Essays on Psychoanalysis and Music, I: On the musical signifier

 György Ligeti: Artikulation (1958)


                                         Music : Psychoanalysis has made great contributions to music,since several psychoanalysts attend concerts and recitals, buy cassette-tapes and CD´s,duly paying the required amount for each. If we turn to consider now the theoretical contribution of psychoanalysis to music,the question diminishes to a demisemiquaver…

                                         Rudy, “Enpsyclopedia”, Pagina/12,10-1966

I. On the”musical signifier

 A noted analyst put forward ” the note ” as a (musical) signifier. The objection was raised thet there was no reference term (in the sense of Saussure – référence – or Frege – Bedeutung – ) as is the case of the signifier in lingusitics. He answered that this was unnecessary.

However, neither the question nor the answer were accurate.

As a”technical-objective language”, notation may be an attempt to reach the equivalence with the reference term (i. e., to be nothing more, and nothing less, than a sign). But doesn´t this mean to equal “musical language” with the”language”of the bees? Benveniste [i] points out that a bee does neither make any comments, nor transmits the wagging dance of another bee. Furthermore, neither does it point out in it any mistake, nor does it laugh at a pun.


Émile Benveniste


In music instead, Mozart is able to suggest “a musical joke” with “wrong” chords, and someone may mistakingly read C instead of D. Both examples, however, indicate that the signifier has already been at play.


A rigorous writing, able to perform strict and overdeterminated operations is no guarantee that the object ciphered by it is articulated as a language: a proof of this is furnished by mathematics, which by no means are devoid of any Beauty.

Let us go back to the solid Freudian indication : ” Find the text of the song!“. Perhaps there is no musical signifier, and, likewise, no mathematical, biological, (etc.), signifier.

However, we may consider a musical Real on which an effect of significant inducement is carried out. But how this happens is so extraneous to empirical thought as is the supposed “experiment” Galileo performed from the top of the Tower of Pisa (Indeed, Koyré has demonstrated that this legendary “experiment” could never have happened at all ! [ii]). Even if we may isolate a single unit of sound, such as a sinus wave, we´ll already find it cut out as a musical object with a specific jouissance (for those who distinguish and listen to it, thus “pinning” it during the trajectory of the drive).


Alexandre Koyré

The writing to which this object may answer is so much,or so little, significant as a pictogram or hieroglyphic (Only it does not lie,thrown away, in the middle of the desert). As an example we may consider Perrier´s analysand [iii], at the verge of “exposing impudently” a sung melody ( Good heavens, we didn´t expect a Parisian to have such a Victorian self-consciousness!). The question was simply to attempt an inverse pathway, – i.e., significantisation – ,which could involve the possibility of the subject to emerge as divided (after all, this is precisely the Freudian procedure).(A reference for these ideas may be found in Lacan´s Geneva lecture of1975).


François Perrier

Previously however, notwithstanding the lack of a structural framework, this predicament had been intuitively grasped by some theoreticians, as a pair of Cartesian coordinates: semantic density vs. the words-music axe. The operation results in a downwards diagonal, from the relation speech/music at the top left, to wordless music at the bottom right

The musical phenomenon may thus form a continuing series with other inducement effects mentioned in the same lecture: “psychosomatics”, psychosis, mental retardation… This may provide some insight into the possibility of alloting a theoretical ground to some disciplines – like “music therapy” – without falling prey to the illusion of expressing the Ineffable.

Likewise, it may become possible to approach the aesthetic dimension,or the formal structure of a slippery pavement: the order of Sounds – as singularity is not restricted to individuality (that of personal vs. universal pleasure, the antinomy in which some theoretics of Romantic aesthetics lost themselves, e. g. Tolstoy´s “What is Art” naïveté ). Instead, it gains all the potential of the Freudian representation (Vorstellung), and this in turn means the possibility of its relationship to the Imaginary, on one side, as well as a different kind of connection with the Real on the other.

It is striking to notice that Adorno had somehow grasped this subjective position, even if his very particular use of the analytic framework may be subject to criticism, as discussed elsewhere [iv]: “Erwartung, in its details as well as in its general concept, that is, as a representation of anxiety, …an insatiable superposition of harmonic complexes, as an allegory of the subject´s complex strata [v]

A question remains, however: Adorno is unable to explain whether the representation ends its pathway right there – this, as already stated above, would reduce it to a sign – or whether it succeeds in representing a Subject for another signifier. And this is no less than the axiom of the Unconscious.

[i] Benveniste, E. : Animal communication and Human language, in : Problèmes de linguistique générale. Gallimard, Paris, 1966

[ii] Koyré,Alexandre : Galileo and the experiment of Pisa : on a legend in : Études d´histoire de la pensée scientifique, Gallimard, Paris, 1973

[iii] Perrier, François, “Un-executed Music“, in : ”La Chaussée d´Antin”, Union Générale d´Éditions, Paris,1978. Already in “A preliminary question prior to any treatment of psychosis“, Lacan puts foward the division of hearing towards music on one side, towards language on another.

[iv] Rolando Karothy, Roberto Neuburger, “Schönberg and Freud : from one Moses to the other ” Lecture at the University of Buenos Aires, 11-19-1997 (see below).

[v]Philosophie der neuen Musik“, Europäische Verlagsanstalt, Frankfurt am Main, 1958” (our italics). Erwartung, the opera by Marie Pappenheim and Arnold Schönberg, is further discussed below (“Two psychoanalytic operas“).


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