauer adds a very important supplement to each of the chapters in the book: thus chapter XXXIX, a supplement to the third book, entitled “On the Metaphysics of Music”, is his most important text on music, particularly given its fate within Wagnerism (it should be noted nonetheless that Wagner read Schopenhauer rather late in his life, which evinces more of a convergence than an influence. The same goes for Freud, but this time with regard to the metaphysics of love, supplement XLIV to the fourth book). But §52 in Book III already includes the main thesis of Schopenhauer’s highly original position on music: “That music acts directly upon the will, i.e., the feelings, passions, and emotions of the hearer, so that it quickly raises them or changes them, may be explained from the fact that, unlike all the other arts, it does not express the Ideas, or grades of the objectification of the will, but directly the will itself.”

[6]I cannot find this reference. It was quoted the other day by Philippe Sollers in his conversation with Jacques-Alain Miller of 17thJanuary. (Alain Didier-Weil has given a subchapter of his book the title: “Forclusion of time”, op. cit. p.266 ).

[7]Aristotle, Poetics. In Latin this would be (I will not change animus ensubjectum):

[8]Definitio clinica: Musica est exercitium psychanalyseos occultum nescientis se decifrando frui animi.
Definitio theorica: Musica est exercitium curae analyticae occultum nescientis se sanari animi.



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