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What do we hear when we hear music?

A radical phenomenology of music

Ruud Welten

I. The silence of the world

What do we hear when we hear music? What does a phenomenology of music look like or more
specifically sound like? In this contribution I want to sketch a phenomenology of music,
expounding and expanding the philosophy of Michel Henry.
It is true that if we hear music, we hear sound. But is hearing sound the same as listening to music?
In the world we are surrounded by sound, be it children playing, dogs barking or people talking, the
patter of rain, the rustling of leaves or the crash of thunder. But is music just a sound among other
sounds? Do we consider music a mere continuation of worldly sounds? The song of the bird can be
recognised as a first promise of melody, but the progression to music is seldom reached by
imitation. In other words: music cannot be dismissed as a mere imitation of nature (even the music
of Olivier Messiaen, in which birdsong is omnipresent). Nature creates sound, but it does not make
music. A dog is able to hear the sound of a trumpet or a violin (he will even react to it), but he
doesnt hear music.
Music cannot be reduced to mere sounds and noises of the world. By the world I mean the totality
of objects around us. We are, as Husserlian phenomenology says, intentionally related to the things
of the world. As long as music is just sound intentionally perceived (as unfortunately it is when
used as background) it is nothing more than an audible identification of the presence of an object
(for instance a trumpet or a violin). In such a case, we dont listen, but we do hear sound.
What, then, do we hear when we hear music, if not worldly sounds? There is an intriguing poem by
the poet Lars Gustafsson, The Silence of the World before Bach:

There must have been a world before the Trio Sonata in D, a world before the A minor partita, but
what kind of a world? A Europe of vast empty spaces, unresounding, everywhere unawakened
instruments where the Musical Offering, the Well-Tempered Clavier never passed across the keys.
Isolated churches where the soprano line of the Passion never in helpless love twined round the
gentler movements of the flute, broad soft landscapes where nothing breaks the stillness but old
woodcutters' axes, the healthy barking of strong dogs in winter and, like a bell, skates biting into
fresh ice; the swallows whirring through summer air, the shell resounding at the child's ear and
nowhere Bach nowhere Bach the world in a skater's stillness before Bach.1

The Swedish poet imagines a world with things, including musical instruments, but without Bach. It
is a world of silence even though sounds can be heard. In his view the sounds of the world, the
Europe of vast empty spaces, are nothing compared to the sounds created by the great German
composer. The poem suggests that there is something beyond the world of emptiness and mere
sound. Is this not reminiscent of Genesis?:

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the
Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

1L. GUSTAFSSON, The Stillness of the World before Bach. New selected poems, New-York, Norton:
New Directions Paperbook, 1988. The translation says stillness in stead of silence. For my
purpose they are the same.
Then as we know, in the next verse, light is created:

And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.

But there was apparently no similar need to create sound. According to Gustafssons poem, it was
Bach who liberated us from this silent world, this world without form and void. It is not so much
Bach himself, but the word silence (or stillness) which is at stake. Silence here means the
absence of music. If there was a silence before Bachs creation (and for sure, if he was able to break
the silence, he was a creator), how did this silence sound? It was silence because the sounds of the
old woodcutters axesor the healthy barking of strong dogs in winterand skates biting into fresh
icewerent music. The world, the poem tells us, needed Bach to create music.
Many philosophers, including Rousseau, are convinced that there was once a world that was pure,
and that this original paradise was lost once man began to create his own things. Gustafsson views
it from a different perspective. He contemplates a world created in silence, and one man, the
composer, created music. Before Bach the world was simply incomplete. God forgot to create
music. And it is true: music is a creation of man and man alone. For the existence of music, we need
ears, hands, vibrating air and bodies that practice and exercise over and over again. Thats why
angels, beings without bodies, never can sing. Yet, the question is what we finally hear when we
listen to music. Maybe a scientist would say that music is nothing more than vibrating air. But we
dont hear vibrating air or sound caused by some hands. All these conditions are phenomena in
and of the world. Hence, the poem unveils an unbridgeable distance between music and the world.
But it is not the particularity of the sounds and their origin that separates music from the world, it is
the fact that we do not need the world to understand music.
If we want to develop a phenomenology of music, it will not be a phenomenology in which music is
a mere audible object, because this would be nothing more then an empirical science that describes
what is heard; a phenomenology of the world. Listening to music, it doesnt matter what its source
is. It could be a violin, a famous singer or the radio. We dont stop listening when we recognise
what we hear. Music is not just a message to be deciphered, because this would imply that its
expressiveness would stop at the moment of deciphering. Listening to music, we dont hear a
piano, a violin or a choir: we hear music.

II. Schopenhauer revisited

If music does not descend from the world, if it wasnt there since the creation, what is its life-giving
power? This power cannot be found in the world. Music is entirely independent of the phenomenal
world, says Arthur Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation:

Music (..) is entirely independent of the phenomenal world, ignores it altogether, could to a certain
extent exist if there was no world at all, which cannot be said of the other arts.2

Looking at a painting, watching a movie, reading a novel are forms which presuppose the existence
of the world, even though they are much more than simply copies of the world. If there wasnt a
world, it would be meaningless to paint or describe it. But can we make music of the world? What
would this mean? The forms and colours the painter use are forms or colours that need a world as
context. Without a world it would be pointless to tell stories or make films about it, because all
stories take place in the world we live in. Even the make-believe world of fantasy and fairy-tales are

2A. SCHOPENHAUER, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Gesamtausgabe, Mnchen: Deutscher
Taschenbuch Verlag, 1998, p. 341 (my translation).
dependent on the existence of the real world as a reference point. But the sounds of music are not
the sounds of the world. Listening to music is something other than listening to objects. We are
reminded of the important lessons on music in The World as Will and Representation, according to
which music is not representation. For Schopenhauer, music is the only art that doesnt rely on

Music is thus by no means like the other arts, the copy of the Representations, but the copy of the
will itself whose objectivity the Representations are. This is why the effect of music is so much more
powerful and penetrating than that of the other arts, for they speak only of shadows, but music
speaks of the thing itself. 3

But what is this thing itself of which Kant said that it couldnt be known? Music is not a copy of
something outside itself. It speaks of the thing itself. What language is this? Schopenhauer was
writing at a time when music was trying to break out of its shell by searching for openings to the
world. He attacked the later works of Joseph Haydn who, according to the German philosopher, was
trying to imitate nature. But imitation or mimesis presupposes an analogy between music and
nature, as if music originates from the sounds of brooks and birds:

The analogy discovered by the composer between the two must have proceeded from the direct
knowledge of the nature of the world unknown to his reason, and must not be an imitation produced
with conscious intention by means of conceptions, otherwise the music does not express the inner
nature of will itself, but merely gives an inadequate imitation of its phenomenon. All especially
imitative music does this; for example, The Seasons, by Haydn; also many passages of his Creation,
in which phenomena of the external world are directly imitated; also all battle-pieces. Such music is
entirely to be rejected. 4

Did Schopenhauer misunderstand Haydn, or was he in fact indicating the fall of music into a world
of mere sounds? For Schopenhauer, music plays the leading role on the stage of metaphysics.
Haydn was creating a supporting role for music. He didnt intend to create music but to imitate
the Creation. From a Schopenhauerian viewpoint, music is not an imitation, but an immediate
manifestation of a primary force, called the Will. The things we know in the world are mere
representations of this primary force. This force or Will is the inner content and the driving force of
the world. It is Michel Henry who unveiled the phenomenological importance of this almost
platonic metaphysics. Schopenhauers thought holds in fact nothing less than a profound criticism
of what Husserl later calls intentionality. The fact that I see, according to classical
phenomenology, implies that I see something. Looking is always looking at. As Jean-Paul Sartre
puts it a century later: every image is an image of something.5 It doesnt matter whether this is an
image on the wall of the museum or an image in my head. Classical phenomenology is entirely
based on the primacy of intentionality. As long as we remain in the sphere of what Schopenhauer
calls representation, we are able to understand every phenomenon on the bases of intentionality.
In fact, Schopenhauers theory of representation is a mere classical phenomenology. Yet, since it
offers more than that, a non-intentional sphere, the Will, Schopenhauers philosophy hides a
profound criticism. The visible sphere of the world as a horizon of intentionality is not fundamental.

3 A. SCHOPENHAUER, o.c., p. 341.

4 A. SCHOPENHAUER, o.c., p. 349.
5J.-P. SARTRE, Limaginaire. Psychologie, phnomnologique de limagination, Paris: Gallimard,
1940/86, p. 17.
It doesnt stand for a first philosophy.6 The things in the world as we perceive it, are mere
representations of the Will. The Will is the inner content and the driving force of the world. I am
able to want something, but am I the real source of this will? If we want something, then our will is
not original, but a manifestation of the inner Will that has no grounds or motives. Michel Henry
emphasises that the Schopenhauerian Will is a will to live. The will to live is much more than a
mere desire; it is the self-affirmation of life.7 Even when I want to commit suicide, the act is
nothing more than the affirmation of the living force that I am. The driving force is not the will
itself, says Henry, but Life. Life that wants itself. This opens up the way to a basic
phenomenological question. What is it that becomes manifest? The question is no longer what do
we perceive, but how is this perception possible?
But this begs yet another question: what becomes manifest in music? I can play a melody, but am I
the veritable source of this melody?
If music doesnt reveal the world by imitation, then what does it reveals? According to
Schopenhauer, music is nothing less than the immediate manifestation of the Will. Hearing music is
loitering within the power of the Will itself:

It must never be forgotten () that music has no direct, but merely an indirect relation to the
phenomena, for it never expresses the phenomenon, but only the inner nature, the in-itself of all
phenomena, the Will itself.8

We must elaborate further on this inner nature, because Schopenhauers view unveils something
of the answer to our initial question. We listen to music for the sake of itself. Could it be that music
must be understood as the self-affirmation of life? From this viewpoint, music is a mere affirmation
of life. Even when music is full of pain and sorrow, when it seems to be an expression of death, it is
still a living force and therefore a manifestation of the self-affirmation of life.

III. Painting music

Now the question what do we hear when we hear music?takes on a different perspective. When I
hear music I hear musical instruments but, as Schopenhauer implies, music cannot merely be
reduced to the sounds of objects.
Does the answer to our question have the same phenomenological structure as what do we see
when we see a painting? Let us return for a moment to the question of seeing and visibility. What
happens when I see a tree? It is not the physical tree itself that is interesting; what is crucial is that
there is revelation. This primal ability to see cannot be seen itself. I am able to see, but I cannot see
my seeing. This seeing is invisible but primordial. What I see is the tree. However, this primal
fact is itself phenomenological, because it manifests appearance itself. What then are the
implications for the question what do we hear when we hear music? What kind of act is it?
It is striking that the few texts on music in the work of Michel Henry are concerned with the
relationship between music and painting. First of all music is an art among other arts, and this
invokes the question of the relationship between them. Without this question we cannot enter the
field of radical phenomenology, because as long as we consider the differences between the arts on
the basis of the senses (one art appeals to the eye, another to the ear) we remain empirical scientists,

6M. HENRY, Schopenhauer: une philosophie premire, Phnomnologie de la vie. Tome II. De la
subjectivit, Paris: PUF, 2003, p. 19-130.
7 M. HENRY, Gnalogie de la psychanalyse, Paris: PUF, 1985, p. 165.
8 A. SCHOPENHAUER, o.c., p. 345.
reducing the phenomena to mere objects outside us. But we must not get embroiled in an empirical
science of the sense-fields. From a radical phenomenological viewpoint, we are not interested in
mere artworks in different fields of human skills, but on appearance as such. The question is not
what appears? But rather how does appearance appear?9 With Henry and Schopenhauer, it is
even possible to ascribe this claim to all arts: art is always on this level of primordial appearance.
This is exactly the way Henry interprets the theoretical writings of Wassily Kandinsky. In the
theoretical works of this painter-theorist, Henry discovers a phenomenologist who penetrates the
heart of radical appearance, of appearance as such. The selfin self-experience does not refer to
any psychological entity, but to the self of self-manifestation, described by Kandinsky as an inner
pulsation. Could this be the inner nature, the in-itself of all phenomenaof Schopenhauer, quoted
above? The subjective interior cannot be objectified; it is the enduring experience of subjectivity
itself. In other words, Kandinsky does not depict the worldly appearance of the outward form of
things, but their inner, primordial appearance, the colors and forms as such. Kandinsky, as Henry
interprets him, discloses the inner revelation of appearance. His painting captures the inner pathos
of life itself, invisible in its essence. Art is not mainly representational, but is nothing less than the
disclosure of the inner pulsation of what is ultimately life itself. Thus, says Henry, art is an
intensification of life.
How must this appearance of appearancebe understood? Doesnt it belong to phenomenality, the
very fact that we forget that it appears? The question is not how to experience the self-
manifestation, because this is what always already happens, but how to disclose it or bring it forth
from oblivion. It belongs to appearance and we are not only concerned with appearance as such, but
on what appears. In daily life we are concerned with appearance, be it chairs or tables, trees or
people or judgments on things and matters, on taste and values. But all these categories belong to
the appearance of things, or phenomena. These categories are only possible because there is
appearance anyhow. But is there a kind of experience in which this appearance of appearance
becomes manifest? Kandinsky is perfectly clear about this.
Henry reads Kandinskys Point and Line to Plane (1926), where a crucial distinction is made:

Every phenomenon can be experienced in two ways. These two ways are not random, but bound up
with the phenomenathey are derived from the nature of the phenomena, from two characteristics
of the same: External-Internal.

Kandinsky elucidates in a stunning manner:

The street may be observed through the window pane, causing its noises to become diminished, its
movements ghostly, and the street itself, seen through the transparent but hard and firm pane, to
appear as a separate organism, pulsating out there.

Or one can open the door: one can emerge from ones isolation, immerse oneself in this organism,
actively involve oneself in it and experience its pulsating life with all ones senses. Sound, with its
constantly changing frequencies and rhythms, weaves itself around the individual, spiraling to a
crescendo and suddenly falling away as if lamed. 10

What Kandinsky describes is not so much the direction toward the world of the street, but rather the
transformation from intentional consciousness to a complete emergence into phenomenality. The
street is not an object of perception because I am in it, I am it. The street is no longer an object

9 Cf. M. HENRY, Incarnation. Une philosophie de la chair, Paris: Seuil, 2000, 1.

10 W. KANDINSKY, Complete Writings on Art, Boston: First Da Capo Press, 1994, p. 532.
before me. What I experience cannot be reduced to mere objects, it is the very manifestation of my
perceptions, what Kandinsky describes as with all ones senses. At this level of original
manifestation there are no longer distinctions between the different senses. I feel, I perceive, I hear
implies the incessant flow of the phenomenological fact that I am feeling, perceiving, hearing. This
that cannot be understood as the what of feeling, hearing etc. In other words I am this seeing, I
am this perceiving. The internal perception discloses subjectivity itself, a subjectivity not to be
viewed in dialectical relation to some object but, fundamentally, as pure self-experience.
Note that Kandinsky is already speaking in terms of music. Sound weaves itself around the
individual, spiraling to a crescendo and suddenly falling away as if lamed. This is the incessant life
that affects itself. It unveils something of the answer to our initial question. The man in the street
experiences himself as a total subject. As was the case with Schopenhauer, two phenomenologies
can be recognized in Kandinsky: one intentional, in which the object is there before me, the other
immediate, as with the manifestation of the Will in Schopenhauer. There is an outer (intentional)
and an inner (non-intentional).
Michel Henry unveils the phenomenological implications of Kandinskys theory. Whats more, his
chapter on music in Voir linvisible reveals an original philosophy of music. Music is understood
here not from the viewpoint of different expressions, but from the ability to listen. The question is:
what is hearing, and what is listening? The first phenomenon of hearing is not the source of the
sound but the revelation of subjectivity as a (phenomenological) ability to listen. Without this
ability there wouldnt be sound at all. The same can be said about looking and feeling, and probably
also about walking or writing, but all these abilities reveal nothing other than human subjectivity.
Here, Henry gets through to the kernel of our being-in-the-world. This world is not the horizon of
our being, not even the possibility or playground whatsoever (respectively Heidegger, Merleau-
Ponty and Gadamer) but the screen of resonance of affection itself.
In Kandinskys early writings we already detect this focus on the inner in art. This might sound
mystical11 , especially when we meet the spiritual very often in his writings (like the famous title
of 1912: On the spiritual in Art). Kandinsky was initially fascinated by theosophy, particularly
because of its disclosure of the inner life. Henrys analysis remains far from theosophy, it is pure
phenomenological, in that he appeals to givenness only. According to him, Kandinsky discloses the
inner non-intentional tension of life itself, not of living things as such. Due to what Henry calls the
ontological monism, Western thought cannot recognize this invisible manifestation. Already in
his early work, Henry shows how Western philosophy acknowledges only the visual appearance of
objects. This ontological monismis based on equating phenomenality with visibility, thereby
failing to explore the possibility of manifestation as such.12 Within classical phenomenology as
described above, seeing is always seeing something and consciousness is consciousness of
something. For Henry, this manifestation is nothing less than life itself, which can only be
knownthrough life. For Henry, Kandinsky is crucial because he is aware of this monism of
visibility. Kandinsky is one of the few who make this non-intentional, original and invisible sphere

11This distinction in the street quote is even reminiscent of Henrys analysis of Meister Eckhart in
LEssence de la manifestation. Eckhart distinguishes between two eyes of the soul,the inner and
the outer. The inner eye is the eye that immediately perceives God, while the outer eye looks at
things in the world. God is therefore without any image. Henry and Kandinsky both recognize in
mysticism a fundamental quality of inner revelation (Michel Henry, Lessence de la manifestation,
Paris: PUF, 1963: 39-40.)
12 M. HENRY, Lessence de la manifestation, o.c., 1.
Henry shows that this inner elementin art is, despite its invisibility, entirely phenomenological,
which means starting from what is experienced in art, not the pretensions of its concepts and ideas.
In his early text Content and form, Kandinsky defines the inner element of art as follows:

The inner element, taken in isolation, is the emotion in the soul of the artist that causes a
corresponding vibration (in material terms, like the note of one musical instruments that causes the
corresponding note on another instrument to vibrate in sympathy) in the soul of another person, the

This irrevocable means that this receiver is neither the object of the art nor the subject. In the latter
case, the work of art would be just there, waiting for perception, even interpretation, of the art lover.
But according to Kandinsky, both are in the same universe, the inner. With Kandinsky, we depart
from every mode of mere aesthetics or empiricism. The innermeans that the work of art in not
before me, but is of the same level of vibration of the receiver. We easily recognize
Schopenhauers view: the outerwould mean the sphere of what he calls representation. The inner
is the Will, as far as it is perceived immediately.
This implies that there is no dialectics of inner and outer. Dialectics would mean that the inner only
exists because there is also an outer. The inner is entirely autonomous. Like the Schopenhauerian
Will, it manifests itself. It can become form, but this form is always dependant on the inner. In the
language of Kandinsky: the form is the concrete expression of the inner, concretized in the material
of the work of art. Form is the material expression of abstract content. 14 There is an internal bond
between the inner and the outer. The expression is not so much the expression of the personal
feelings of the artist, but the materialization of the inner. We can even experience this internal bond,
or the lack of it. Kandinsky calls this the criterion of beauty. The most beautiful work is that whose
external form corresponds entirely to its internal content.15 Although Kandinsky admits that this
ideal is eternally unrealizable, every form of art must be understood within this expression of the
inner. This theory implies that there are no merely beautiful things, but only beautiful works of art
in which the outer corresponds with the inner. Kandinsky calls this the internal necessity of the
Note that this is not a psychological theory of the expressions of inner feelings or whatever.
Kandinsky does not defend any kind of psychological subjectivism. On the contrary, every work of
art has to follow the principle of inner necessity. While Schopenhauer distinguishes music as the
highest form of art, Kandinsky does not focus on any special form, not even painting.
The practice of abstract art is understood entirely from this distinction between inner and outer.
The word abstraction points at the withdrawal from concrete forms, such as we find in the world.
All art is abstract art,i.e., abstraction from the merely visible phenomenality that results from
intentionality.17 Henry compares this Kandinskian attitude with Husserls phenomenological

13 W. KANDINSKY, o.c., p. 87.

14 W. KANDINSKY, o.c., p. 87.
15 W. KANDINSKY, o.c., p. 87.
16 W. KANDINSKY, o.c., p. 88.
17 M. HENRY, Voir Linvisible. Sur Kandinsky. Paris: ditions Franois Bourin, 1988, p. 13.
The Kandinskian analysis works here as the eidetic analysis of Husserl: what is at stake here, is the
abolition of the outside properties, up to the essence of art, in order to perceive this essence in its

Abstraction means thus ab-stracted from the concrete forms of things. This is what we perceive
when we look at abstract paintings: we dont recognize horses, children or trees, yet we perceive
forms, colours, even sounds. But these forms, colours and sounds are not forms of something. We
cannot recognize them as concrete forms. Kandinsky would say that they are the inner
movements or vibrations. Henry says that Kandinsky makes the invisible visible. This inability to
recognize, the inability to feel comfortable in a world we already know, is crucial for abstract art. In
Kandinskys view all art is abstract because all art moves on the level of affection. The German
composer Karl-Heinz Stockhausen is perfectly aware of this demand for abstraction. In his music,
every kind of recognition is carefully avoided. I tried, says Stockhausen in an interview,

... like the painters in the abstract or informal period, to avoid any recognizable shape, any melody
that you could whistle or sing, because it would take over your attention and you would always be
listening to find out what was happening to it during the course of music. 19

Too often, music is perceived from the mode of familiarity, only pursued for recognition. In such a
case, we are not listening, but recognizing and we demand that music behaves like the world does:
we expect to recognize it, to look at it as if it is imitation. As Stockhausen constantly declares, his
music is not from this world, but from the planet Sirius. We are now able to interpret this
extravagant declaration. Music is not of the world because it is on the immediate level of affection.
Here then is the answer to our initial question: Hearing music is the manifestation of the inner that
makes possible all intentional forms of hearing. This means something other than saying that
music is the expression of a psychological subjectivity.
Being on the level of affection, we have passed the mere spheres of the senses (by which we are in
the world). On the level of sensibility, we can say that we see paintings with our eyes and we hear
music with our ears. But how is it possible that we speak of the colour of a melody or the
tonality of colours? For Kandinsky, we are wrong to remain at this empirical level. The
spiritual in art is synaesthetic, because the sensibility cannot be reduced to a mere sensibility
of.... The colour of the melody is not a metaphor or an analogy with another field of the senses.
The fact that our feelings are touched when we hear music means that it cannot be categorised
merely as an audible art. Abstracted from the empirical senses, that is to say concrete forms (the
shape of the horse, the sound of a bell), art moves in the flux of affective life itself. Already in
Lessence de la manifestation, Henry shows that affectivity is not a result of sensibility. Sensation
is just as real as it is sensed.20 Neither sensation nor affectivity can be understood in a causal
relationship. Sensation is therefore not restricted to any special sense organ, related to special
qualities of objects. The ear is unable to hear, the eye cannot see, the skin is not able to feel the
sensation of touch. It is, as Descartes says, the soul that sees. It is consciousness that is able to hear,
to see or to feel. This primal level of affectivity, free from sensory constraint, is what Henry calls
pathos. Pathos is free from sensations and from the order of intelligence. Pathos is the layer of

18 M. HENRY, Voir Linvisible. O.c. p. 73.

K.-H. STOCKHAUSEN, On Music. Lectures and interviews compiled by Robin Maconie, London/

New-York: Marion Boyars publishers Ltd., 2000, p. 58.

20 M. HENRY, Lessence de la manifestation, o.c., p. 626.
every possible sensation. It is the affective material in which life manifests itself. This is only
possible because we are emerged in affectivity itself.
It comes as no surprise that Kandinsky was fascinated by Arnold Schoenberg, who in a certain
period of his life moved over from music to painting. In a fascinating letter from Schoenberg to
Kandinsky, the composer refers to this abstract sphere as the unconscious. This unconscious
is the opposite of the formal, which stands for the concrete forms:

Every formal procedure which aspires to traditional effects is not completely free from conscious
motivation. But art belongs to the unconscious! One must express oneself! Express oneself directly!
Not ones taste, or ones upbringing, or ones intelligence, knowledge or skill. Not all these acquired
characteristics, but that which is inborn, instinctive. And all form-making, all conscious form-
making, is connected with some kind of mathematics, or geometry, or with the golden section or
suchlike. But only unconscious form-making, which sets up the equation "form = outward
shape,really creates forms; that alone brings forth prototypes which are imitated by unoriginal
people and become "formulas.But whoever is capable of listening to himself, recognising his own
instincts, and also engrossing himself reflectively in every problem, will not need such crutches. One
does not need to be a pioneer to create in this way, only a man who takes himself seriously and
thereby takes seriously that which is the true task of humanity in every intellectual or artistic field: to
recognise, and to express what one has recognised!!! This is my belief!21

Notice that this recognition is not the recognition of the world but of ourselves. This letter reveals
a way of listening that cannot be understood as listening to. Listening is listening to yourself,
referring to what Schoenberg here calls the unconscious. This is not only a demand for
psychological authenticity. The so-called authenticity is only possible by the reduction Schoenberg
describes. The same reduction that Kandinsky spoke of, from the outer to the inner, from the
concrete form to abstraction. Within this inner, one is listening. This is not far from Schopenhauer,
especially when Schoenberg is talking about the instincts. Instinct, will, unconscious : these
are all terms of invisibility, but, nevertheless, of manifestation. It is on this phenomenological level
that we meet music.
The term unconscious here (rather than in the Freudian sense) refers to the interiority that is
invisible in itself. This interiority is nothing less than absolute subjectivity, which in turn is identical
to life and pathos. We could even call it the soul.22 But whether we define it as such or not, the
material of absolute subjectivity is nevertheless the capacity to appear as such. This implies that we
are not listening to something outside of us, as if it was from a strange world, but to the innermost
part of our subjectivity.23 Music is the manifestation of sphere that cannot be found on the level of
phenomena. Music is the inner life of affection itself. Music always moves: what we hear are the
movements of affections.

21 A. SCHOENBERG to Kandinsky, January 24, 1911.

22Cf. M. HENRY, Le concept dme a-t-il un sens?, in Phnomnologie de la vie. Tome I. De la
phnomnologie, Paris: Puf, 2003, p. 9-38.
23Yet, this inner listening, this listening to myself, is not hearing my own body as Maurice Merleau-
Ponty states. According to Merleau-Ponty, I am able to hear because I am a sonorous being. This
immediately implies that I am a body in a world of other bodies and that sound is possible because,
in the end, it is the air that vibrates. The most internal sound for Merleau-Ponty would be my own
voice which does not have to be expressed in the outer. Between music and the world there is no
reversibility. Merleau-Ponty is right in his famous analysis of the body that we need to make music,
but this doesnt say anything about the experience or manifestation of music itself.
In Freudian terms, is it possible to describe a piece of music in its movements of recollection,
repression, work of condensation and work of displacement?24 All these famous movements of
dreams could well be applied to musical analysis. Themes in sonatas, symphonies or jazz
improvisations behave like recollections and images in dreams. And music is a manifestation of
inner life, as are dreams. From a phenomenological viewpoint, music and the unconscious are
closely related: both are invisible, surging at the flow of life itself. It will be clear that this life is
nothing more or less than this surging: it is the manifestation of our ability to be in a world; a
manifestation that therefore cannot be understood in terms or images of the world itself.

IV. Music and the invisibility of feeling

Thus, music does not imitate, not even represent the world but is the inner movement of life itself.
We are not just elaborating on a philosophy of music (as we can for poetry, architecture,
literature, painting and so on); with Henry we are reinventing the primary role of music as a
first philosophy, exactly how it was meant to be for Schopenhauer. Music, then, unveils something
we go without in the world.
One might suppose that Henrys critique of ontological monism as described above, implies a
deep-rooted criticism on the primacy of mere visibility in Western culture. Yet within the field of
audibility the problem remains the same. Analogous to Henrys criticism, classical or transcendental
phenomenology is entirely concentrated in the things we hear. This hearing is intentional. Yet what
Henry criticizes is not so much the primacy of visibility, but the mere intentional comprehension of
phenomenality. In other words, due to the primacy of intentionality, classic metaphysics and
phenomenology do not succeed in describing how appearance (seeing, listening, feeling) itself
appears. Appearance is elucidated in terms of something other than itself, namely what appears
instead of its appearing. Henrys field of interest is not what appears (visible or audible), but how
appearance as such is possible and can be described. From this viewpoint, we are able to understand
that visibility and audibility are not properties of things, but of the affective layer of subjectivity.
Now it becomes clear what we have said with the help of Gustafssons poem: the world is a world
of silence. Only affectivity is able to hear. A person hears the rustle of the trees, but the trees
themselves cannot hear their sounds. We shall never understand the essence of sound when we start
from the things that make sounds. Things make no sounds. Clashing stones that fall from a rock
cannot hear or feel each other. The fact that there is sound reveals the existence of a subject, a
revelation of life. Still, hearing is not listening to music.
This leads to a radical phenomenological viewpoint. What becomes manifest when we see and hear,
is the imminent self affection which is nothing but the endurance of life itself, its enjoyment and
suffering of itself. In this sense, life is not a concept, but self manifestation. Because life is
experienced, it is phenomenological itself. It manifests itself incessantly as what Henry calls pathos.
We have called it above the affective layer of subjectivity. Pathos is the keyword to the answer to
our initial question. We recognize the word also in the phenomenon of passion or suffering.
Suffering, in a non moralist and phenomenological way, means to endure; to undergo. To undergo
what? To undergo life itself. And what is life, other than a constant flow of undergoing? Pathos is
not empty in order to become pathos-of-something. Pathos is precise not intentional. It has colours,
sounds, tunings (even in the meaning of the Heideggerian Stimmung). As Henry elucidates in his
book on Kandinsky, the entire project of the artist is to unveil the pathos. We dont recognize

24 Cf. S. FREUD, The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900.

concrete things, but moreover non-intentional colours and forms (not colours and forms of
That music is pathos implies that music does have an affective content. This content is of the same
phenomenological material as pathos. Listening to a Bruckner symphony or a John Coltrane solo,
we hear nothing but pathos. These works of music are flows of consciousness. How is it possible
that music can affect us in the same manner as we (the musician) can affect music? But the fact is
that there are not two phenomena of music, one of the performer and one of the listener. We can
only listen if we are emerged in the music. Gadamer is perfectly right when he says that to listen to
music is to already participate in it. In the end there is no distinction between the performer and the
listener. This is why music is not just a means of communication by which the composer or
performer sends a message to the listeners. The force of music is affection, being able to move and
at the same time to be moved.
This affection is not so much the result of a feeling, but the possibility to feel. And these feelings
are not mediated by words either. Music is the embodiment of feeling itself. And this is also what
we can experience when hearing music, namely that music can tell what no words can tell. Music
embodies feelings. Who else than the great romantic composer and virtuoso Franz Liszt is able to

Music embodies feeling without forcing it - as it is forced in its other manifestations, in

most arts and especially in the art of words - to contend and combine with thought. If music has
one advantage over the other means through which man can reproduce the impression of his soul, it
does this to its supreme capacity to make each inner impulse audible without the assistance of
reason, so restricted in the diversity of its forms, capable after all, only of confirming or describing
our affections, not of communicating them directly in their full intensity, in that to accomplish this
even approximately it is obliged to search for images and comparisons. Music on the other hand,
presents at one and at the same time the intensity and expression of feeling; it is the embodied and
intelligible essence of feeling; capable of being apprehended by our senses, it permeates them like a
dart, like a ray, like a dew, like a spirit, and fills our souls. 26

Can we imagine a more precise quote to unite Schopenhauer, Kandinsky and Henry? Notice that
Liszt, long before Kandinsky, understands this inner impulsethat becomes audible.
This philosophy implies a revision of the idea of the soul. It seems to be a return to romanticism.
But how do we understand the romanticism if it is not an historical era but a phenomenological
basis for the existence of music? If music could to a certain extent exist if there was no world at
all, does this also mean that music can exist without humanity? Certainly not! It means that music
is created by man in a sphere that is not the sphere of the object world. Now we come to a second
implication of Gustafssons poem, cited at the beginning. If music is not the sound of an object,
who or what is the creator of music?
Only man is able to create music, because he is an affective being. This affective being is invisible,
like music itself. This birth of music is only possible within man, within the inner; within the
ongoing stream of consciousness. Listening to Alban Bergs Violin Concerto (To the memory of an
angel), we come face to face with the genesis of music. In the first seconds we hear the violinist

25Henry is at maximum distance of Jean-Paul Sartre, for whom consciousness is only possible
because it is nothing. But a nothing doesnt have pathos. It remains a miracle how the famous
Sartrian nant is able to get affected anyhow.
26F. LISZT and Princess Caroline von Wittgenstein, Berlioz and His Harold Symphony (1855),
in: The Romantic Era. Source readings in Music history, selected and annotated by Oliver Strunk,
New-York: Norton, 1965, p. 109.
take up the material for the concerto: just the notes of the open strings of his instrument, as if hes
preparing, tuning his instrument. After that, a very tonal part seems to begin, but the violin does not
follow this device. We are already in the maelstrom, falling right into the heart of music. We are
surging on the waves, that are not before us, as if they are aesthetic objects. This music does not
represent anything: we are in the heart of affection itself, in which nothing is visible. Music is not a
coming into the light. From the side of the world it is and remains invisible. Michel Henry offers
a phenomenology of this invisibility that is not a lack of light, but a withdrawal unto the heart of life
itself. It is crucial to understand this primacy of the invisible in Henry. The inner and the invisible
are closely related. The invisible manifests itself without the conditions of light, which means there
is a manifestation, but not an (external) appearance. Thus, manifestation is not the same as
appearance. According to the concept of appearance, invisibility is nothing other than an absence of
light. On the other hand, according to the concept of manifestation, invisibility is the absolute
beginning, the phenomenological arch-structure of manifestation. However, the inner does not
stand for a psychological state of mind, but refers to the point zero of phenomenality. The invisible
is the starting point of every kind of appearance.
What happens when we make music visible? Is a score of music a visible transcription of music? Or
are these mere signs? Again, can we paint music?
This last question is central to another important text by Henry on music, Dessiner la musique,
thorie pour lart de Briesen. It is a text on music and painting again, about the Hungarian painter
severely affected by the Soviet violations in 1956 in Hungary, and who painted music
synchronically with brushes on his fingertips. His work was created synchronically when hearing
music. This immediately invokes the question why somebody would translate music into
Henry explains that it is neither the difference between music and plastic arts, nor the similarity,
but specifically the collective origin that interests him. As long as the question is posed as a part of
a science or history of arts, the problem of the translation, even transubstantiation, from one to
another remains. There is no passage from music to graphics, but the return to an identical
source.27 This is at the same time the transition from mere aesthetics or science of art to
The question on the relationship between music and painting is only possible because there is
music. The first question, then, is why did man create music? And why does he create music full of
fear, anger, suffering and violence? Schopenhauer would say that music is the immediate
manifestation of the Will, and not that music is consolation in the first place. Music, thus, is a
manifestation of our pathos. But how is this pathos manifest in human life? Pathos becomes
manifest (incessantly) in our suffering. Briesen, says Henry, had known all the fears of human
existence. In Budapest he had to stand against a wall and was forced to watch his friends dying.
Then he was deported to Siberia and humiliated. What do we learn from this? A return to the
romantic idea of the suffering artist? But the fact that man is suffering, means that he is an affective
being, affected by life itself. Music is the movement of the pathos, an affective determination of
existence. Music is sentiment, but not a sentiment that is reserved for one individual occurrence.
Music is not an expression of sentiments. Music is the generality of the sentiments. That is why
music is able to move us and why the musician is able to move music.28 More than every possible
representation of sentiments, music is the movement of the sentiment itself.

27M. HENRY, Dessiner la musique, thorie pour lart de Briesen, Phnomnologie de la vie. Tome
III. De lart et du politique, Paris: PUF, 2004, p. 245.
28 Idem, p. 251.
The word suffering might evoke negative connotations. Is life only suffering? And moreover not
all music is about suffering. But the word is chosen for its affective capacity: in suffering, we are
being affected. The same counts for joy: in joy we are affected and thus, in this phenomenological
meaning, suffering. Music is about pure sentiments, feelings, suffering and joy. How is it possible
for us to experience that a piece of music is about love or anger? About passion or joy? Because
music does not symbolize the passions, but is the flow of pathos itself. The answer to the question
why man creates music, is not because of consolation, it is more profound. In music man can meet
his own affectivity. In this sense, music is a manifestation of the will to live itself. Briesen is trying
to unite with the affective layer of life, his life, but also the concrete manifestation of life itself. The
miracle that there is life anyway.

V. What we hear
How can we understand this link between unworldly abstraction and this thought of subjectivity, or
even the soul? Like all arts, Henry says, music makes use of external elements. In the case of music,
these are sounds. But, as we have said, we cannot understand music as a mere composition of
worldly sounds. The sounds of music refer to nothing in the world. Here, we enter not only the
Kandinskian mode of abstraction, but also in a broader sense than the meaning of expressionism
according to the history of art. Henry states that expressionism remains incomprehensible without
Schopenhauer.29 As long as we remain in the sphere of mere visibility or audibility, we remain in
the object world, perceived by senses. What art does is to abstract from this concreteness. It was
Kandinsky who offered this phenomenological reduction in arts. Here we meet a phenomenological
sphere that is not a metaphysical Will that is the first power of everything, but the very possibility of
appearing as such. Music is a manifestation of this sphere. Music expresses Life in an immediate
way. The movements of our feelings are the movements of music itself, but not only in a romantic
way: music does not just express personal feelings as if it tries to imitate a psychological state of
mind. The material of music (its sonorities, its colours, the movements of rhythms and melodies, the
tensions of intervals) is the material of our affectivity. We are touched by music, not because we
recognise feelings or images, but because our affectivity is affected. Not by our senses, but in the
inner. This is why we dont listen just with our ears to music. If we listen to music we are totally
involved in it (as opposed to listening to a dog barking or the din of traffic). Music is not before us,
like a piece of art in a museum. This is the reason why music is fundamentally invisible. Because
there is no distance at all between the pathos and music, music is invisible and at the same time
omnipresent. Listening to music, we are emerging into it, as Kandinsky puts it. Music cannot
simply be reduced to a mere art of audibility.
The question what do we hear when we hear music? presupposes that music is the object of
hearing. But the question cannot be answered in such a manner. What we hear when we hear music
is the inner pulsation of our affections. Listening to music we do not hear the world, but our soul
being touched. Music is like love: we are affected by affection itself, not by an object. In love, the
other is not an object of my desire, but I am touched by her in the same manner as I touch her,
physically and spiritually. With radical phenomenology we are able to describe music in its
particular movement, a movement of self affection, an immediate manifestation of life itself.30

29 M. HENRY, Voir linvisible, o.c., p. 195.

30 Thanks to Karin Wijnen for her comments and to Dorothy Weirs for the English corrections.