Can we speak of eroticism in purely musical terms?

~ Lawrence Dreyfus’ book ‘Wagner and the Erotic Impulse’ (Harvard University Press 2010) reminded me of attending the lecture series at the British Library given by Dreyfus upon which the book is based. Below is an essay I wrote after attending the series in 2004 ~

In this essay, ‘erotic’ will be understood as ‘pertaining to the passion of love’ and ‘concerned with or treating of love’, and ‘eroticism’ as ‘erotic spirit or character’[1]. However, this does not define its relationship with artworks. We can define an ‘erotic’ artwork as possessing the aim of arousing sexual thoughts, feelings or desires in the audience, ‘and to some extent the artwork should succeed in’ this aim. This aim involves the engagement of the audience’s imagination ‘along similar lines’ to the artwork, and this ‘rarely goes as far as full physiological arousal. [2]’ The distinction between erotic art and pornography is an interesting one, and this has been suggested as the latter ‘lacking any artistic intent’, so we can deduce erotic art requires the ‘intention’ to be erotic in order for it to qualify for such a status. Also, a high and low concept can be applied, where pornography is the low to the high erotic art. Musicological literature regarding these issues tends to specify ‘sexuality’, ‘desire’ and ‘gender’ over ‘eroticism’.

 Agreeing on what is meant by ‘purely musical terms’ is also of importance. It begs the question; can we speak of music in purely musical terms?  The idea of purely musical terms is nonetheless unusual, as we need language to discuss music, i.e. words, and primarily metaphors play a significant role in musicological discussions; ‘The metaphor cannot be eliminated from the description of music, because it defines the intentional object of the musical experience. Take the metaphor away, and you cease to describe the experience of music.[3]’ Opera certainly requires a different approach to purely instrumental music, as Nattiez suggests:

 The specificity and difficulty of analysing opera as a genre derives from the fact that whereas, in the instrumental field, a “technical” analysis can ignore the emotive and semantic connotations aroused by the work, the action and psychology of the characters in opera are so intimately bound up with the piece as part of its global reality that it is hard to imagine an analysis of its “purely” musical dimension that disregards its links with the unfolding drama.[4]

For Kivy, to describe a musical work in ‘purely musical terms’ would require the avoidance of extra-musical description.

How we understand a musical work, or any artwork, is governed by what we have read and been told about the artwork in question or issues surrounding it, and Dahlhaus warns that ‘even the endeavour to arrive at a ‘purely musical’ form of listening is conveyed by literature.’[5] As such, reading musicological literature that uses sexually charged terms in its description of musical events in a work would undoubtedly leave such traces on the reader’s perception of the work. With our reliance on the metaphor to enable the sharing of our musical experiences so others can have the same experience has led to a unusually wide spectrum of prose-types; this can be roughly divided into analytical writing that does not rely on a contextualisation versus that which engages the context of the work in question.

Even with a working definition of ‘erotic’ and ‘eroticism’, we are still left with the issue of how these can manifest in a musical work, and in an artwork in general; ‘is music a pure play of forms; in other words, does it refer to nothing but itself, or does it inspire external associations?’[6] Here, it is important to differentiate between a work representing an erotic act, expressing erotic thoughts and containing an erotic content or erotic emotions. Scruton further explores theses distinctions; ‘it is one thing for a piece to be inspired by a subject, another for it to imitate the subject, another for it to evoke or suggest a subject, another for it to express an experience of the subject, and yet another for it to represent the subject.[7]’ These are all distinct philosophical issues, which can easily be confused in the general issue of musical meaning. The exploration of these issues in turn will enable me to assess the extent to which we can speak of eroticism in art, and specifically the ‘purely musical work’.

The concept of mimesis plays an important role in the debate of music and (erotic) meaning; can music imitate an erotic ‘act’ and ‘emotions’ or ‘thoughts’? Nattiez (1990) quotes D’Alembert, who wrote that ‘[music] imitates just as well as any other art, so long as we are considering something that music would be able to imitate.’[8] This does not answer our question, but carefully avoids answering it, as Nattiez points out. To imitate something is to represent it, though ‘representation is not defined directly by imitation.[9]’ We do, however, need to carefully detach what representation actually is from expression, with which it is frequently confused.

‘Croce [wrote]…that there are at least two kinds of artistic meaning. The one is displayed by narratives, stories, and descriptions, while the other may exist even in the absence of storytelling’[10]; the former is representation, with expression as the latter. Scruton also suggests that ‘when Schopenhauer, using a Kantian term (Vorstellung), describes music as a representation of the Will, or when Hanslick, using the same term, denies that music can represent our inner emotions, they are really writing about expression.’[11] So a representation, as defined by Croce, possesses a narrative, story, or description. Applying this description to music, to represent an erotic act it would need to contain a description of such an act. Scruton does suggest undoubted uses of representation, as in the use of birdsong (however, he is not completely sympathetic to Messiaen’s use of such material). So sounds in a musical work ‘can resemble other sounds’[12]; but can they resemble movements and thoughts?

The question of understanding seems pertinent at this point: it is all well and good to assess the viability of music representing sexual acts, yet can this only be witnessed in music by those who can understand music; understanding is the vehicle of which the ‘meanings’ of a musical work can be delivered to the listener[13]. So can only a musically literate individual perceive the eroticism in a musical work? Herzog would say yes, as to be able to evaluate a work in this way would involve an appreciation of its ‘aesthetic meaning’, which can be accessed through the evaluation of variables such as harmony, rhythm, melody, and tonality (and many more)[14]. We can conclude that, for Herzog, any appreciation of music’s potential eroticism can be discussed in the above mentioned terms; to comprehend the meaning ‘in any relevant sense’[15] would require the result of such evaluations to matter to those who made them. Music can only be ‘erotic’ in purely musical terms if the listener can identify it in the aesthetic values. As Herzog, Kivy agrees with this point: ‘Kivy explicitly assumes [in Music Alone] that one understands a musical work to the extent that one can give a description of it in purely musical terms.[16]

Foucault writes that ‘pleasure is not considered in relation to an absolute law of the permitted and the forbidden, nor by reference to a criterion of utility, but first and foremost in relation to itself; it is experienced as pleasure, evaluated in terms of its intensity, its specific quality, its duration, its reverberations in the body and the soul.’[17] Can and do we not discuss music in this way? We describe musical sounds by their intensity (i.e. dynamic and ‘tone’), their timbre (quality), their duration and we do goes as far as discussing the repercussions of the physical action of sound through the body. Through Foucault’s description, we can see how perhaps we can define pleasure in music, through the aforementioned variables.

We can discuss eroticism in music through the discussion of microscopic elements (such as rhythm, melody, and harmony); they enable writers such as Susan McClary to make claims such as:

Wagner’s music relies heavily on the traditional semiotics of desire available in the musical styles he inherited, and listeners understand his music in part because they too have learned the codes (the minor sixths demanding resolution, the agony of the tritone, the expectation that a dominant-seventh chord will proceed to its tonic, and so on) upon which his metaphors depend.[18]


Other writers see music’s ability to arouse emotion in us, and perhaps even arouse us sexually, as communicated through the macroscopic qualities of music; its form, and the work as a whole. Robinson notes that ‘we cannot understand the expression of complex emotions in music [and surely erotic arousal is complex] apart from the continuous development of the music itself’ and is not ‘the function of a few isolated measures here and there’[19]. And ultimately for Herzog (following Hanslick), musical form is the expression of musical meaning.

All actions involve an element of timing, as do emotional experiences; they have a certain intensity and duration. Due to the evanescent nature of music, we can see parallels with equally evanescent events in human experience; a sexual act (and its subsequent sensations) exists in time and such an act has a ‘narrative’ of events. But ‘can we say that when we hear a musical work, it is explicitly narrating something? … If music could, in itself, constitute a narrative as language can constitute a narrative, then music would speak directly to us, and the distinction between music and language would disappear.[20]’ Put simply, we would not need descriptions of such narrations if music could narrate (or indeed need metaphors). So if music cannot narrate a sexual act (or anything), then perhaps the ‘orchestra [does not] …portray the course of physical lovemaking in [Tristan und Isolde]’ as Lawrence Dreyfus suggests [21].

What music can represent (or imitate) is movement; the movement of pitches (intervals). Music education enforces the metaphors of high and low with up and down; music that progresses lower and lower in pitch is ‘heard’ as going ‘down, and the reverse is also the case. Opera is a special case as we have the synthesis of words, music and drama; the visual action becomes attached to the music. If there is a love-duet, then we will hear the music as sensual, reinforcing the sensuous nature of the scene, however, this should not rule out the possibility that the music does not match the action, as it is sometimes used to illustrate falsehoods of characters (as in Wagner). (Though, this idea assumes that the music never lies; one makes this assumption in Wagner due to how he perceived the role of the orchestra as similar to the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy; to comment on the action.) The leitmotif similarly attaches music to drama, and Scruton suggests that ‘outside the context provided by the stage, [they] …surely not acquire their representational potential even if they retained their expressive power.’ He goes on to say that ‘if they work, it is because they work as music, as instruments of expression, set within the great force field of drama.[22]

The movement of musical lines, which encompasses melodic as well as harmonic movement, set up expectations based on the culturally determined ways of hearing (which are also historical). With the case of tonal music, we have expectations on the goal of the lines; the movement from the leading note to the tonic is expected, and any negation of this movement leaves us ‘unsatisfied’. This dissatisfaction results in tension, and as listeners we are looking for the release of this tension. In other words, western art music written in a tonal idiom creates ‘desire’ in the listener by avoiding expectations. Sam Abel writes that:

Tension and resolution form the building blocks for the musical orgasm. The composer, employing the available means for creating tension (especially harmony and melodic departure from the base tonality), builds to a high point and then releases the tension in a climactic moment or passage, followed by an extended resolution. A simple build in intensity is not enough; the music needs to develop deep musical tensions and then release them climactically. Only in this way can musical tension parallel the Aristotelian structure of the orgasmic narrative.[23]


Abel writes emphatically about the sexual nature of opera and certainly his own sexual experience of opera; opera for him embodies sexual desire. Perhaps a criticism is that he claims such experiences to be idiosyncratic, and makes no claim for them to be universal; there are times, however, when he makes such universal claims when he clearly is making reference to his own individual experience. He goes as far to discuss the ‘opera orgasm’:

An orgasm releases tension; it lets you down after it builds you up. The afterglow is just as much a part of the orgasm as the climax. Orgasmic operatic arias never leave off at the moment of climax. There are always a few bars of vocal or orchestral music to resolve the tension, to bring the listener back to earth. [24]

Michel Poizat has gone as far as using Lacanian psychoanalysis to ‘ask why opera arouses such passionate desire in its audience’. It is interesting how opera receives this kind of attention, as in one cannot ignore the performing body in music, especially in Opera. Wagner may have confined the orchestra to the hidden depths of the pit, but we are still confronted by the vocalists, whose gestures can be mapped onto the music. Again, we can attach these gestures on to the music, and then hear the music as these gestures.  So we can perhaps describe music as erotic due to the eroticised bodies we can see; these need not be in opera performance either. The ‘ceremony’ of the concert hall includes the exhibition of the performing body, and we, as listeners are voyeurs. Perhaps we cannot speak of eroticism in purely musical terms here, though in conjunction with the body we can conjoin the two concepts of music and the erotic.

Richard Leppert discusses the issue of the body in music in his book The Sight of Sound, where he notes that:

‘…the slippage between the physical activity of producing musical sound and the abstract nature of what is produced creates a semiotic contradiction that is ultimately “resolved” to a significant degree via the agency of human sight. Music, despite its phenomenological sonoric ethereality, is an embodied practice, like dance and theater. That its visual-performative aspect is no less central to its meanings than are the visual components of these other performing arts is obvious in musical theater – opera, masque, and so forth…’[25]

Roland Barthes also saw the important of the body, as Solie notes: ‘music is “ a field of signifying [significance] and not a system of signs, the referent … is the body. The body passes into music without any relay but the signifier.”’[26] Barthes particularly fetishised about the body in music, where he describes the grain of the voice, and watching performers was an erotic experience for him: ‘…the grain of the voice, which is an erotic mixture of timbre and language, and can therefore also be, along with diction, the substance of an art: the art of guiding one’s body…’[27] Though not discussing musical ‘texts’, we can perhaps see the application of what he mentions earlier in his The Pleasure of the Text, where he asks ‘does the text have human form, is it a figure, an anagram of the body? Yes, but of our erotic body. The pleasure of the text is irreducible to physiological need.’[28]

Music’s narrative capabilities are also of interest in this discussion. ‘Scholars have found [this] particular type of metaphorical mapping … to be particularly useful for understanding contemporaneous parsing of nineteenth-century musical repertories, since the topos of narrative was particularly relevant to European nineteenth-century culture.[29]’ Using this concept of the narrative, Dell-Antonio explores the ‘construction of desire in early Baroque instrumental music’; by construction he means ‘inducing the listener to map a specific trajectory within the emotional repertory associated with sensual desire onto the progression of musical events [in a work].[30]’ This confirms the idea that ‘our understanding of music does not involve the direct appreciation of inherent meaning but the process through which, both informally and via direct instruction, we learn the culturally appropriate ways to hear it.[31]’ Put simply, the ‘desire’ was encoded into the music using signifiers that have been educated to the listener. There are problems with Dell’Antonio’s analysis; it assumes that there is a consistent, reified ‘ emotional repertory’ for sensual desire that is collective enough (and not individually constructed) for it to be recognised in the music. It also assumes that composers knew such a repertory and knew how it could be narrated within a musical syntax. Such an assumption is held by Dreyfus, who also sees an established musico-erotic syntax in the 19th century that Wagner made use of which crosses ‘unambiguously into an erotic realm.[32]’ Dell’Antonio therefore, believes ‘that it is possible for music to signify – whether directly or through metaphorical mapping – something beyond its selfcontained structure.[33]

Nattiez (1990) wrote that ‘music is best able to imitate … emotion’[34], and ‘there are few who have never felt that music has stirred some intense feeling in them[35]’. Yet again, we are struck by the confusion of representation and expression; can music represent an emotion or does it express it? And to the point of this discussion, can music express erotic thoughts, sexual desire, and erotic intentions? Scruton suggests that ‘it is at first sight difficult to see how emotions can be expressed in the absence of representation. For every emotion requires an object [and]… music, can neither represent objects nor convey specific thoughts about them…’[36] So, in purely musical terms for one to be able to say that a musical work expresses erotic feelings or desire, one would need to demonstrate the object of this desire. Though Meyer shows that the object, or certainly a specific object, is not necessary: ‘if something unexpected happens, or our expectations are frustrated, we are likely to feel some sort of increase in emotional tension…this idea explains why we can have an emotional response although the stimulus – the music – does not represent or refer to anything specific.[37]’ Perhaps we can find it difficult to deride the emotional reaction one has from music, but Hanslick warned that ‘to suggest that the main aim of music is the production of such effects is thus to degrade it to the level of a mere physical stimulus …[and] …describes such a response to music as ‘pathological’ (1891: 124).[38]

Even with no object, and perhaps ultimately claiming that music does not contain emotion or feelings, we can still describe music’s affect on us; the use of metaphor enables us to share our experiences with others, whether erotic or not. Scruton concludes in his discussion of metaphors that they ‘cannot be eliminated from the description of music, because it defines the intentional object of the musical experience. Take the metaphor away, and you cease to describe the experience of music.’[39] Through this claim, we can perhaps say that music can express emotion with the intentional object created by metaphor. The use of metaphors is endless, and thus we can claim that the spectrum of acceptable metaphorical-mappings is wide; we can discuss eroticism in music from ‘the act of love-making’ to the ‘symbolisation of desire’. Scruton notes that ultimately ‘music is so dependent on metaphor’.[40]

For Kivy, ‘the meaning of pure instrumental music – music without text, program [sic], or extramusical function – depends on musical content alone. He also claims that ‘the emotions attaching to the more expressive varieties of instrumental music … are phenomenal properties relating to nothing than the music itself.[41]’ That music’s ‘emotionally expressive qualities are phenomenologically-autonomous’ means that music need not refer to anything extramusical in order for it to mean ‘something’; for our present discussion, we can conclude that an erotic element need not be referential in a musical work, and it can still express emotion. Though, this can only be effectively expressed through ‘consummately crafted’ form in Herzog’s (following Hanslick and Kivy) opinion.[42]

Any attempt to discuss an erotic element in a musical work cannot be achieved through musical terms; we adopt metaphorical-mapping to facilitate the mediation of our experiences of a musical work to others, who then are coerced into hearing the work in this way through the quality of this metaphor. Carolyn Abbate notes this ‘conditioning by verbal codes’ of musical works also, noting how it becomes ‘part of the work’[43]; she also writes, however, that ‘music analysis, criticism, and interpretation are hindered by an assumption that its goal is the invention of words to trace some immanent feature of the musical work’[44]. Attempts to remove the metaphors to approach the ‘pure music’ is difficult, as Mick McAdoo describes, claiming music continues to ‘signify’ even after the removal of any extramusical associations, such as erotic ones[45].

Before we can answer how far one can go in discussing eroticism in music in purely musical terms, it was necessary to evaluate if eroticism can actually be associated with music: perhaps this is to large an issue to evaluate successfully in an essay of this size, however, it is clear than we can discuss these associations on the microscopic and macroscopic in a musical work, and we do this via the metaphor; several writers mention a ‘musico-erotic syntax’ which would remove the metaphor as the music would be able to ‘narrate itself’ (Dreyfus, Millington). Dell’Antonio describes a similar construct in his ‘emotional repertoire’. Whether or not such concepts can be reified is another issue, however, conventions of the 19th century have the potential to hear certain combinations of musical patterns to be associated with human actions; fanfares for example, or hunting calls. My main point is that music does not contain these conventions, or emotions; they are created through the mediation of subject and object in a culturally determined way that is not ahistorical, but changes from generation to generation. So we can goes as far to eroticism in music, however recognising this point.

Categories such as Lawrence Dreyfus’s ‘erotic harmonies’ can never have anything more than a metaphorical meaning, unless one supports Deryck Cooke’s (1959) thesis. As individual harmonies, they are microscopic units that may have inner ‘tension’ (but again, only because we have been culturally-conditioned to hear this as tension) but in the larger structure of the opera, from which they have been extracted, is the tension still apparent? Returning to Herzog and Kivy’s point, that understanding would be necessary to appreciate these harmonies (and Kivy would also only appreciate them for their purely musical characteristics, while the extramusical association is of greater significance for Dreyfus). When one writes about extramusical associations, we can use metaphors to enable the transfer of our experience, however, without understanding how the metaphor maps onto the musical fabric, can another ever hear the same association? I would say it is unlikely.


[1] This definition of ‘erotic’ has been taken from the Oxford English Dictionary Online (Second Edition 1989) (Accessed 02/04/04) <;

[2] This definition of ‘erotic art’ has been taken from the Routledge Dictionary of Philosophy

[3] Scruton 1997: p. 92

[4] Nattiez 1993: p. 297

[5] Dahlhaus 1988, quoted in Grant 2001 p. 1

[6] Nattiez 1990: p. 103

[7] Scruton 1997: p. 134

[8] Nattiez 1990: p. 107

[9] Barthes 1984: p. 69

[10] Scruton 1997: p. 119

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 124

[13] Herzog (1995): 299

[14] Ibid., p. 300

[15] Ibid.

[16] Herzog 1995: p. 306

[17] Foucault 1978: p. 57 – 58

[18] McClary 1991, 2002: p. 24 – 25

[19] Robinson 1994: p. 19

[20] Nattiez 1990: p. 127

[21] British Library/Royal Holloway Distinguished Lecture Series Lecture Description

[22] Scruton 1997: p. 137

[23] Abel 1996: p. 90

[24] Abel 1996: p. 90

[25] Leppert 1993: p. xxi

[26] Solie (ed.) 1993: p. 73

[27] Barthes 1990: p. 66

[28] Barthes 1990: p. 16 – 17

[29] Borgerding (ed.) 2002 :p.200

[30] Ibid. However, Dell’Antonio confines this definition to Baroque instrumental sonatas.

[31] Ibid.

[32] British Library/Royal Holloway Distinguished Lecture Series Lecture Description

[33] Borgerding (ed.) 2002. p. 204

[34] Nattiez 1990: p. 103

[35] Martin 1995: p. 25

[36] Scruton 1997: p. 165

[37] Martin 1995: p. 49

[38] Ibid: p. 44 – 45

[39] Scruton 1997: p. 92

[40] Ibid., p. 93

[41] Herzog (1995): p. 303

[42] Ibid., p. 309

[43] Abbate 1991: p. 18

[44] Ibid.

[45] McAdoo (1992) p. 131

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