Commentary on Haunting Melody

2015/02/07 by Lassi A. Liikkanen

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Commentary on Theodor Reik's The Haunting Melody

This commentary expresses my opinion on psychoanalyst Theodor Reik's monograph The Haunting Melody. While my approach strives for neutrality and tries to summarize the parts of the book I found interesting, the gap of fifty years and one psychological paradigm is evident.

Those who seek to find out Reik's contribution to the psychoanalytic understanding of music in general are strongly encouraged to consult the original source as my treatment is cognitively biased, for I hold little belief in psychodynamic theory. However I feel that my duty is still to promote this interesting tome as it still is probably the first psychological investigation of tunes stuck in one's mind.

Theodor Reik (1888-1969) was a fairly distinguished psychoanalyst whose career started in Austria. Graduated from the University of Vienna in 1912 he had the chance to know and be taught by Sigmund Freud and Karl Abraham. As Nazi oppression began, he immigrated to New York, where he spend to rest of life and wrote the majority of his literary works (see Wikipedia's article for more details).

While The Haunting Melody is not the most acknowledged of Reik's psychoanalytic works (see Google Scholar's information), it is the first psychological inquiry into the subject of involuntary musical imagery, earworms, or musical image repetition as they can be nowadays called. Haunting melody is one of the last books written by Reik and clearly shows in the approach of the monograph. Reik writes in a charming, almost poetical way which is clearly acknowledged by himself. He is not interested in presenting or participating in scientific debate, no, he writes in an autobiographical and vivid style which introduces his personal experiences and episodes from the lifes of his great masters, Freud and Gustav Mahler. However, my interest is in his theory about haunting melodies, the book's topic that he admits to be circling around rather than going heads up.

Reik on Musical Image Repetition

To begin with the beginning (found on pages 241-243 in the book), Reik describes his unsuccessful attempts of finding a psychological explanation for the haunting melodies that reoccur in one's mind. It is said that Freud was never especially interested in music and his only relevant comment is found from Introductory lessons (although Cora L. Díaz de Chumaceiro references Freud's The Psychopathology of Everyday Life as the original source). Richard Henning (German Wundt school psychologist) is mentioned as one those who have touched the issue of contingent musical associations in their work, but who, in Reik's opinion, failed to see any connection between music and emotions. More space is devoted to Hans Schneider who seems to have taken a step further. The writer goes on to quote Schneider about musical recurrence: 'music does not do so accidentally or unbidden, it appears 'because it has been called or revived by something'' (p. 242). Schneider is also credited for considering a strategy for eradicating this phenomenon - replacing the tune with another (p. 244).

In his own theory, Reik distinguishes two types of reoccurring tunes that enter daytime thoughts without our permission. He states that there is a mundane, uninteresting type of repetition that is known to all and usually occurs because of exposure to music, after attending a concert etc. (pp. 147, 241). But there is also another kind repetition that the book owes its name to and which Reik's attention is mostly engaged with.

Reik presents several cases, mostly out of his own personal history, in which a person has been pursued by a tune for long periods of time (days, weeks, or even years). The author thinks that these musical thoughts which derive from our deepest emotional conflicts, are blocked from our conscious thought and only given an entry to our attention in the form of music that is in someway associated with these hidden problems. He writes: 'The haunting tune can be trifling and insignificant, but the emotions and problems in its emergence are always meaningful. They reflect the concealed basic demands of the drives and fears of the person and seek to convey his most important interests and drives (p. 167).' This means that there is a unmistakable difference between these two types of repetition, spelled out in the following: 'The differences between a musical association that occurs to a person in the middle of aim-directed thoughts and of a melody that pursues him can best be compared to that between a fancy or whimsical thought and an obsessive idea. … Their victim does not know and cannot tell us why this particular melody is pursuing him. He very often cannot even identify the tune (p. 166)'.

In writer's proposal, haunting melodies are equalled with obsessive thoughts that were quite extensively characterized during the time of his career. Although he starts at characterizing musical obsessions as a message from the unconscious, he goes on to argue that they can actually be beneficial to the psychoanalyst (he pays little attention to the patient) and should be considered as a new tool for psychoanalysis. Having provided several samples of how a musical association has lead his own analyses to a conclusion, he goes on to argue that 'the voice of unknown self … whatever secret message it carries, the incidental music accompanying our conscious thinking is never accidental (p. 10)' and continues 'tunes stand in the service of agents responsible for the communications between the unconscious of two minds.' So, Reik is quite confident that there is something very definite beyond each haunting melody and can thus help the analyst to gain insight into his patients' mental problems as it is asserted that the haunting melody will persist as long as the internal conflict remains (pp. 298-300).

I remain quite unconvinced about Reik's theory of haunting melody. While some of those cases indeed show signs that haunting, as it is elaborately described, really exists, many of his examples can be explained in a much straightforward way be relying on simple associations alone. It must be kept in mind that he openly announces that he is not interested in making a scientific argument (normal procedure amoung psychoanalysts) and while he awakens thoughts, he does not go very far proving his claims. One of the obvious reasons is that his most central evidence is constrained to himself or to his few fellow psychoanalysts. Although it could be claimed that a special capability for introspection is needed to see connections between haunting tunes and blocked unconscious thoughts, it is as likely that the complex interpretation the writer finds for his melodies are absurd to anyone else but a trained psychoanalyst.

Music and emotions

Equating music as a channel for handling and experiencing emotions is central to Reik's view of human psyche. He writes that 'music has not the same definetess of content [as a visual form] … a passage from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony does not restrict listener to one definite, distinct and special emotion.' This note about the psychology of musical associations is important because it means that Reik admits that the strong emotions conveyed by music can be contingent (not determined by the music). This is even though he gives long talks on the specific (or even fixed) emotional characteristics of certain musical pieces. He refrains himself from going any further than major and minor on musical terms as he on several occasions regrets that he is no expert in musicology, so in this regard, his treatment of music and emotion is a shallow one.

In general, Reik's conceptions of music seem outdated. Reik was obviously raised in a high class Viennese family where he had the opportunity to attend to live music, opera, and theatre from the first years of his life. While he sometimes mentions musical recordings, music for him means concerts and staffs, something very different from the popular music that emerged only few years after his book was published. World has changed also in the sense that for most people, there are no opera style manuscripts that entangle their plot around a musical score, which provided a big source inspiration for Reik's long stories of how different acts of a particular play are connected to a haunting melody. What a reality was for Reik and his contemporaries about the certain 'semantics of music', is much less for our contemporary 'love me do' listeners who have more superficial attitude towards music and may treat it more as a consumable than a masterpiece of art. Reik himself puts a disclaimer for his theory by offering a second hand quote from Voltaire: 'What is too stupid to be said is sung' (although falsely attributed to Nietzsche in p. 213).

While I can criticize Reik's conception of musical meaning, his ideas reserve some merit. From the perspective of modern musical cognition research, it is certainly appreciated that music can be associated to many attributes of our mind. The author points out that while Freud only saw musical obsessions associated with lyrics and their straightforward meaning, music has the power to evoke emotions which can themselves become the objects of musical obsessions. To complement the view advocated by Reik, there appears to be at least three levels or hooks the musical repetition can be triggered by: contingent associations (contextual factors), linguistic surface and deep level (what song says vs. what it means), and the emotional landscape.

I find Reik's discussion about music and emotions tempting, if not prima facie acceptable. I am inclined to agree with him in the lines 'melody… expresses something else, more than words can say (p. 248).' So it seems that music speaks for emotions, for the emotions we can and cannot express: 'in the relieving process of singing the tune emotions… are much more discharged.' This claim appeals to me and I think there already exists empirical evidence in support of this hypothesis. In conclusion, I think that the discussion about emotions as a source association in musical image repetition is the most important contribution of the monograph.

Bibliographic information

Reik , Theodor (1953)The Haunting Melody: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Music Da Capo Press Music Reprint Series 1983 reprint. Originally by Farrar, Straus And Yound, New York.

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Lassi A. Liikkanen (2004) Neural substrates of musical experience. Univ. of Helsinki, Dpt. of Psychology, 2014/10/20

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Keywords: [psychology] , [music] Document's status: Ok (Document dates explained)

This document created: 2007/04/23
Modified: 2015/02/07
Published: 2007/05/17


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