Music and psyche: what is the correlation? Paolo Cavallone and Adelia Lucattini speak

Tempo di Lettura: 11 minuti

Classical music is by far, of all musical forms, the most evocative: it does not explain, it does not describe, but lets you imagine. When teaching children to listen to classical music, one way that is often used is evocative. What does this music suggest? The ideal of the image does not always have to do with beauty. The world that interested the composers and artists of musical expressionism was that hidden behind rationality and manifested in the unconscious. Today, distinct factors come into play, but the power of music remains at the centre, which can be of help to the psychiatric world and especially to many patients. The Psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst of the Italian Psychoanalytic Society and the International Psychoanalytical Association, Adelia Lucattini, and Paolo Cavallone, one of the leading composers on the contemporary music scene and holder of the Chair of Elements of Composition at the Conservatorio “Vivaldi” in Alessandria, address in this double interview some of the most relevant aspects in the relationship between two disciplines that, for various reasons, are increasingly followed.

Maestro Cavallone, what factors come into play during the musical experience?
Music is the most abstract of the arts and as such, it projects us through sound to the edge of human perceptions, physical and, without caution, I would even say metaphysical parameters. I believe what Hanslick describes in The Beautiful in Music [Vom Musikalisch-Schönen], namely that this abstract dimension of sound, it is characterized by dynamics and movement. According to the German musicologist, these two peculiarities are the same as those of emotions, and it is thanks to an unconscious connection that we can be moved by the organized listening of sounds (i.e., music). A multiplicity of factors come into play during the musical experience, involving the cognitive aspect – a fortiori, when sound is a product of speech and is charged with semantic meanings – as well as the perceptual, psychological (unconscious) and even the spiritual.
This reference to Hanslick has prompted critics to speak in the case of your music as a kind of “syntagmatic self-confession”, in which sound lives on total self-justification. What can you tell us about that?
It touches on a specific aspect of my experience of music. It is true that sound, as an essential creative element, beyond cultural and historical contextualization, lives of total self-justification. It is fascinating to think how the sacred texts refer to sound as the creative element. The Gospel of John opens with “in the beginning was the Word”, i.e., sound. With it, God creates; thus, the word is a creator and not only. St John Chrysostom even speaks of the intentionality of sound, i.e., the word is sanctified in the intention. God would therefore mix melody and prophecy. The power of speech: it creates or modifies objects, people, movements, dynamics, feelings and can hurt. In shamanic tribes, the shaman gives each member of the tribe a sound that must remain a secret. Should anyone learn of it, they would have the power to steal the person’s soul. Thus there is the historical and cultural contextualization. We are immersed in the contingency of our time and in a constant confrontation with the society in which we lives. From this perceptive confrontation with reality comes the need to create and translate the various stimuli that this collision generates, in my case a sound and perceptive confrontation.
Unconscious, time and sound, three factors in common in Music and Psychoanalysis, could you elaborate on the word/sound relationship?
Obviously, I will answer as a musician and as a poet and especially in relation to my aesthetics. I think that the psyche speaks to us like trough music, creative intuitions that are amplified in our bodies: the unconscious seems to vibrate through sound. The sound of the word, the sound of music.
Speech, which is a specific type of sound production, counts listening and interpretation among its fundamental tools. We have a sound-preserving capacity, as an extension of the existence of the music/word itself. This determines what Bergson called “creative time” (which we later find in Proust), i.e., a non-chronological time, but an inner time in direct relation with the psyche. The formal structures of passages, but also of single fragments, can generate the “memory”, in a non-spatialized time, but in reference to a measure in which the duration is determined by the concrete inner experience.
Personally, in relation to the word/sound relationship, I do not make much of a distinction between music and poetry, because the word always has a semantic aspect and a phonetic one, hence sound tout court. If we think of poems such as Giacomo Leopardi’s L’infinito, we realize how the sound of certain phonemes creates a sort of onomatopoeic effect of the wind of which the verses speak, so much so that when the wind is mentioned, we have already heard it. I dwell on this lyric because it is particularly significant in this regard. L’infinito is a text that is exceedingly difficult for actors to interpret, because in just a few moments it projects us from a descriptive dimension of the landscape – hypotyposis, as a descriptive technique that then projects us into the detail of the narrative – to transport us into an inner dimension (the hypotyposis becomes symbolic). All this occurs through sound: “… and like the wind… I that infinite silence to this voice go comparing…”, a wind of the spirit rendered through sibilant and non-sibilant fricative consonants. The power of the mysterious dynamics of sound becomes sensitively / unconsciously / spiritually “tangible”. Sound, I think, has the power to “pierce” any superstructure, social and personal, to project us towards the so-called Truth (I say this poetically, paraphrasing Pascoli). Historically, in Western music, speech and music have had varying relationships: I am thinking of Wagner and twentieth-century dimensions, totally in opposition… The different relationship between music and word, with varying relationships, is the basis of the history of western music. You mentioned Wagner: for Wagner, music without the word was imperfect, because incapable of conveying meanings, and he saw in Beethoven a sort of Christopher Columbus who sensed the need to include the word in the symphonic genre, as it happened in the Ninth Symphony. The 20th century is full of a multiplicity of contrasting and complementary approaches, especially in relation to the historical avant-gardes. I mention a couple of composers by way of example. In Berio’s vocalism of the sequence for solo voice, the phonetic aspect totally overpowers the semantic one, to such an extent that the becoming of the figures presented captures the listener’s attention in an abstract reception of inner emotions. We enter an overly complex subject matter (which cannot be reduced to a few lines, and which is beyond the scope of our interview), namely the various compositional attitudes of contemporary composition. I would cite Giacinto Scelsi’s own inner vision of sound, which he called the spherical dimension. Think of the chant of an Indian Guru: let us listen to nuances of intonations remarkably close to each other (intervals smaller than a semitone to be clear): in a spherical dimension, the semitone becomes an enormous distance; while from another, more traditional angle, in the tempered system, it is configured as the smallest distance between pitches. The meaning changes as the perspective from which a sound object is framed changes. In this sense, more than ever I think that nowadays, in this historical moment, the concept of possibility and that of necessity can coincide. I remember that in one of your pieces entitled “Metamorphosis of Love” there are references to the healing of the psyche precisely in relation to the situation of mankind in today’s society. This important work was commissioned by the Mitteleuropa Orchestra of Udine and the Orchestre National de Bretagne of Rennes in France. The first Italian performance I remember was part of the “Conversando con Psiche” (Conversing with the Psyche) Festival.
What was the relationship between the proposed theme and your concert?
Metamorfosi d’amore is a double concerto for flute, cello and orchestra preceded by a monologue, or rather a dialogue between the male and female components of the psyche. Underlying the creation of the piece is, therefore, a reflection on the need for love in the balance between the founding components of the human psyche. However, several suggestions and stimuli have converged in the realization of Metamorphosis of Love. On the one hand, the bimillennium of the death of the Latin poet Ovid, author of the Metamorphoses and the Ars Amandi, capable of stylizing myths and legends of the classical tradition in a virtuoso metric cadence that opens to archetypal intuitions and meanings susceptible to multiple interpretations. On the other hand, the contemporary concept of mutation as inner metamorphosis and of the body, as well as of the male and female dimensions of the human psyche. This dualism and conflict in the very heart of man was denounced by the Latin poet in ancient times: “Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor”. Thus, in human imperfection, the manifestation of love is realized.
From a different angle, the relations between gods and humans in classical mythology, of which Ovid’s Metamorphoses represent a kind of compendium, seem to move towards an expression of sensuality in the direction of formal abstraction. How many connections Ovid’s changing perspective seems to have with the biblical Song of Songs, with the relationship Bridegroom-God, Bride-Israel; with the bridegroom love penetrating the bride, purifying her. Symbolically, musically, I have included a Waltz in the piece as a reminder of the concept of eroticism as a historical archetype. In the composition of the piece, a particular significance is assumed, musically, by the choice of soloists: the flute, anthropologically man-God and woman-cello, humanity. Structurally, the piece, in its dynamic metamorphosis, takes on different meanings in its various configurations. Each element is framed from different perspectives to restore, in its gestural proliferation, a unity of contraries, which is fundamental today.
Dr Lucattini, psychoanalysis dialogues with music: words, sounds, rhythm, pauses, silence and the unconscious, what are the most intrinsic meanings of this link?
Psychoanalysis has always been interested in the relationship between the unconscious and music. Although Sigmund Freud claimed not to have a musical sensibility, he always had a keen interest in music. In fact, at the “Wednesday meetings” in his Viennese home, the musicologist and music critic Max Graf, the father of little Hans whom Freud took care of because of the child’s phobia of horses, also attended. Graf authored several important essays, including Wagner’s Flying Dutchman (1911) and a paper on the psychology of the cognitive process (1947) that Freud had published in the applied psychoanalysis journal Imago, which he founded. The psychoanalyst Antonio Di Benedetto writes with great sensitivity that “the aesthetic experience has always had an anticipatory character because of its power to unveil sensory and drive chaos in imaginative forms: drawing on this heritage with pure aesthetic sensitivity, the analyst must welcome the unheard of in the patient’s field of listening. In the analysis room, listening is directed towards something that attempts to speak or to be spoken”. The development of rhythm and internal time, the “timing”, is central to the processes of subjectivation and symbolization. All existence is marked by the rhythm of time, dictated by the alternation of sounds and pauses that give meaning to sound itself.
Psychic development has as its primordial datum the pulsing of the maternal heart that accompanies the voice, rhythmic movements and vibrations felt by the child in its mother’s womb. “The role that the phonic nucleus of speech and the voice play as fundamental links with the emotions, the body, the sexual and the infantile. All these elements find their articulation in the natural but no less complex activity of listening, which conveys a polyphonic and three-dimensional dimension of the world, so important in both music and psychoanalysis”.
We often hear about Music Therapy; how useful can it be for people and in particular for children?
Music therapy is a specific therapeutic technique that is part of the techniques used in psychoanalytic treatment, guided by psychoanalytic theory and method, always within the relationship between the psychoanalyst and his patient. Music is used to reduce the patient’s mental pain as it offers the possibility of expressing oneself without and beyond words. Furthermore, singing, playing, writing songs, listening to music facilitates the release of tension and psychophysical relaxation. Music as a “natural therapy” has been known since the dawn of time; it is in fact known to have a positive effect on physical, emotional, psychic, aesthetic and spiritual aspects, helping to improve bodily health, general well-being and quality of life. Every moment of life is accompanied by a personal “soundtrack”, what I call “transitional music” because it is tangible sensorially through listening and rhythmic vibrations, and symbolic at the same time. Music, just like any transitional object, acts as a trigger for positive memories and moods that help one cope with difficult moments. The effectiveness of Music Therapy, which is conducted by trained music therapists and psychotherapists, is proven by numerous scientific studies and is an established treatment within the international scientific community. Techniques and clinical experiences of Music therapy include listening, singing, performing through various musical instruments and music composition.
Music as a therapy is used to reduce stress, improve mood, promote the expression of emotions, and getting in touch deeper aspects of oneself. As Music Therapy is a cure, patients are not required to have any special musical knowledge or talents. As a rehabilitation activity, it is adopted in the treatment of psychic disability and in the multimodal therapy of psychotic syndromes. Every child enjoys and experiences music in various forms, parents sing or accompany the life and sleep of their little ones with appropriate music or that they themselves love, raising them on “bread, music and love”. Moreover, in children, music is a shared experience with their parents or loving adults who take care of them, which is why it strengthens their character and consolidates the structure of the Self. The opportunity to listen, to sing, to assess oneself with an instrument, fascinates and excites children, who are curious by nature. Music Therapy is designed to foster psychological and emotional development; it offers the opportunity to discover about oneself, to experience new emotions and to shape them through play, as it is natural in childhood. Music in general and Music Therapy as an extension of expressive abilities, offer children a chance for harmonious mind-body, conscious-unconscious growth and development through sensoriality, closeness with an adult and group work with other children.
Is the emotional language evoked by music often like psychoanalysis?

Music and psychoanalysis address and speak to the unconscious in a direct way: sensorial and imaginative the music, mediated also through thought and speech the psychoanalysis. Furthermore, psychoanalysis makes explicit and understandable what music evokes, gives meaning and significance to the emotions we perceive, making them comprehensible, manageable, usable. Already the Infant Research, and more recently neuroscience, have highlighted the essential function of rhythm and musicality in the first mother-infant exchanges. Jaak Panksepp and Colwyn Trevar then have identified human musicality as an “autonomous motivational system” and hypothesized that musical stimuli can “modulate the expression of specific genes in the human brain, resulting in permanent epigenetic transformations”. The importance attributed to music in the earliest mother-child and father-child relationships was highlighted as early as the first days of life. In fact, the infant can understand structured sequences of sounds, especially if these have the same rhythms as the maternal physiological processes heard during pregnancy (the mother’s heartbeat, her breathing) and sounds and melodies from the outside world.
Silence and inner dialogue: do you believe that the musical nature of the unconscious can open new
spaces for psychoanalytic research?
Certainly, silence and dialogue are like pauses and notes in a piece of music. Any discourse like any music needs, to exist and have a form that encompasses its deeper meaning, an alternation between sound and silence, and it is from this alternation that rhythm is born. It is interesting to note how the word rhythm derives from the Greek word ῥυθμός (rhythmòs) characterized by the “theta” (t) and the “mi” (m) that onomatopoeically precisely reproduce the rhythm of the heart: TH-M, systole-diastole. So, rhythm, and the very word that defines it, arise from listening to the heartbeat, the sound and the pause that generate life and keep us alive. The life of the body and the life of the mind are inextricably linked, music is born as an expression of somatopsychic unity, from it is heard imagined, thought, created and expressed. Through body and mind, we can listen to it and be nourished by it. Numerous psychoanalytic studies have already begun this path of research both in Italy and abroad. Fascinating studies have highlighted the relationship between psychoanalytic interpretation and musical interpretation; others have explored the theme of musical listening within the psychoanalytic relationship. Still others have explored the relationship between musical expression and the various forms that psychic suffering takes. Undoubtedly, many aspects lend themselves to further study and investigation. Music, because it has its roots in the deepest unconscious, presents itself as an area open to further study and exploration in the future. As far as it can intercept the “primitive states of the mind”, i.e., the psychic functioning of the earliest years of life, it presents itself as a cornerstone for further theoretical expansions and extensions of the psychoanalytic method. At the same time, it leaves room for new technical applications in clinical work with patients in analysis. The French philosopher and musicologist Vladimir Jankélévitch admirably enlightens this intersection in his words: “Where the words are lost, there the music begins ; where the words are no longer there, man and women can only sing”.