Harmony and the Feeling of Feelings

klimt music
Gustav Klimt: Music (1895)

If rhythm and metre together form the feet and limbs of music, forming and giving a body of movement; and if the melody is the head where the lines and curves create a living thinking in the height and depth of an inner space; then harmony is the life of feelings as such, flowing through the centre of the human being. In the harmonic sphere the feeling life is folded in upon and lives in itself one could say. What is felt here are different feelings and emotions.

Of course, the feelings we experience in music are of the whole, and not given through harmonic progressions alone; music is always a whole, where all the elements together create an articulated thinking-feeling-will. But still, if we ask ourselves as “what” and “where” we feel for example a funky beat, a beautiful melodic line or the identity of a chord or harmonic progression, the point can be made. Chords and harmonic processions are felt as inward feelings, we feel the quality of feelings as such more than the melody or rhythm one could say. This domain of soul-life live more strongly in relation to the chest than the rhythmic will power of music or the imaginative lines of melodies. While in the melody we feel the movement of thinking, and in the metric the impulses and in the rhythmic the durations of the will-activity, harmony stands out as directly expressing emotional qualities.

To explore this, it is possible to experiment with isolating basic elements, for example a chord, and devout attention to its subtleties, its specific quality or signature, and listen also to one´s own inner response to what it is “saying”.

Most obvious and well known in this regard is of course the difference between the major and minor. These are typically contrasted with each other: major expressing an open gesture with a more serene and joyful mood than the minor´s melancholic, narrow and more inward tendency. These emotional qualities are of course nothing fixed, but changes according to context and wholeness of a musical piece.

To these basic building-blocks of classical tonal music come a vast variety of chords, simply by augmenting or adding a tone to the triad. To experiment with this, one can observe the qualities of different harmonies and intervals, listening intently to the colour or signature of elementary chords or progressions; what is the different feelings of a tonic, subdominant and a dominant; how do the chords of the circle of fifths relate to each other; and so on. Musicians do part of this as their training, in which they learn to place the different chords with their functional relations in the tonal system. But to experience the emotional quality and strengthen the consciousness of feeling qualities one does not need any expert knowledge. It is enough to listen to the life of the feelings.

In doing that, and trying to develop the life of feelings more consciously, the relation between feeling and life is precisely a key. If we take the difference between major and minor as example, I already used different vocabulary to describe them. One was more energetic and movement oriented, such as open and narrowing gestures (for major and minor respectively). The other were more the quality of soul-mood, what we usually think of as proper feelings: sadness and joy in this example.

Now this difference is interesting to note also on the feeling level, i.e. to attempt to raise consciousness of the difference between these levels or dimensions of feeling and how they go together, because whenever we feel, the feelings live in us, and take on movement. When we feel something strongly, we are moved we say, and this movement and its specific form can be perceived, and to a certain sense distinguished from the feeling that lives in it.

There is thus an energetic element to the life of feeling, which can be characterised as the feeling of life and movement; of contraction and expansion, of speeds and slowness. Then there is the more inward proper feeling-quality that we name as joy, sadness, longing, wonder, devotion, greatness, courage, fear and so on. Anthroposophically speaking we would distinguish the first as a more etheric experience of the life-element of feeling (for example, joy would have an expanding, outward radiating quality as opposed to sadness as a more contracting movement turning inwards towards oneself) from the second category as a more astral soul-experience of the feelings in themselves.

The various feelings are real Ur-phenomena that live in us – these feelings express our fundamental (but for the most part forgotten, suppressed and lost) part of our human nature as soul-spiritual beings in the physical world of space and time mediated by the “mechanics” of a physical body. An important part of spiritual and moral development is to awaken and bring to life the true soul by spiritualizing our life of feeling, as is described in this lecture by Yeshayahu Ben-Aharon.

To develop a consciousness of the life-element is an important aspect because it helps one not to immediately appropriate and subjectively color the perceived feelings. We have so lost contact with the life of feeling as a potential organ of perception that almost everything that has to do with feelings are immediately made into a subjective experience. When we feel something strongly we tend to get involved with ourselves instead of feeling the other and what is happening. In addition, feelings that are strong tend to overwhelm us and cloud consciousness, making us sleepier and less awake, and thus also suspect to unconscious influence. Finally, the “general wisdom” of today´s naïve realism – that totally determines how people think – regards all the soul-faculties as personal inward and only subjective realities, epiphenomena of the physical body, disconnected from a “substantial” relation to the real world. But such a substantial spiritual soul-relation is precisely what a spiritual awakening is about. But then again: the inability to experience thinking and the other soul-forces as an objective life-force turns the soul into such a subjective bubble, and so the naïve realism in a sense is also correct.

To develop the life of feelings as an organ of perception one can – using the elementary example from above – dwell in the experience of the difference between the major and minor triad. Playing or singing it in various ways, one notes the differences in movement: the form of the movement (outward, expanding versus inward, contracting etc.), its quality, speed, but also how one experiences it in relation to the body. Then when one describes and feels more and more clearly the differences in gestures these experiences of virtual movement can be used to intensify and experience more distinctly the feelings or moods themselves.

The more this becomes conscious, the more music becomes a play of forces that are filled with feeling quality. We then discover also that the feeling for the line and contour of the melody or the durations, intensities, impulses and forces of the rhythmic and metric parameters also are such living movements. Music becomes a living organism of active time – time becomes real, as a force and virtual movement.

When we feel we can perceive this formative element we begin to develop the consciousness of the etheric body where, as Steiner says, the melody is the head, the rhythm the will and the harmony the chest with heart and lungs. Music engages and moves the whole human being. All these movements are felt, but what we feel are the life-element, the formative power, as a substantial force that we participate in with our own duration: the etheric body is not separate from what it perceives, but swims in it, it is a watery element (although in normal musical experience this life-element is still mediated by the physical body).

This is why developing pure thinking can greatly enhance the capacity for perceiving these life-forms, staying in the perception instead of being so moved by them that we forget the eye of the soul, and begin to intermingle our own personal stuff.

“Behind” or “in” these living formations – in the opening gesture of the major third or the narrowing gesture of the minor – we can note the more inward soul-quality. And this of course goes for all the other musical elements: behind the articulated line of a melody or way of movement in a rhythm, there is a feeling of “something”, and identity being expressed. Music begins to be felt as a living organism, a formative process “made up” of substantial movements that are like living expressions, forms or “bodies” in which the “soul-elements” of a piece of music lives.

In perceiving the life of feelings in this way, they come alive as self-expressing beings in an articulated living form. The feelings become “speaking”, even if this speaking cannot be expressed in words of language. The qualities and feelings live in formative moving forms, and, as was explored when we looked at the feeling of thinking in the melodic domain, these formations are felt as related to thinking activity, to the power and movement of thought. Thinking, when it comes alive as pure thinking, has an inner relation to music: thinking is felt, and “what” feels is of a thinking nature. The distinction between feeling and thinking diminishes.

Indeed, Deleuze and Guattari claims that art thinks in terms of percepts and affects, i.e. perceptions that acquire a life and being on their own and that have independent feelings to them – affects – that are not subjective but autonomous “objective” feelings that passes through us and make us become.

Felix Mendelssohn expresses this in his own experience when he said that “The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.”

What can the “definite” mean here? It can obviously not have anything to do with defining, or any intellectual element. It should rather be understood as the experience of a very precise, intense meaning. Music can be felt as speaking, as embodied thoughts with an abundance of meaning; of having a living Word-nature. Music is too definite because it is too much Word for the words, it closer to the Word than all the words. It is closer to the fountainhead of creative meaning than the language-consciousness which represents the world. There is something eternally child-like in music, as if it springs from the fountainhead of becoming itself. Taking away the intellectual element, meaning is moved closer to the origin of enunciation: living feeling, which in normal consciousness is living in the totally supra-conscious potential that we actualize as “words”.

But to experience this deeper “angelic” nature of music as revelation, Mendelssohn also points out the requirement: “The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.” Only a devotion which listens with one´s whole being is capable of hearing the speaking of the Word. Love can become a creative cognitive organ, and only then will the deeper nature of music being to reveal itself.

Indeed, Olivier Messiaen also touches upon this in his Treatise on Rhythm, Colour and Ornithology when he refers to the etymological origin behind the word music. From Dictionary of Roots by R. Grandsaignes d´Hauterive Messiaen quotes: The word music is “derived from the Indo-European root: MEN” and “indicates the movements of the spirit.” It has as “principal derivatives: Sanskrit – manyate: he thinks. Greek – menos: spirit; mneme: memory; manteia: divination. Latin – musa: muse; monstrum: prodigious. Gothic – man: I think. German – Mensch: man; Minne: love. French – esprit: mind; l´homme: man. German: Musik. English: music. French: musique.” (49) Messiaen then comments these relations:

“The fact that the word music belongs to 1) the same root as mind, memory, muse, man – means that it belongs to the same order as thought, to the divinities of thought and to the thinking being; 2) to the same root as divination, prodigious – means that it belongs to time and the supernatural; 3) the same root as love – means that it belongs to the grandest of sentiments. … It is an art of love, capable of expressing love – and this last point thrills me.” (Page 49)

In deep experiences of music, we feel we are connected to something outside ourselves, something higher, but which is still part of us. As practicing musicians know, when playing or singing, one is never alone. Music comforts, also because in music one is always together with someone: consciousness itself becomes a communion. The famous conductor Daniel Barenboim says that music can help us realize how everything is connected with everything, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt – another famous conductor and pioneer of the renewal of Barock performance practice – says that it is “the language of the unspeakable. The umbilical cord that connects us with the divine.” (Es ging immer um Musik, 21)

In his lectures on music Rudolf Steiner gives a spiritual explanation for such experiences and convictions – they are not simply to be understood in a metaphorical and poetic sense. Music, he says, comes from the spiritual world out of which the soul is formed. When we listen to music it makes us remember our true being and home because earthly music is a shadow of the “music” that we are in the spiritual world; a plane of consciousness which is one with the world-process, and which we return to after death, but also every night, and which is an unconscious part of our being during day. This is the so called Devachan, out of which our true soul-being is woven and where it dwells.

In music, man feels the echoes of the element that weaves and lives in the innermost core of things, which is so closely related to him. Because feelings are the innermost elements of the soul, akin to the spiritual world, and because in tone the soul finds the element in which it actually moves, man’s soul dwells in a world where the bodily mediators of feelings no longer exist but where feelings themselves live on. The archetype of music is in the spiritual, whereas the archetypes for the other arts lie in the physical world itself. When the human being hears music, he has a sense of well-being, because these tones harmonize with what he has experienced in the world of his spiritual home. (Steiner, GA 283, 03.12.1906)

In and behind the feelings that live in music there is a feeling-consciousness that stretches itself into unknown territories; spiritual realms of the soul of which we are reminded in musical experience. If as Novalis says “philosophy is ‘really homesickness, the drive to be at home everywhere’ (Novalis 1978: 675), then music allows us to be ‘for short moments in its earthly home’ (ibid.: 517). Philosophy seeks the life of thinking, that supersensible life in which we experience our home in the here and now, and music – which also belongs to the order of living thinking, i.e. supersensible life – brings this life into the world. Music brings a remembrance of our true home to life on the earth.

In the formative element of music we have its living moving garment, the form or life-body of a piece of music, a life-body with a head (melody) heart (harmony) and limbs (rhythm and meter). In this formative process lives the soul-element as the central feeling element of music, the quality, meaning or signature which is expressed or articulated as a whole. Experiencing this is true feeling, not private-emotional reaction: it is a feeling life reflecting the source of the soul; the Word, the Logos-world. This source is also the spiritual origin of music, and hasn´t it, as Messiaen tells us, an inner relation to the ground of being, that which holds everything together: love. The musica mundana and the musica humana, the “musical” forces and beings of the macro-cosmos and micro-cosmos are reflected in the musica instrumentalis – the earthly music of instruments and singing that we hear, and through which we hear also the inaudible of the tones; – the bridge back to the creative forces of the cosmic music behind the soul and the sounding tones of external world.

Botticelli El_nacimiento_de_Venus
Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. “The experiences that come from music in the realm of super-sensible knowledge are related particularly with this new kind of emotion and feeling. In the condition of seership, music is not experienced as it is in ordinary consciousness; the seer feels as though he has become one with every tone, with every melody, as though his very soul were living in waves of tone and sound. The soul is outpoured into the surging tones. Hardly anything gives one a truer and more vivid conception of Aphrodite rising from the foam of the sea than realization of the way in which the human soul, in the state of conscious seership, lives within and is lifted upward from the element of music.” (Steiner, GA 271, 06.05.1918)