Nietzsche and Schopenhauer: What Is Music? | Philosophy

Music, what is it? Something philosophers, theorist, writers have been trying to understand for centuries, to define and explain its metaphysical origins with only the limited capacity of language and to attempt to encapsulate its complete stirrings in word, this could be seen as something obsolete, but not for the likes of schopenhauer and Nietzsche, I am myself a musician so this topic of philosophy has always been of high interest to me, so to any other music connoisseurs out there, I hope you enjoy the video. 

Nietzshe and Schopenhauer are two of many philosophers that not only took music seriously but also heavily admired its presence, as many know of the famous quote from nietzsche: “Without music, life would be a mistake.” 

Schopenhauer on the other hand developed what you could call a theory of music, he fundamentally saw music as being the highest degree of universal language, being representative of the objective will and how its superiority above all other art forms is that it is not a replica of phenomena, but the innermost soul of all phenomena.

now, i will get into all of this in a second, but I want you to pay attention to the music in the background The music in this video was composed by the man himself, Nietzsche, Like countless other well-educated German lads, Nietzsche took up the piano as a child, and immersed himself in the world of Beethoven and Schumann. But unlike most of them, he pursued music with a single-minded devotion which would later distinguish his philosophical writings. During his teenage years he composed fugues, sonatas and fantasies, as well as more ambitious works.

when he returned to composition he wrote songs which are now the best-known parts of his own music, and have received several recordings. Having composed the Hymn to Friendship in 1874, at the ripe age of 24, he gave up writing music for several years but returned to it later in life, and he could still play Beethoven sonatas by heart until afflicted by the ravages of syphilis.

Nietzsche was not only heavily influenced  by schopenhauer’s view of the will but also by his theory of music, he talks about it in the birth of tragedy chapter 16 when asking the question: how is music related to image and concept? Schopenhauer touched upon this question in his own analysis and his answer played strong influence on nietzsche’s vision towards music,schopenhauer wrote the following in world as will and representation, so sit back comfortably, this is quite a long quotation:

“music, if regarded as an expression of the world, is in the highest degree a universal language that is even related to the universality of concepts much as those are related to particular things. Yet its universality is by no means that empty universality of abstraction, but is of quite a different kind; it is united with thorough and unmistakable distinctness. In this respect it is like geometrical figures and numbers, which are the universal forms of all possible objects of experience and are a priori applicable to them all, and yet are not abstract, but perceptible and thoroughly definite. 

All possible efforts, stirrings, and manifestations of the will, all the events that occur within man himself and are included by the reasoning faculty in the wide, negative concept of feeling, can be expressed by the infinite number of possible melodies, but always in the universality of mere form without the material, always only according to the in-itself, not to the phenomenon, as it were the innermost soul of the phenomenon without the body. This close relation that music has to the true nature of all things can also explain the fact that, when music suitable to any scene, action, event, or environment is played, it seems to disclose to us its most secret meaning, and appears to be the most accurate and distinct commentary on it. Moreover, to the man who gives himself up entirely to the impression of a symphony, it is as if he saw all the possible events of life and of the world passing by within himself Yet if he reflects, he cannot assert any likeness between that piece of music and the things that passed through his mind. For, as we have said, music differs from all the other arts by the fact that it is not a copy of the phenomenon, or more exactly, of the will’s adequate objectivity, but is directly a copy of the will itself, and therefore expresses the metaphysical to everything physical in the world, the thing-in-itself to every phenomenon. Accordingly, we could just as well call the world embodied music as embodied will; this is the reason why music makes every picture, indeed every scene from real life and from the world, at once appear in enhanced significance, and this is, of course, all the greater, the more analogous its melody is to the inner spirit of the given phenomenon. It is due to this that we are able to set a poem to music as a song, or a perceptive presentation as a pantomime, or both as opera. Such individual pictures of human life, set to the universal language of music, are never bound to it or correspond to it with absolute necessity, but stand to it only in the relation of an example, chosen at random, to a universal concept. They express in the distinctness of reality what music asserts in the universality of mere form. For, to a certain extent, melodies are, like universal concepts, an abstraction from reality. This reality, and hence the world of particular things, furnishes what is perceptive, special, and individual, the particular case, both to the universality of the concepts and to that of the melodies. 

These two universalities, however, are in a certain respect opposed to each other, since the concepts contain only the forms, first of all abstracted from perception, so to speak the stripped-off outer shell of things; hence they are quite properly abstracta. Music, on the other hand, gives the innermost kernel preceding all form, or the heart of things. 

Even other examples…of the universal expressed in a poem could correspond in the same degree to the general significance of the melody assigned to this poem; and so the same composition is suitable to many verses; hence also the vaudeville. But that generally a relation between a composition and a perceptive expression is possible is due, as we have said, to the fact that the two are simply quite different expressions of the same inner nature of the world. Now when in the particular case such a relation actually exists thus when the composer has known how to express in the universal language of music the stirrings of will that constitute the kernel of an event, then the melody of the song, the music of the opera, is expressive. But the analogy discovered by the composer between these two must have come from the immediate knowledge of the inner nature of the world unknown to his faculty of reason; it cannot be an imitation brought about with conscious intention by means of concepts. Otherwise the music does not express the inner nature of the will itself, but merely imitates its phenomenon inadequately. All really imitative music does this”

Now there is quite a lot to unpack in this but I will get straight to the main point:

music in not the replication of phenomena or the physical in reality because music is produced by the stirrings of the will which create feelings, emotions and so on, this is not the same as phenomena because phenomena in this sense is based in the physical not the metaphysical which is that where the will resides, what I love about this is that the justification in Schopenhauer’s theory for why music is the highest degree of universal language or the superior to any other art is that true music is not produced by replicating phenomena because that is what negates the will and creates imitative music, which inthe process reduces to potentency of the phenomena it self

A great analogy he gives is When he talks about music being like geometrical figures and numbers, in this he is simply talking about the universality of music in its expression, that different melodies formulated by different stirrings of the will within us represent different emotions but cause an objective emotional response, this is why he says that the universality of music is not simply abstraction but of distinctness and thorough in feeling and perception, just like how geometry and number are thorough, universal and distinct.

This entire view of Schopenhauer on music is something Nietzsche picks up on when he is talking about the New Dithyramb in Euripidean greek tragedy which is produced after Socrates, the rational, theoretical man with scientific spirit whose influence ruined Greek tragedy (in Nietzsche’s view).

Nietzsche said the following:

“the new dithyramb sacrilegiously degraded music into an imitative counterfeit of phenomena – of battle, for example, or a storm at sea – and thus robbed it of all it’s mythopoetic power. for if it seeks to delight us solely by compelling us to seek superficial analogies between a process in life and nature and certain rhythmical figures and musical sounds, if our intellect is supposed to be satisfied by the recognition of those analogies we can no longer be in a condition to respond to the mythical. For the myth wishes to be seen as a unique example of a universality and truth that gazes into infinity. True dionysiac music is just such a general mirror of the universal will. Every concrete event reflected in this mirror is immediately broadened out for our emotions into the illustrations of an eternal truth; conversely, any such concrete event is immediately stripped of all mythical character, by the tone painting of the new dithyramb. Now that music has become the paltry replica of a phenomenon itself. This poverty is such that it reduces the phenomenon in our consciousness, so that now, for example, a battle imitated by music is exhausted in march rhythm, battle cries and so on, and our imagination is permitted to go no further than these superficial features. Thus tone painting is in every respect the opposite of the mythopoetic power of true music. It renders phenomena poorer than they are, while Dionysian music extends and enriches the individual phenomenon into an image of the universe “ 

Nietzsche also wrote the following & I would like you when analysing to guess how old he was when he wrote this:

“God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.”

Nietzsche only wrote these lines two months before his fourteenth birthday

one of the most interesting of developments in Nietzche’s views on music was in his love of Wagner that then turned to disillusionment as he claimed, “Wagner belongs only to my diseases.” 

but why did such hate develop towards Wagner? this is a man who he considered an idol as well as a friend Certainly a great deal of this disillusionment stemmed from his own personal connection with Wagner; however by converting to Christianity and wagners development towards nationalist German feelings and anti-Semitic views, Wagner had sealed his friend’s descent into disappointment. Nietzsche wrote in his essay, called “Nietzsche contra Wagner” expressing that though he admires Wagner’s ability to express suffering and misery, his decadence and overly dramatic effect, especially in using an “unending melody” is dangerous and chaotic to the rhythm. This kind of music is suffocating and according to him, music should make one feel the need to dance!

Perhaps he would not feel so strongly about Wagner if he did not feel as if the music was attempting to trick and lie to him, but to Nietzsche if you attempt to manipulate a person with music then you are destroying the very essence of music. As he states later in the essay,That the stage should not become master of the arts. That the actor should not become the corrupter of the genuine. That music should not become an art of lying.” Deleuze in his book “Nietzsche and Philosophy” understood him best when he states, “In Nietzsche, “we the artists” = “we the seekers after knowledge or truth” = “we the inventors of new possibilities of life”

in the The Birth of Tragedy”, he is more greatly influenced by Wagner and sees him as superior to other opera composers who are concerned with the smallness of the modern mind; in contrast, Wagner expresses the deepest urges of the human will. He writes that we must return to a time before Socrates who was responsible for the death of tragedy as he brought in an age of rationality. This brought upon an imbalance in art, which he believed to be at it’s finest when it sat between the edge of being Apollonian and Dionysian. The Apollonian nature of art is giving form, structure and coherency, whereas the Dionysian aspect brings life and passion, breathing a soul into the music.

Although this book was criticised heavily by scholars of Greek literature, and Nietzsche himself held some reservations about it later in life, he still continuously remained steadfast about his views on the Apollonian and Dionysian role in art and music.


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