Long before the formalization of psychology as an academic discipline, artists throughout history have striven to explore the depth of the human psyche by immersing themselves in their own subjects of inquiry. In sharp contrast to the scientific reduction of empirical traditions, art is a privileged form of inquiry into the human experience in its intimate association with the parts of a piece that is not mutually exclusive to its cathartic encounter with the whole of the piece.

The Place of Music in Psychological Discourses

Psychohistory as a relatively nascent field in comparison to other subfields within psychology offers a rich variety of avenues for discourse ranging from the arts to historical personalities, especially those subjects of discussion that are sidelined by mainstream psychological discourses. One such subject of discussion is music,

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which is often reduced to just another instrument in the therapist’s toolkit for resolving the psychic conflicts of their patient. This positioning of music as a mere therapeutic tool ignores the larger role of music in enriching the lived experiences of individuals, groups, and communities who find themselves singing, dancing, and feeling along with the tune.

Racker (June 1951) observed that there seemed to be an analytic resistance to musicology, “that behind this lack of preoccupation with the subject there is a rejection of the subject” (p. 130). In bringing to light this blindspot in analytic discourses, Stein reveals how a psychohistorical approach to music could offer interesting insights into “how one musician’s life is entwined with world events, including their unconscious underpinnings.”  Delving into its larger implications for the field of psychohistory, Stein’s approach offers a promising framework for political psychohistory, particularly when it comes to the social dynamics between prominent musicians and their followers as well as their orientation with their zeitgeist, whether affirmative or critical.

Music as a Psychological Rupture

The first key insight in Stein’s essay is the power of resistance that music offers in the face of an authoritarian drive for conformity. The dominance of Social Realism under Stalin’s regime did not come about through the mass patronage of the populace for the art movement but rather through the top-down enforcement of the regime of socially acceptable aesthetics. In simpler terms, the promotion and subsequent institutionalization of Social Realism under Joseph Stalin’s rule was essentially an attempt by the Party to control the desire of the masses, privileging art forms that affirmed the pro-worker rhetoric of the Party while denouncing art forms that manifested “Western formalism” and “bourgeois decadence.”

However, Stein notes that Dmitri Shostakovich’s style of music, denounced by Stalin for its brutally honest expression of affect as well as neurotic qualities, marked a rupture against the propagandistic music to “celebrate the Soviet victory over Hitler and his destructive forces” allowed by the Party. In a way, Shostakovich’s music represented the return of the repressed elements under the Stalinist regime, revealing the true reality being suffered by the Soviet people that was obscured by, ironically, the idealistic aspirations of Social Realism. Carrying Stein’s analysis further, Shostakovich’s masterful use of music against Stalin’s regime and his loy-

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alists illustrates the genuine potential of music as the language of the unconscious, which is also universal in character: “[i]n this way music is a universal language, because the unconscious is common to us all” (Sterba, Spring-Summer 1964, p. 106).

Respectfully criticizing Stein’s claim, Shostakovich’s music then did not simply represent the “cultural and historical reality principle.”  Drawing on Stein’s own analysis, Shostakovich also captured the ambivalence of the pleasure principle of the id and the reality principle of the ego: “The emotional charge or valence of Shostakovich could suddenly and radically switch from idealization and adulation when he was in favor by Stalin’s regime to demonization and condemnation when he fell out of favor with them.”  In other words, music is not only at the service of the id and superego but rather meets at the center of the ego where there occurs a balancing act between the threat of dissolution and the solace of resolution that finds its way into the composition of the music, allowing listeners to derive both pain and pleasure from their engagement with the piece.

The Political Dynamics of Music Camps and Schools

The second key insight in Stein’s essay is the polarizing tendency of identifying with specific musical camps and schools, to which Melanie Klein’s concepts of unconscious splitting and projective identification are readily applicable. Interestingly, the divisions between musical traditions within the field of musicology parallel the divisions in other fields such as psychoanalysis. As there are polarized followers of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Melanie Klein, there are also polarized followers of Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who criticize the other for the lack in the content and form of their music that followers of certain traditions find in the content and form of the music they identify with. In a way, the “us” vs. “them” dynamic between musical camps and schools reflects the universality of polarization regardless of its manifestation, whether in the social, political, or aesthetic field.

Analyzing the differences between Bramhsians, Wagnerians, and Tchakovskians, it is evident that music involves more than just an expression of the affect of the musician and the identification with the affect of the listener. Far from being a conscious endeavor, what Stein referred to as the “musical, aesthetic, and philosophical chasm” of these musical camps and schools reveals the employment of unconscious defense mechanisms in othering other

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musical traditions, projecting every bad into the other and identifying with the good in the favored tradition.

Conclusion: Music as an Analogue for Ideology

In the same way that people become so engrossed when indulging in their favorite musical pieces that they forget the existence of other genres, political agents may also become so engrossed with their own ideologies that they become resistant to listening to other positions in fear of betraying their political “tastes.”  Whereas mainstream psychological traditions focus on the individual, Stein’s psychohistorical approach to music exemplifies the scholarly weaving of anecdotal and factual evidence in understanding the total character of human subjectivity. His analysis of the lives and works of certain musicians and their implications in history reveals the intertwined web of connections between biographies, group dynamics, and societal events that must be understood in their complexity to avoid risking psychologizing the social.

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  • Racker, Heinrich (June 1951). Contribution to psychoanalysis of music. American Imago, 8(2), 129-163.
  • Sterba, Richard F. (Spring-Summer 1964). Psychoanalysis and music. American Imago, 22(1/2), 96-111.


Gabriel C. Pascua

Gabriel C. Pascua is an undergraduate psychology student at the Ateneo de Manila University. He is an essayist and researcher who has had experience as a writer and an oral presenter at five conferences. His scholarly interests include new media, psychoanalysis, neoliberalism in higher education, and the intellectualization of the Filipino language. He can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Pascua, G. C. (2023). Ideology in the sheets and music in the streets. Clio’s Psyche, 29(2), 141-144.

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