Four instances of the sublime in music

Possibly more than any other form of art, it is music that lends itself most often and most effectively to feelings of the sublime. This is perhaps because music, unlike visual art, and certainly unlike literature, is abstract in its very essence. If we accept the definition of ‘abstract’ as that which is ‘characterised by a lack of or freedom from representational qualities’[1] we can deduce that, despite one’s best efforts, it is potentially futile to ascribe a pure and absolute meaning to a piece of music, as no degree of description or representation can be attributed to the music without remaining external to the very music itself: no description can transcend the effect and essence of the music itself. As Nietzsche suggests in The Birth of Tragedy, ‘By no means is it possible for language adequately to render the cosmic symbolism of music,’[2] as it ‘symbolises a sphere which is above all appearance and before all phenomena…Language, as the organ and symbol of phenomena, cannot at all disclose the innermost essence of music.’[3] Therefore, language is an impotent tool in providing a full understanding of music, and so the meaning of a musical work must lie within the musical work itself, separate and free from a fully linguistic and logical comprehension.

In his 1854 work ‘The Beautiful in Music’, Eduard Hanslick states that:

‘The beautiful [in music] is not contingent upon nor in need of any subject introduced from without, but that it consists wholly of sounds artistically combined…In music there is both meaning and logical sequence, but in a musical sense; it is a language we speak and understand, but which we are unable to translate.'[4]

Hanslick is suggesting here that, as David Cooper explains, ‘The value of music as an art, or the value of any piece of music as music, is independent of its relation to anything extra-musical,’[5] and that ‘Instrumental music has no subject-matter extraneous to its combinations of musical sounds, and its artistic value is determined only by the intrinsic beauty of the audible forms that compose it.’[6] So if we cannot utilise external language to ascribe a meaning towards music, music exists entirely within itself, defined by its own terms, and remains for the listener perpetually beyond adequate description. So by extension a positive understanding of a musical work, then, remains forever intangible, and it is this intangibility that allows music to give the listener a feeling of the sublime.

The four primary works included here are representative of the varying ways that music is able to convey feelings of the sublime. Despite coming from widely different time periods, all of these works, through widely differing means of cause and effect, are able to instil in the listener a feeling of the sublime through a process of making them aware of, as Kant says in his Critique of Judgement, the ‘inadequacy of imagination’[7] when attempting to comprehend and identify the meaning of a work of art.

Claude Debussy – La Mer (1905)

‘This music which takes us beyond what exists’[8]

We can see in the work of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) the capacity to present the listener with feelings of the sublime through the way in which the meaning and emotions being presented in the music are obscured and distorted to the point of intangibility. Debussy achieves this in his work through the extensive use of the whole-tone scale, described by Alex Ross in The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century as having ‘the interesting property of being “clear” and “unclear” in equal measure,’[9] causing the music to push ‘the threshold of so-called atonality’[10] The use of the whole-tone scale allows Debussy to never rest on major or minor chords, causing a great degree of unfamiliarity and uneasiness in the listener. However, the fact that Debussy is careful not to fully commit to an absolute atonality in his work ensures that the listener is not completely distanced from the music being presented. This balance between the tonal and the atonal, the tangible and the intangible, generates a music that is not too dissonant and abstract to the extent that there is no resonance and suggestion of meaning within the mind of the listener, and yet refuses a reliance on tonal familiarity, leading to any ‘meaning’ or emotion being hinted at yet never fully revealed. It is this awareness yet not comprehension of emotion and meaning in his music that Debussy allows the listener to garner a sense of the sublime.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the 1905 orchestral composition La Mer; a work that prominently employs the whole-tone scale to create unfamiliar harmonies, combined with a richness of instrumentation that had never before been heard, described by Keith Anderson as conveying ‘subtly nuanced evocations of the sea from dawn to midday, of the waves and of the dialogue of wind and sea.’[11] However, despite these vivid evocations and impressions of the sea they must remain but that: an impression. This vague impression of the sea is implanted in the imagination of the listener, where it is to blossom and gain its implicated meaning. Nothing of this meaning or emotional effect is inherent within the music itself, so instead the listener must attempt to identify and assimilate into their imagination a concept that remains forever intangible, beyond the possibility of a full and satisfactory understanding. It is this process of assimilating an abstraction into a literal mental image, and more specifically the struggle and ultimate failure of this process, that renders a work such as this sublime.

The music of La Mer then is evocative of a mood, meaning or message, rather than instructive of one. As Vladimir Jankélévitch suggests in the preface to Stefan Jarocinski’s Debussy: Impressionism and Symbolism, ‘What characterises the music of Debussy is not its descriptive function, but its suggestion of hidden energy’[12] So the key to understanding this work then must lie in this ‘hidden energy,’[13] with the fragmented manner of presentation hinting at something that can never be fully revealed. Debussy’s insistence on his music not resorting to a ‘descriptive function’[14], eschewing narrative for a more meditative, allusory approach, ensures that any meaning or feeling to be derived from the work is somewhat permanently obscured or separated from the listener. It is through this obscurity that La Mer is most effective in evoking a feeling of the sublime, as it serves the purpose of showing the reader that there is something deeper to be found in this somewhat incomprehensible music, yet refuses to divulge a clear and conclusive answer to what can be found, thus making one aware of something that is absolutely beyond their reach, resulting in a feeling of the sublime.

This concept of obscurity is discussed in detail in Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry, where he states that ‘I think there are reasons in nature why the obscure idea…should be more affecting than the clear. It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions.’[15] It is also interesting to note that Burke also suggests that music is somewhat inherently predisposed to effectively conveying a feeling of obscurity and intangibility due to its inability to communicate in a full and clear way, when suggesting that:

‘The proper manner of conveying the affections of the mind from one to another, is by words; there is a great insufficiency in all other methods of communication; and so far is a clearness of imagery from being absolutely necessary to an influence of the passions, that they may be considerably operated on without presenting any image at all…of which we have sufficient proof in the acknowledged and powerful effects of instrumental music.'[16]

This suggestion that meaning in music is inherently intangible, combined with Debussy’s further efforts to distort and obscure, ensures that the La Mer is always somewhat beyond the logical comprehension of the listener, surely rendering it to be one of the most sublime works of all art forms.  

John Cage – 4’33” (1952)

‘There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time…try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.’[17]

Of all works discussed here, it is John Cage’s four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence that takes this previously discussed method of obscurity and intangibility to its purist and most literal possibility. First performed by pianist David Tudor in August of 1952, the piece consists of three movements, where the only instruction on the score for all movements and all instruments is simply ‘Tacet’[18], meaning to remain silent.

With this composition we do not have the brief glimpses of clarity such as we have with Debussy’s La Mer; instead the listener has absolutely nothing to suggest how the piece should make them feel or how it should be responded to. Free of a suggested reaction from within the music itself, the listener is free to contemplate whatever they wish: 4’33” allows the most subjective response to music that is possible. It is this enablement of total subjectivity that allows this work to become sublime, as the listener, if they wish to gain anything from listening, is forced to search for an unknown quality beyond what the music itself can give. In this sense then, the catalyst for any sublime feeling must lie within the mind of the listener, reflective of Immanuel Kant’s suggestion in his Critique of Judgement that ‘true sublimity must be sought in the mind of the judging subject, and not in the Object of nature that occasions this attitude by the estimate formed of it.’[19]

This concept manifests itself in 4’33” through the way in which the listener is faced with a distinct lack of mental stimulus from what it is faced with. Therefore no adequate response, much less a feeling of the sublime, can come from the music itself, as the piece is of no consequence in and of itself. As Deborah Ann Campana explains in Form and Structure in the Music of John Cage, ‘in 4’33” no activities are provided…and the members of the audience are able to formulate their own interpretation of the event based upon individual experience.’[20] Thus despite this silence, this apparent absence of content, we are still listening, still trying to connect with what the music may be trying to convey. With this piece Cage creates a void that will not and cannot be filled by the music itself, and thus the listener’s desire for art to provide an autonomous answer or mental vision cannot be reconciled. So the sublime nature of Cage’s work lies in the suggestion that it is perhaps not sublime at all; its distinct lack of sublimity, or of any content whatsoever, ensures that it is not the art object that is raised to the state of the sublime, but the recipient of the work. Faced with nothing, the ‘music’ must be created by the listener, rather than it being conveyed by the work, thus the listener is empowered in their relationship with sublime thought, instead of an art work acting as a mediator between the mind and the sublime. Therefore rather than being somewhat vaguely aware of the infinite, the unknowable, the listener is given the ability to create and control their perception of these concepts. This music devoid of music ensures that the listener is free of the trappings of preconceived notions of what music should be and how it can effect people’s emotions. One may be moved to a heightened emotional state by a beautiful piece of music, but it is problematic for this music to convey a transcendent state of sublimity when it exudes a certain staleness that is so symptomatic of the tradition it is inextricably anchored to; yet force somebody to listen to nothing and the reaction is autonomous, unique and truly sublime. As Barnett Newman states in his essay ‘The Sublime is Now’, art of this degree of abstraction ensures that ‘we are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth…Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.’[21] Thus the raising of the subject rather than the object to the state of the sublime is key to 4’33” effectiveness, the combination of empowering the listener with their own creative response to the work and an internal feeling of the sublime in a manner far more effective than that of the allusion or suggestion of a conventional piece of music.

Krzysztof Penderecki – Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)

‘It only existed in my imagination, in a somewhat abstract way.’[22]

This orchestral work by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-) provides an interesting contrast to Cage’s 4’33” in that despite taking completely opposite approaches, both works ultimately achieve the same effect. Whereas Cage deals in pure silence to confront the listener with a sense of the sublime, here Penderecki presents us with absolute, dissonant, sound. Rather than being confronted with silence and expecting to find meaning, here the listener is given a mass of familiar sounds and instruments and yet due to its unconventional presentation deciphers nothing of this familiarity. The piece, typically lasting under 10 minutes, consists of a mass of string instruments played in a manner for which they are not suited: violins are bowed beyond the fretboard, struck in a percussive manner, producing sounds vastly different to those which one would expect to hear from a traditional, conventional string orchestra. As Lidia Rappoport-Gelfand illustrates in Musical Life in Poland: The Postwar Years 1945-1977, in this work ‘The means of expression…border on the non-musical. Such are the high-pitch sounds in the strings that begin the composition. They are not notated, for they are beyond the strings’ ordinary range.’[23] It is this mix of tangible elements and near-total abstract dissonance that renders this work sublime, as the listener is unable to comprehend what is being heard, despite an expectation to the contrary.

This work is sublime then in the sense that the listener is overcome with this lack of ability to comprehend what they are being faced with, despite being somewhat familiar with the subject matter. This thought is compliant with Kant’s suggestion that when attempting to comprehend something beyond understanding ‘the mind abandons itself to the imagination…and it feels itself elevated in its own estimate of itself on finding all the might of imagination still unequal to its ideas.’[24] However, for this effect to occur, a work must be somewhat grounded in the tangible in order to create this illusion of comprehensibility, yet still abstract enough for a feeling of impalpability, and by extension a feeling of the sublime, to occur; it is the display of this careful balance that ensures Penderecki’s work effectively conveys a sense of the sublime. Penderecki achieves this through his reconstitution of the conventional orchestra into a situation where it has been deconstructed and reassembled to such a degree that it barely resembles its original incarnation. As previously mentioned it is essential that the listener has something tangible to glean from the work, in this case it is the chosen instrumentation. The piece would not be nearly as successful if, for example, the piece was composed for electronic instruments, which would set the piece to far into the realm of an aesthetic ‘otherness’, increasing its abstraction and denying the listener the tangible link to reality so essential in allowing the genesis of sublime thought. With the use of the string section, Penderecki is able to force upon the listener the burden of tradition and convention associated with such an instrumental choice. Contrary to Newman’s previously mentioned theory that such ideals are a hindrance to creating a sense of the sublime, Penderecki here is able to exploit the breaking of convention to establish a conflict, confusion and intangibility. It is this defiance of preconceptions and expectations to create a conflict that instigates a feeling of the sublime in the mind of the listener.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000)

‘Just a tentative stagger towards the pale and holy fading light.’[25]

Though perhaps not as seminal a work as others discussed here, the vast scope and range of sounds on display here allows us to discuss the sublime qualities of several musical genres and methods of composition at once. We shall examine in depth here the sublime elements of sound collage and minimalism, for instance, that can be found in this album.

Firstly, however, it is worth addressing the nature of this work in a vacuum, disregarding momentarily the influences that can be found within this work. In a similar manner to Penderecki’s Threnody, we are presented here with familiar elements in an unfamiliar context. The Montreal-based Godspeed You! Black Emperor fall firmly into the post-rock subgenre, a style described by Simon Reynolds as:

‘bands that use guitars but in nonrock ways, as timbre and texture rather than riff and powerchord…post-rock first erodes, then obliterates the song and the voice. By extension, it also parts with such notions as the singer as storyteller and the song as narrative, source of life-wisdom, or site of social resonance.'[26]

Once again we begin to see how conventions are eschewed in favour of a recontextualisation.  We hear a music vaguely reminiscent of the rock music we have heard before, but the way in which it is presented ensures that we cannot connect these points of reference to anything we have heard before, meaning that the music exists in a state independent from real-life connections, and so the listener is forced to comprehend a music that exists beyond comprehensibility. As Piero Scaruffi says of the music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor in A History of Rock Music: 1951-2000, ‘they were not melodic fantasies…they were not jams…and they were not symphonies…but they were something in between. Emotions were hard to find inside the shapeless jelly, dark textures and sudden mood swings.’[27] It is through this process of obscuring reference points and intentionally distancing the listener from understanding this record that a feeling of the sublime is conveyed.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor further increases this obscurity and disorientation through a frequent and eclectic use of sound collage throughout the record in a manner reminiscent of the ‘Musique Concrète’ of the mid-20th Century. The blending of frantic evangelists, answering machine messages, radio static, public address systems and so forth serves to create a confused clutter of references to create a music of truly cinematic scope. This approach manages to take earthly, tangible elements of popular culture and everyday conversation, isolating them from their conceivable reference points and presents them as something thoroughly alien and incomprehensible. It is this paradox of presenting familiar sounds as something abstract and beyond tangibility that allows this work to convey the sublime.

Another way in which this record conveys a sense of the sublime is through the prominent use of repetition to create a sense of inertia and a lack of narrative drive. Stylistically indebted to the Minimalism of the likes of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, the constant repetition throughout the work ensures that, rather than developing the music in a way that suggests a linear narrative, the music is able to exist without the burden of creating allusions, but merely exists autonomously. As Wim Mertens suggests in ‘Basic Concepts of Minimal Music’:

‘Traditional dialectical music is representational: the musical form relates to an expressive content and is a means of creating a growing tension…But repetitive music is not built around such an “argument”; the work is non-representational and is no longer a medium for the expression of subjective feelings.'[28]

With this in mind then, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven creates a sense of the sublime through the way in which it manages to be free of any internal narrative due to its lack of explicit exposition and development, yet the technique of interspersing sound collage and fragments of dialogue with this instrumental repetition ensures that there is at least a suggestion of a meaningful narrative that can be discerned from the work. Thus a dilemma is created in the mind of the listener: whereas in Penderecki’s Threnody we are presented with the suggestion of meaning and yet are unable to find one, here we are presented with a strong implication of meaninglessness, and yet we are unable to completely accept this. It is this fine balance between meaning and meaninglessness that enables this work to create a sense of the sublime.

From these four works presented here, we have seen just a small selection of how effective music can be in conveying a sense of the sublime. From the great variety in the methods and impacts of this conveyance on display here despite the rather limited number of works mentioned, it is clear that music is extremely well predisposed to create a sense of sublimity. Perhaps because, as David Cooper suggests, ‘music…does not give one any conceptual grounds for assuming…an identity,’[29] and is thus perhaps the most effective form of art in creating a sense of abstraction, and by extension the sublime. This inherent abstraction, combined with the effectiveness of great works such as those described here, ensures that music of this manner is truly sublime indeed.

[1] OED Online , <>&nbsp; [accessed 24 December 2009]

[2] Friederich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, or Hellenism and Pessimism, ed. by Dr Oscar Levy, trans. by WM. A Haussmann (Edinburgh: The Edinburgh Press, 1909), p.55

[3] Ibid.

[4] Eduard Hanslick, ‘On the Beautiful in Music’ in  Art in Theory 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison, Paul Wood and Jason Gaiger (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), pp.479-483, p. 481-2

[5] David Cooper (editor), A Companion to Aesthetics (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 1992), p.178

[6] Ibid.

[7] Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgement, ed. by Paul Guyer, trans. by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.141

[8] Stefan Jarocinski, Debussy: Impressionism and Symbolism, trans. by Rollo Myers (London: Ernst Eulenburg Ltd, 1976), p.x

[9] Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (London: Fourth Estate Ltd., 2008), p.42

[10] Ibid., p.41

[11] Keith Anderson, album notes to Claude Debussy, Orchestral Works 1 (Naxos, 8.570759, 2008)

[12] Vladimir Jankélévitch, preface to Stefan Jarocinski, Debussy: Impressionism and Symbolism, trans. by Rollo Myers (London: Ernst Eulenburg Ltd, 1976)

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.57

[16] Ibid. p.56

[17] John Cage, ‘The Future of Music: Credo’ in Silence, Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), p.8

[18] John Cage, score of 4’33” (London: Peters Edition, 1960)

[19] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p.86

[20] Deborah Ann Campana, Form and Structure in the Music of John Cage (Illinois: Northwestern Univeristy, 1985), p.102

[21] Barnett Newman, ‘The Sublime is Now’ in Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, 2nd edition, ed. by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2003), pp.580-2, p. 582

[22] Jan Rybicki and Richard Whitehouse, Liner notes to Krzysztof Penderecki, Symphony No.3/ Threnody, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond. by Anthoni Wit (Naxos, 8.554491, 1999)

[23] Lidia Rappoport-Gelfand, Musical Life in Poland: The Postwar Years 19451977 (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1991), p.73

[24] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, p.86-7

[25] Liner notes to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (Kranky, KRANK043, 2000)

[26] Simon Reynolds, ‘Post-Rock’ in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, ed. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (New York: Continuum, 2004), pp.358-61, p.358

[27] Piero Scaruffi, A History of Rock Music: 1951-200 (Lincoln: iUniverse Inc., 2003), p.501

[28] Wim Mertens, ‘Basic Concepts of Minimal Music’ in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, ed. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (New York: Continuum, 2004), pp.307-12, p.309

[29] David Cooper (editor), A Companion to Aesthetics, p.36