In the midst of war in Ukraine with daily bombings, emotional devastation, destruction, and deaths mounting, we have witnessed persistent resilience and strength from the Ukrainian people. As we view brutality in real time on TV and the internet, we have seen and heard music played in shelters and streets to bring comfort to anxious, grieving, and displaced people. Often this music has

Page 171

included the Ukrainian National Anthem. A violinist played it in a shelter, a lone cellist played the Anthem in the middle of an empty street. A beautiful seven-year-old girl with a pure voice sang it in a bomb shelter and subsequently at a rally in Poland before thousands of people. A pianist played Chopin on her beloved piano, which was covered with debris following her apartment being bombed. A 15-year-old boy, recovering in the hospital from major injuries, played his guitar after witnessing his mother burn to death in the street during a shelling. Instead of playing in an orchestra or singing opera, classical musicians who are not fighting on the front line have gathered in burned-out public squares to provide solace for themselves and for those who gather to listen. Music was played in the train station by a pianist who travels with his own piano to bring relief to people fleeing their beloved country. They all place themselves in danger from the skies where a bomb may drop at any moment.

Why does music provide comfort, assuage sadness, make us feel happy, joyful, strong, and even evoke melancholy? As an analyst first trained as a musician, I respond to aural musical nuances in the words of my patients and within myself. Music in general, and specifically the piano early in my very young life, became a transitional object to maintain a connection with the people and places in my life that have been dearly loved and sadly lost. I believe attachment to the mother/Motherland is embedded in the mind and soul of the Ukrainian people when they make and hear music.

Pratt’s (as cited in Feder et al., 1993) 1952 proposal that “music sounds the way emotions feel” (p. 127), and Feder’s (2004) claim that music represents a “‘simulacrum’ of inner life” inform my comments. My interdisciplinary comments unite the non-verbal, pre-representational qualities of music with the verbal, representational concepts of psychoanalysis. I emphasize that neither the analyst, musician, nor listener need to be trained in music or psychoanalytic theory to experience powerful emotions in response to music.

I invite you to consider the following ideas: One, music has unique formal properties, its own non-verbal language, which include melody, rhythm, pitch, tonality, form, and dynamics. It can evoke meaningful emotional experiences for the listener, including music serving as an aural transitional object tune. Two, the symbols and structures of music can contribute to a deeper understanding of mental life. Three, music (aural) and psychoanalytic (verbal)

Page 172

principles are relevant both inside and beyond the concert hall and consulting room and add to a nuanced understanding of our contemporary cultural, emotional, and social milieu.

Music also encompasses the compositional techniques of modulation, consonance, dissonance, tension, and ambiguity. These musical techniques are consonant with psychoanalytic concepts of multiple function, overdetermination, dissonance, consonance, silence, tension, conflict, and ambiguity. Both disciplines can evoke affects as well as memory and personal meaning.

As we have continually witnessed in Ukraine, music offers an expression of grief, hope, resilience, and psychic restoration. This leads to the idea that music serves as a sonic transitional object—a connection with mother/Motherland during war, displacement from home, trauma, and uncertainty. For example, we can “hear” music and psychoanalytic concepts expressed through music in the following three examples:

One, Leonard Bernstein’s musical score from West Side Story recorded in 1957 uses an ambiguous musical interval (i.e., the spaces between notes), the tritone, which has been of interest to music scholars since the 10th century. Aurally, it is searching for harmonic resolution. The tritone has famously been labeled “The Devil in Music.”  Historically, this interval expresses harmonic instability and uncertainty; it is heard as a theme throughout Bernstein’s score. Emotionally, the tritone evokes intrapsychic, interpersonal, affective, and social drama that unfolds between two ethnically based gangs, representing the longing for love and potential for violence inherent in both gangs. It is an attribute within all of us. Freud reminds us in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) that we are not all “gentle creatures.”  I conceptualize Bernstein’s sensitivity to the ambiguity and tension inherent in the tritone in West Side Story as an intersection of musical theory and theories of mind.

Two, Sergei Prokofiev’s 1936 fairy tale, Peter and the Wolf, uses multiple function (a psychoanalytic concept) of the opening simple melody (played by a string quartet) to illustrate the boy, Peter. The composer’s use of instrumentation and orchestration illustrates Peter’s psychological development as he ventures beyond his grandfather’s safe garden and captures the wolf (perhaps a warring element—or conflict within himself ) while the composer simultaneously comments musically on Stalin (the wolf?) in his native

Page 173

country under Stalin’s dictatorship. Prokofiev’s musical themes assigned to various avian and animal characters, each played by different instruments, all reside in Peter’s psyche and have universal appeal because the attributes are qualities we all share.

Three, the effects of shame and rage are expressed musically in Verdi’s opera, Otello, first performed in 1887. Through the music, the composer illustrates aurally how love can turn violent and escalate to murder. These effects of love and rage are heard in the musical reminiscence of the “bacio” theme (e.g., Otello’s kiss of love for Desdemona expressed aurally by this theme [the kiss] in Act 1 becomes a jealous kiss of death by Otello in the concluding act of the opera). We as listeners resonate because we feel our own often renounced or embraced instincts in these aural expressions.

The formal structures of music and psychoanalytic concepts provide a vibrant point of intersection for thinking about music theory and theories of mind through affect and shared principles such as multiple function and displacement. Music and psychoanalytic knowledge can contribute to a nuanced understanding of intrapsychic and interpersonal conflicts within the human mind.

Page 174


  • Feder, Stuart; Karmel, Richard L; & Pollock, George H. (Eds.). (1993). Psychoanalytic explorations in music (second series). International Universities Press.
  • Feder, Stuart (2004). Music as simulacrum of mental life. Pre-circulated paper, winter 2004 meetings of American Psychoanalytic Association, unpublished, available at


Julie Jaffee Nagel

Julie Jaffee Nagel, PhD, is a psychologist, psychoanalyst, and musician who brings her unique combination of experience and education in music and mental health to a nuanced understanding of her clinical and interdisciplinary work. She is a graduate of The Juilliard School, the University of Michigan, and The Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute. She is the author of Managing Stage Fright: A Guide for Musicians and Music Teachers (2017) and Melodies of the Mind (2013) and has published numerous articles in major peer-reviewed psychoanalytic journals and music publications. Her forthcoming book, Career Choices in Music Beyond the Pandemic: Musical and Psychoanalytic Perspectives (2023), offers unique broad musical and psychological perspectives on one of the most important decisions made in a musician’s lifetime: choosing a career. She is in private practice in Dexter, Michigan, and may be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Nagel, J. J. (2023). An intersection between music and mind. Clio’s Psyche, 29(2), 171-175.

PDF downloads:

Download this Article PDF
Download full Issue PDF