Part of the wonderment of working as a musician is the feeling of shared intensity while playing with other musicians. Even “sight-reading” an unknown piece with a musician whom one encounters for the first time can lead to emotional intimacy and stimulation, a depth of connection that one would more often associate with deep friendship or even romance. In my experience, these are unforgettable moments that are part of the joy of being a performing artist. Yet these powerful feelings are very different from those evoked in people who listen to music. What are the core differences? Perhaps that these moments are unique to music, as unique as their own connections to the music itself, to an audience, and to creative energy. It is an expressive pull toward engagement that is uninhibited by anxiety or caution.

Near the start of my doctoral training, I was surprised during my first interactions with patients by the same feeling of connectedness I had experienced under musical circumstances. It felt like playing Bach to have that sense of attunement and belonging, the excitement of going on a connected, emotional 45-minute journey. There was an excitement, an intensity of work and expression, colored by my own complicated emotions and associations. The patient and I were in that same kind of relational dyad, joined in some way that we had invented, that was coming from the heart. Perhaps because it was unclear who was playing and who was listening, this feeling of attunement has fascinated me ever since.

My 2004 dissertation, titled The extraordinary ambivalence of musical performance: A special case of symbolization, was a qualitative look at how great classical musicians organize their feelings during a performance. I interviewed 20 renowned classical performers. The most curious finding, as I myself had also experienced it as a performer, was that the performer’s feelings seemed to be different from those of listeners. Performers didn’t consciously feel the anguish in a Mahler symphony, for example, or the primitive sensuality in a Bartok quartet. They rarely spoke about the feelings evoked in the listener. Instead, they described something different: a sense of excitement, even frenzy, a connectedness, a flow, even riding a wave. It was hard for them to say it with words. When they played, they were looking at their hands, listening to their sound, automatically making technical adjustments, listening to what the accompanist was doing, and feeling very free and en-

Page 153

gaged, unconsciously making tiny alterations in the way they played. It was like a complex, evenly-hovering attention and reverie that co-existed with a kind of emotional ambiguity.

Tone and its relationship with pitch, tempo, and loudness was the basis for working whatever magic performers worked so that listeners felt understood and connected, as if they belonged in that place right then, with that musician. A seemingly related process, analytic receptiveness, was described by Wilfred Bion as the putting aside of verbally organized consciousness in favor of a readiness to viscerally absorb the patient’s reality. Bion (1967) asserted the importance of signals, such as non-verbal utterances, images, and silences, rather than language. He contended that the ability to achieve this kind of attunement was a prerequisite to helping the patient achieve significant progress in psychoanalysis.

These musicians said that the only time they felt the emotions being represented by the music was while they listened to somebody else perform when they themselves were in the audience. In that position, they could relax their vigilance and feel those different feelings. So we can see, on the one hand, the creative imagination of the performer, and on the other, the creative responsiveness of the listener. It made me wonder about how these might play out during psychoanalytic work, where both psychoanalyst and analysand over time can be aware of the other in their reverie.

It’s important to note that when personal associations enter a performer’s awareness, they can disrupt this highly concentrated, yet expressive, state of mind. It’s experienced as a loss of focus that can lead to a failure of musical communication. One of the musicians I interviewed told me the following story: His small chamber group was performing at a recital, and during a terribly sad movement that often evokes feelings of despair and loss in the listener, he suddenly experienced the powerful image of a severe trauma that he had experienced as a child. He finished the piece with tears streaming down his face, struggling to keep control and continue playing. The performance was generally considered to have been successful. But several weeks later, during a rather dry performance of the same piece, the musician attempted to evoke that same image as a way to increase his expressiveness. This did not work. It wasn’t possible to repeat the process. Expressive playing uses the symbolic system of music to somehow represent feelings that are then evoked in the receptive listener, often producing myriad personal associations. But these kinds of feelings and/

Page 154

or associations do not themselves produce expressive playing. So creative imagination and creative receptiveness may be distinct processes. It is of perhaps equal significance to imagine how devoted this performer must have been to his art that he was willing to voluntarily re-experience that terrible pain on the off chance that it might enhance the expressiveness of his performance.

For us as psychoanalysts, expressive associations are part of our work, rather than indications of a failure of concentration, particularly working in the transference and countertransference. Distractions and associations happen for a reason and part of our training is to make sense of feelings and personal associations that are evoked during our work with the patient. Analyst and analysand share the responsibilities of performer and listener in a very complex way. We are simultaneously playing and listening. We are straddling the two activities of creative imagination and creative receptiveness, to use Thomas H. Ogden’s terms, and we’re trying to help our patients do that in their own way. The feelings experienced by the player are different from those experienced by the listener, and thus we see in our own work how transferential and countertransferential experiences are not the same. They are related in some way that we try to fathom. In the moment, we try not to lose our balance. No wonder it can be so difficult, and no wonder there can be such profound effects when linked to a therapeutic goal.

In my case, I began playing the viola at 12 years old. After about six months, my teacher asked me to play in one of the Saturday afternoon recitals that she organized from time to time. Perhaps eight or nine children played. The teacher’s mother accompanied the students. Families were in the audience. I played a simplified arrangement of the “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman. Something happened during the performance, some inner doorway opened, and I experienced a powerful feeling of connection to both the piece and the audience, slowing down and speeding up in rubato (a subtle fluctuation in tempo), getting louder and getting softer. The audience must also have been receptive to this connection. The room got very quiet for me; I felt engaged and free. It was the first time I had ever felt this way. People applauded loudly.

After I had finished, my accompanist said, “That was lovely, dear. Why don’t you play it again?”  I don’t remember how I felt, but I played it again. This time, the connection wasn’t there.

Page 155

It went okay, but I didn’t connect with the people in the room in the same expressive way. It was dry. I felt empty, ashamed, and very alone. Now, of course, my association is to the difficult feelings I sometimes experience when I have not been able to feel engaged with a patient. What happened? How did the dryness happen? What did it mean?

One of the writers who has influenced the way I experience music and psychoanalysis is Susanne Langer, an American philosopher whose work created a vocabulary with which to discuss the arts: how art is created, what it represents, the experience of the viewer or listener, the relationship between the composer and the performer, and between the performer and listener. Langer (1957) believed that what art seems to be interested in is “the life of feeling” (p. 243). Beyond the objects depicted in a painting or the notes in a piece of music, an artist represents how some part of life feels, the stress and pull of certain life events. Langer thought that, rather than an emotional outpouring by the artist, the work of art is a symbolic representation of feeling. Yet, she realized that the audience experiences the performance as feeling itself, on the wings of music. How can we begin to understand this complicated process of creative imagining and receiving?

There is extensive psychoanalytic literature about the emotional organization of the analyst. Although not the first, Thomas Ogden compared artistic and analytic creativity. One part of his idea follows: “The analytic discourse requires of the analytic pair the development of metaphorical language adequate to the creation of sounds and meanings that reflect what it feels like to think, feel, and physically experience (in short to be alive as a human being to the extent that one is capable) at a given moment” (Ogden, 1997, p. 6). Ogden qualifies this comparison because the analytic variety of creative expression also encompasses an overarching therapeutic concern, and so our attunement to the patient’s feelings takes place to the extent that the patient is capable of this attunement at a given moment (i.e., to the extent that the patient can be creatively receptive to it). Thus, musical performance is a unique but analogous act of representation without that therapeutic concern. Music is the pure essence of attunement with sounds and tones, which occur over time. I hypothesize that the study of the relationship between the performer and listener offers opportunities to wonder about our own sense of the life of feeling, what it is like to be human at a particular moment in our own lives, as analysts, as well as for our pa-

Page 156

tients, and to observe these relational activities of creative imagination and creative responsiveness in a unique setting, beyond the domain of the merely verbal.

In the analytic situation, some of our concerns are different. How can we be vulnerable without a sense of violation? That is important because we are seeking to nurture therapeutic transformation around safe vulnerability. In contrast, music doesn’t need to be safe, and often even evokes uncomfortable feelings in listeners. But without reference to a specific person or event, the potential for discomfort to rise to the level of interpersonal violation is mitigated. Perhaps for a musician, the question is how expressive one can be, perhaps how risky, in the service of the musical representation of feeling, without losing technical control. That is similar to the questions we ask ourselves in the consulting room: How expressive can we be in the service of therapeutic transformation without going beyond what is best for the patient at a particular moment in their lives?

In music, time is central. As humans, we are continuously experiencing a stream of fleeting sensations and perceptions, the building up and resolution of tension over time. Langer believed that music created audible time: It takes those fleeting and fragmentary feelings of the stream of thought and represents them in an organized way, with a sense of trajectory and denouement. All of this is given a shape in music, an ideally represented experience of passing time. This description by Langer harkens back to William James’ notion of the stream of thought. In the consulting room, our task is to help the patient shape the trajectory of their lived experience, to make sense of things, “to do something with it,” as the poetry professor in Ogden’s 1997 article might say, to understand what came before and what came after. Indeed, we can wonder about the passage of time in each analytic session, the trajectory of fleeting sensations and perceptions that pass between analyst and patient.

Page 157


  • Bion, Wilfred (1967). Notes on memory and desire. The Psychoanalytic Forum, 2, 272-273.
  • Langer, Susanne K. (1957). Philosophy in a New Key: A study in the symbolism of reason, rite and art. Harvard University Press.
  • Ogden, Thomas H. (1997). Some thoughts on the use of language in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 7(1), 1-21.


Michael C. Singer

Michael C. Singer, PhD, a former professional violist, plays in a string quartet with other therapists. His articles on treatment and training issues have appeared in a variety of professional journals. Dr. Singer’s private practice on the Upper West Side of Manhattan includes adults and children, and he leads a support group for male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. He is also a psychotherapy supervisor in the Child and Family Program at the William Alanson White Institute. Dr. Singer can be reached at .

How to Cite This:

Singer, M. C. (2023). The joys of engagement in music and psychoanalysis. Clio’s Psyche, 29(2), 152-158.

PDF downloads:

Download this Article PDF
Download full Issue PDF