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Eduard Hanslick on the role of emotions in music

March 15, 2012
Dr Eduard Hanslick, lithography by Josef Bauer, 1879

In this extract from The Beautiful in Music Eduard Hanslick discusses the role of emotions in music.   


Though, in our opinion, the chief and fundamental task of musical aesthetics consists in subordinating the supremacy, usurped by the feelings, to the legitimate one of beauty – since the organ of pure contemplation, from which, and for the sake of which, the truly beautiful flows, is not our emotional, but our imaginative faculty – yet the positive phenomena of the emotions play too striking and important a part in our musical life to admit of the question being settled by simply effecting this subordination.

However strictly an aesthetic analysis ought to be confined to the work of art itself, we should always remember that the latter constitutes the link between two living factors; the whence and the whither; in other words, between the composer and the listener, in whose minds the workings of the imagination are never so pure and unalloyed as the finished work itself represents them.  Their imagination, on the contrary, is most intimately associated with feelings and sensations.  The feelings, therefore, are of importance both before and after the completion of the work; in respect of the composer first, and the listener afterwards, and this we dare not ignore.

Let us consider the composer.  During the act of composing he is in that exalted state of mind without which it seems impossible to raise the beautiful from the deep well of the imagination.  That this exalted state of mind will, according to the composer’s idiosyncrasy, take on the colouration of the nascent structure, now rising with great force, now subsiding into mere ripples, without ever being   an emotional whirlpool which might stifle the powers of artistic invention; that lucid deliberation again is at least as essential as inspiration: these are well-known principles of art.  With special reference to the creative action of the composer, we should bear in mind that it always consists in the grouping and fashioning of musical elements.  The sovereignty of the emotions, so falsely reputed to be the main factor in music, is nowhere more completely out of place than when it is supposed to govern the musician in the act of composing, and when the latter is regarded as a kind of inspired improvisation.  The slowly progressing work of moulding a composition – which at the outset floated in mere outlines in the composer s brain – into a structure, clearly defined down to every bar; or possibly, without further preliminaries into the sensitive polymorphous form of orchestral music, requires quiet and subtle thought, such as none who have not actually essayed it can comprehend.    Not only “fugato” or contrapuntal passages, but the most smoothly flowing Rondo and the most melodious air demand what our language so significantly calls an “elaboration” of the minutest details.  The function of the composer is a constructive one within its own sphere, analogous to that of the sculptor.  Like him, the composer must not allow his hands to be tied by anything alien to his material, since he, too, aims at giving an objective existence to his (musical) ideal, and at casting it into a pure form.

Eduard Hanslick, The Beautiful in Music, trans. Gustav Cohen, 1891, pp.99-101. The text of the title page of this edition is reproduced below.








 Professor at the Vienna University.



 And dedicated to his Friends








One Comment leave one →
  1. December 24, 2013 1:34 pm

    Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:

    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:

    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek

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