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  • Well-Tempered Bagatelles—A Meditation on Listening in Psychoanalysis & Music 1
  • Alexander Stein

Teach me half the gladness / That thy brain must know, / Such harmonious madness / From my lips would flow, / The world should listen then, as I am listening now.

—Percy Bysshe Shelly

Listening is a cardinal feature of psychoanalytic work. Its elemental importance transcends and unifies all other components of theory and technique. No matter an analyst’s theoretical orientation, and irrespective of the conceptual frame in which the listening is organized or of its focus at any given moment during an analytic session, listening is an activity underlying every aspect of the analytic interaction occurring within the auditory sphere.

Separately, a consideration of signal moments of the early part of the twentieth century reveals the coincidental emergence of psychoanalytic thought and the onset of fundamental alterations in music (such as serialism, 12-tone rows, and experimentation with sonority and form). A primary part of the overall task undertaken by early twentieth century composers was the implementation of a replacement system for governing the organization of sound in time. The implications for the project of psychoanalytic listening pioneered by Freud were no less momentous: to listen to the sounds of the human experience in a radically different, and profoundly deeper, way. Both psychoanalysis and contemporary music clearly derive from the breadth of each of their respective histories: Freud no more created the notion of the unconscious, ex nihilo, than could Schoenberg have written his first 12-tone works without benefit of the entire musical corpus which preceded him. Each is rooted in systems of thought, aesthetics [End Page 387] and scholarship accumulating since antiquity, yet each is possible only in the twentieth century.

This essay critically examines these two ostensibly different yet related forms of listening—in music 2 and in psychoanalysis—with a view to yielding an expanded understanding of the nature of and relationship between unconscious processes and the ways in which we hear the evanescent discourse between analyst and analysand. The aesthetic, philosophical, and psychological links between and among conscious and unconscious emotional responses in listening to music and in the analytic situation form a complex fugue of inter-weaving yet, at least at first blush, seemingly discontiguous themes. But this dense polyphony finally coalesces in two areas common to both—engaged, attuned listening and, most importantly, the communication of feeling. What follows, then, is founded on this rather simple premise.

Not so simple, however, are the ways in which feelings are communicated and registered. In this regard, I will explore the contention that essentially all listening is predicated upon entrenched constructs of harmony, tonality and by-now axiomatically-accepted ideals of beauty, consonance, and dissonance. What are the implications of an unheard, that is, unconscious, internalization of hierarchies of harmoniousness and well-temperedness on psychoanalytic listening—for both analyst and analysand—where contending with the resurgence of or resistance against unconscious conflict necessarily calls for recasting established ways of thinking and feeling? For analysts, this question exceeds the bounds of ‘attunement’ in its traditional sense or of closely monitoring countertransference responses in that it speaks to an immanent mode of listening which would be left unaddressed, at least explicitly, by even the most thorough psycho-analysis. It also prompts a reconsideration of what is, in fact, heard in even the most creative and attuned listening. Simply put, the issue is to re-think not only what is heard but how it is heard.

I will address this first in a primarily musical context, commencing with a terse historical accounting of consonance, dissonance and the evolution of the most accepted system of temperament. [End Page 388]

To be intelligible, we accept that our communication must adhere to particular rules and must conform to the codicils of grammar and syntax which govern usage and meaning. Of course, rules change, reflecting the stylistic fashions of a given time or place, validating, re-validating, nullifying, or transforming acceptable doctrine. Similarly, the rebellious anarchy which is one moment’s avant garde is inevitably subsumed by some radicalized successor. The fluidity of rules, whether musical or linguistic, being occasioned by such forces as politics, an individual’s charisma, technological innovation...

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pp. 387-416
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