19. Catharsis: The Listener’s Reward

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper catharsis [katharein] of these emotions. By ‘language embellished,’ I mean language into which rhythm, harmony and song enter. By ‘the several kinds in separate parts,’ I mean, that some parts are rendered through the medium of verse alone, others again with the aid of song.


The above paragraph by Aristotle, found in his Poetics, is one of the most famous paragraphs in art history. [Poetics, 1449, b.24] His fundamental purpose was to define for the playwright the elements necessary to create the highest form of drama, Tragedy, as opposed to Epic productions which had more of an entertainment character. In reading of the elements which make up Tragedy the modern reader is probably most surprised by the frequent mention of music as performing a fundamental role, for in the modern productions of these famous ancient Greek plays there is no music at all.

In addition to having in mind the obvious constituent parts of Tragedy, such as plot, character, language, etc., Aristotle famously goes one step beyond the play itself to consider what it meant to the audience. What is the audience left with when the performance of the play is finished? It is for this part of his distinction between Tragedy and Epic productions that he uses the word catharsis. In doing so he creates a new branch of philosophy, with catharsis becoming the cornerstone for drama criticism of the following three thousand years in determining the essential distinction between tragedy and comedy. In the study of the aesthetics of music, following the lead of drama criticism very closely, the result of catharsis in the listener is the fundamental distinction between art music, or aesthetic music, and entertainment music.

What did Aristotle mean by this word, catharsis [katharein]? First, as the reader can see in the famous paragraph above, it is the result of ‘pity and fear’ in the audience member. A better modern translation of these two terms might be ‘empathy and introspection.’ It is clear that when Aristotle uses the word, ‘pity,’ he means ‘empathy,’ as we can see in a passage from his treatise on rhetoric:

Pity may be defined as a feeling of pain caused by the sight of some evil, destructive or painful, which befalls one who does not deserve it, and which we might expect to befall ourselves or some friend of ours, and moreover to befall us soon.

As an illustration, the observer sees on the stage a character who is contemplating incest, the observer realizes he holds some similar thoughts, he sees the gods punish the character on the stage and with introspection he concludes ‘that could happen to me.’ As a result his bad thoughts are purged, he feels better as a person as a result. He has experienced catharsis. In fact, if one looks in a dictionary for the definition of catharsis one finds ‘purging of the emotions,’ in the sense of replacing one bad emotion with a good or better one. Thus, one can understand that in the field of drama criticism, most later philosophers, such as Corneille, Racine and Lessing, understood Aristotle to mean by catharsis, in the case of the tragedy, that the play had an ethical or moral end.

It seems apparent, by the way, that this experience, if not the name “catharsis,” had earlier roots in the cult-religious myths of ancient Greece. Plato, for example, had earlier described something of this sort relative to ritual dance.

The emotion both of the Bacchantes and of the children is an emotion of fear, which springs out of an evil habit of the soul. And when someone applies external agitation to emotions of this sort, the motion coming from without gets the better of the terrible and violent internal one, and produces a peace and calm in the soul, and quiets the restless palpitation of the heart, which is a thing much to be desired, sending the children to sleep, and making the Bacchantes, although they remain awake, to dance to the pipe with the help of those gods to whom they offer acceptable sacrifices, and producing in them a sound mind, which takes the place of their frenzy.

“Laws,” 791

With regard to the new field of Aesthetics which was founded on Aristotle’s famous paragraph above, and the focus of later drama criticism, perhaps a more modern analogy with going to the cinema will demonstrate the application of the word catharsis. One goes to the cinema with friends and during the film we are totally involved, we laugh, we cry. But as soon as the film ends, on the way out of the theater, we immediately begin talking with our friends about other things, school, boy/girl friends and jobs, etc. On another occasion we go with friends to the cinema and when the film ends no one says a word, sometimes for a long time. We wish we could just sit there and that they would not turn on the lights. In the first example we were entertained. We were totally involved, but unaffected. In the second example the film reached us on a deeper level. It did not just “bounce off.” The observer experienced catharsis.

Aristotle’s philosophical idea of catharsis, of purging the emotions and replacing them with good ones, takes on real significance for the modern reader when he discusses this idea in an earlier treatise, Politics, for now the subject is music. Here he extends the value of this experience in music by considering it in two new areas: music for education and music for leisure time.

For music education Aristotle makes a specification which is followed by all later philosophers: only by using the best music does the process of catharsis result in a valuable end. Since the object is for the student to model the best of what is available, “we must use those that express the best character, but we may use melodies of action and enthusiastic melodies for concerts where other people perform.” Next, Aristotle establishes an important principle, one that Wagner would later write about in discussing how music, when it leaves the stage, affects the numerous individual members of the audience. The belief of both Aristotle and Wagner is that the general nature of an emotion (Wagner calls it the quintessence of an emotion) is shared by all listeners, but each individual listener, based on his own past experience, will understand that emotion on an individual level. Aristotle describes the educational end of this emotional catharsis when the student listener is brought back “to a normal condition as if they had been medically treated and undergone a purge.” Aristotle’s text from the Politics, reads,

We say, however, that music is to be studied for the sake of many benefits and not of one only. It is to be studied with a view to education, with a view to a catharsis — we use this term without explanation for the present; when we come to speak of poetry, we shall give a clearer account of it — and thirdly with a view to the right use of leisure and for relaxation and rest after exertion. It is clear, then, that we must use all the modes, but not all in the same way. For educational purposes we must use those that express the best character, but we may use melodies of action and enthusiastic melodies for concerts where other people perform. For every feeling that affects some souls violently affects all souls more or less; the difference is only one of degree. Take pity and fear, for example, or again enthusiasm. Some people are liable to become possessed by the latter emotion, but we see that, when they have made use of the melodies which fill the soul with orgiastic feeling, they are brought back by these sacred melodies to a normal condition as if they had been medically treated and undergone a purge catharsis, [katharein]. Those who are subject to the emotions of pity and fear and the feelings generally will necessarily be affected in the same way; and so will other men in exact proportion to their susceptibility to such emotions. All experience a certain purge [katharein] and pleasant relief. In the same manner cathartic melodies give innocent joy to men.

Politics, VIII, 1341b35-134228, trans., by Burnet

Although the early Christian Church attempted to discourage the new Christians from attending the theater as part of its campaign to remove emotions from their daily life and the Church’s efforts to destroy Pagan literature, including Plato, Aristotle and the rest of the “pagan” philosophers, nevertheless theater itself continued as did the teachings of Aristotle regarding Tragedy. We will trace some of the later discussions and definitions of catharsis in order for the reader to see some of the permutations and additions to Aristotle’s new philosophy of aesthetics.

St. Augustine, who in his youth had some acting experience, as a later Churchman paints his understanding of catharsis with the brush of the Church’s view of the theater as a sinful place.

Stage plays also carried me away, full of images of my miseries, and of fuel to my fire. Why is it, that man desires to be made sad, beholding doleful and tragical things, which yet himself would by no means suffer? Yet he desires as a spectator to feel sorrow at them, and this very sorrow is his pleasure. What is this but a miserable madness? For a man is the more affected with these actions, the less free he is from such emotions. Howsoever, when he suffers in his own person, it is styled misery; when he compassionates others, then it is mercy. But what sort of compassion is this for feigned and scenically passions? For the auditor is not called on to relieve, but only to grieve: and he applauds the actor of these fictions the more, the more he grieves. And if the calamities of those persons (whether of old times, or mere fiction) be acted in such a way, that the spectator is not moved to tears, he goes away disgusted and criticizing; but if he be moved to passions, he stays intent, and weeps for joy … I, miserable, then loved to grieve, and sought out what to grieve at, when in another’s and that feigned and personated misery, that acting best pleased me, and attracted me the most vehemently, which drew tears from me.

Confessions, III

Eustache Deschamps, student of the great fourteenth-century French poet and musician, Machaut, speaks of the importance of hearing music renewing the spirit in terms of the poor tired scholar!

Music is the final, and the medicinal science of the seven [liberal] arts; for when the heart and spirit of those applied to the other arts … are wearied and vexed with their labors, Music, by the sweetness of her science and the melodiousness of her voice, sings them her delectable and pleasant melodies with her six notes in thirds, fifths, and octaves. These she performs sometimes with organs and chalumeaux [shawms] by blowing with the mouth and touching with the fingers; otherwise with the harpe, rebebe, vielle, doucaine, with the noise of tabours, with fleuthes, and other musical instruments, so much so that by her delectable melody the hearts and minds of those who were fatigued, weighed down, and troubled with the said arts by thought, imagination or labor are revived and restored.

“L’Art de Dictier,” in “Early Music.” 5, Nr. 4, 488ff

A similar passage is found in fifteenth-century France by Jean de Gerson. This reference is unique in its interesting and curious reference to bells [campanulae] used in melodies, in particular as heard “arranged in certain clocks.”

By these our inner dispositions of mind may be improved and stimulated, for it has been proved that he whose mind is agitated, weakened or tardy rejoices wholly in himself when this celebrated sound is made … This is the profusion of inestimable joy.

“Tractatus de Canticis,” trans., Page, in “Early Music” 6, Nr. 3, 348

The most important Renaissance writer to write of catharsis was the great theorist, Johannes Tinctoris (1435–1511). In writing of the composers he most respected (Dufay, Dunstable and Okeghem, etc.) he describes himself after hearing their music as being “more refreshed and wiser.” [The Art of Counterpoint, trans., Seay, American Institute of Musicology 1961, 14ff] This new phrase, “to be refreshed,” is one that will be used frequently to describe catharsis during the German Baroque. As for becoming “wiser,” we trust Tinctoris was thinking of the introspection aspect of Aristotle’s definition of catharsis. In this same passage Tinctoris lists additional affects which music can have on the listener: music delights God, it excites the soul to piety, it elevates the mind, it makes work easier and it increases convivial pleasures. [original in Reese, “Music in the Renaissance,” 146]

During the Renaissance several Italian writers speak of catharsis and they all focus on the “purge” character of its definition. Torquato Tasso, for example, uses the expression, “drawing the mind out of itself,” as a synonym of “purge.” He is writing of the old Greek modes and, like Aristotle, he finds the very ones which accomplish this end in the theater and in the church are the very ones considered too powerful for use in the education of children.

The Phrygian and Lydian modes, and the one formed by combining them [Mixolydian] are much more desirable in tragedy and the canzone as in these they can move the mind and, so to speak, draw it out of itself. But they are not suitable for instruction … Since music was invented not merely to entertain idleness or as a medicine and catharsis for the mind but for instruction as well … a solemn and steady music like the Doric [Dorian] will serve the heroic poem better than any other.

“Discourses on the Heroic Poem,” trans. Cavalchini, Clarendon Press, 199

An important Italian writer on the Renaissance theater was Antonio Sebastiano, known as Minturno, Bishop of Ugento, who had represented that town in the council of Trent. In his The Art of Poetry (1563) he first paraphrases the part of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy which deals with catharsis. In Minturno’s words, Tragedy arouses, “feelings of pity and terror,” tending to purge the mind of the beholder of similar passions, to his delight and profit.” [Quoted in Reese, 58] Later he emphasizes the educational purpose of drama, saying that “the ennobling or purification of manners is the end toward which all effort is directed.”

Minturno returns to catharsis, giving one of the most extended definitions to be found in early Italian literature and offers an analogy with art of the physician. The terror and pity which the observer experiences in tragedy, he contends,

frees us most pleasantly from similar passions, for nothing else so curbs the indomitable frenzy of our minds. No one is so completely the victim of unbridled appetites that, being moved by fear and pity at the unhappiness of others, he is not impelled to throw off the habits that have been the cause of such unhappiness. And the memory of the grave misfortunes of others not only renders us more ready and willing to support our own; it makes us more wary in avoiding similar ills. The physician who with a powerful drug extinguishes the poisonous spark of the malady that afflicts the body, is no more powerful than the tragic poet who purges the mind of its troubles through the emotions aroused by his charming verses.

Ibid, 58ff

The prolific Italian writer, Girolamo Cardano (1501–1576) gives the phrase, ‘cleansing of the spirit,’ as a synonym of ‘purge’ in his definition of the parts of music. His reference to education and teachers imply that some catharsis related activities were in use.

Music’s usefulness is divided into three parts, for it pertains to instruction and study, or to the cleansing of the spirit, or to spending time pleasurably in leisure, tranquility, and freedom from the pressure of more serious matters. It is often said that emotions in music reflect weakened and enervated morals, but I believe such emotions consist of gentle virtues, and correspond to those more appropriate to action and also to those most divine virtues suitable for intellectual endeavor. Accordingly music celebrates those moral virtues which are especially appropriate to that useful quality which pertains to learning. Teachers and disciplinarians have agreed on the expiative and purgative force of strong emotions. When these emotions subside, they may become excessively reversed and softened by giving way especially to emotions of misery and pity, causing dejection and depression. Music also proposes to fill such moods with a certain innocuous pleasure.

Miller, “Hieronymus Cardanaus,” American Institute of Musicology, 1973, 105

Finally among the Italians, there was the very conservative counter-Reformation Church philosopher, Giordano Bruno (b. 1548), who, while he reads very conservative today, the Church considered him too liberal and burned him at the stake! He left an allegorical reference to catharsis and extended its range to include arithmetic and geography.

Jove ordered his first-born, Minerva, to hand him the box he kept under the pillow on his bed, after which he drew forth nine boxes containing nine collyria, prescribed to purge the human mind in respect both to its knowledge and to its disposition. And to begin with he gave three of them to the first three Muses, [Arithmetic, Geometry and Music], saying to them: Here for you is the best unguent with which you will be able to purge and make clear your perceptive virtue as regards the number, the size and the harmonious proportion of sensible things.

“The Expulsion of the Triumphant beast,” trans., Imerti II, iii, 181ff

We find only two references to catharsis by Renaissance Spanish writers. First, the great drama theorist, Ludovico Castelvetro, in his Poetics of 1570, after observing that “tragedy can have either a happy or a sorrowful ending, as can comedy,” then qualifies this statement by pointing out that catharsis can occur only with a sad ending,

Tragedy without a sad ending cannot excite and does not excite, as experience shows, either pity or fear.

The great Spanish playwright, Miquel de Cervantes (1547–1616), has a character in his The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda make a reference to a characteristic of catharsis, that one can have a satisfying feeling even though the story is sad.

If this weren’t more a time to be moaning than singing, I’d easily prove the truth of this to you. But if things improve and my tears have a chance to dry, I’ll sing, and while they may not be happy songs, at least they can be sad dirges that will cast their spell as they’re sung and make you happy as you cry over them.

III, iv

The greatest playwright of the sixteenth century, Shakespeare, like Eustache Deschamps, wrote of music refreshing the mind of the student. In The Taming of the Shrew, when Lucentio, in criticizing a pretended music teacher, observes,

Preposterous ass, that never read so far
To know the cause why music was ordained!
Was it not to refresh the mind of man
After his studies or his usual pain?

III, I, 9ff

Finally, there is one Renaissance reference to catharsis which we really like. It is found in the music treatise, Musica (1537), by the German theorist Nicholaus Listenius, who was a student at Wittenberg when Luther was there. In this work he first defines music in the two familiar academic categories, the theoretical and practical (performance). The listener, he says, should be left with ‘something more,’ than the performance itself.

Practical, whose goal is doing, is that which delights not only in the intricacies of skill, but extends into performance itself, leaving out no part of the act of performance. Hence the practical musician, who teaches others something more than the recognition of art, trains himself in it for the goal of any performance.

He employs this phrase again in a passage where he adds a third part to the medieval definition of music. In addition to the theoretical and the practical, he now adds what he calls the “poetic.” By this he is thinking of the meaning left with the listener when the performance is concluded. This he calls “total performance.” It is most important and enlightening that he also observed in passing that the practical and the poetic always include the theoretical, “but the reverse is not true.” When he says here that the total performance “leaves something more” after the conclusion of the performance, he is speaking of catharsis exactly in the sense of our cinema analogy above.

Poetic is that which is not content with just the understanding of the thing nor with only its practice, but which leaves something more after the labor of performance, as when music or a song of musicians is composed by someone whose goal is total performance and accomplishment. It consists of making or putting together more in this work which afterwards leaves the work perfect and absolute, which otherwise is artificially like the dead.

The marriage of the first great composer of the German Baroque, Heinrich Schütz, was celebrated in a poem by Conrad Bayer, which makes a passing reference to music “renewing the heart and mind.”

The human voice and song
And sound of instrument
Are pleasing thus to God;
And in the whole wide world,
Nothing doth please man more,
Renew the heart and mind
And drive away all sadness.

Moser, Schütz, 104

The Baroque musician was obsessed with finding ways to communicate emotion through music. The composers shared this new emphasis on emotions with the other musicians as is illustrated in Johann Scheibe’s poem of 1739, “Music which does not penetrate the heart or soul … is quite dead.” [in Harriss, “Der vollkommene Capellmeister,” 74]

Composers now began to add forewords and dedications to their scores which clearly gave catharsis as the goal of their music. Thus we find in the score of Bach’s Clavier Ubung, Part III, and also in the Goldberg Variations, a statement to the effect that his purpose was to “refresh the spirits” of the listener. Similarly, when Bach was looking into a position in Halle, he was sent a contract which specified that the church music should have the result that “the members of the Congregation shall be the more inspired and refreshed in worship.” [David, “The Bach Reader,” 65]

We can document this transformation in the foreword of Georg Muffat’s Auserlesene Instrumental-Music (1701). First, he explains that in his previous collections he has sought to draw “liveliness and grace” from the “Lullian well.” In other words, previously he wrote in the French style, whose goal contemporaries often referred to as “tickling the ears.” Now, in the present collection Muffat says his goal is to present “certain profound and unusual effects of the Italian manner.” The purpose of this music, as he makes very clear, is what we would call “concert music” in the modern sense. That is, serious music intended for the contemplative listener. Muffat expresses it this way:

These concerti, suited neither to the church … nor for dancing … [are] composed only for the express refreshment of the ear.

French music was little affected by the movements in the rest of Europe until late in the Baroque. Comments by French philosophers, however, suggest that they were moving toward the equivalent of catharsis in other fields. Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), for example, contends that the emotions employed by the orator should result in the awakening and contemplation of the listener’s own emotions. His final line we quote here is a perfect illustration of the educational value in having students get to know “great minds.”

When a natural discourse paints a passion or an effect, one feels within oneself the truth of what one reads, which was there before, although one did not know it. Hence one is inclined to love him who makes us feel it, for he has not shown us his own riches, but ours.

“Pensees,” I, xiv

Charles de Marguetel de Saint-Denis, sieur de Saint-Evremond (1610–1703), gives his own definition of catharsis as part of his discussion of the end, or purpose, of tragedy,

We ought, in tragedy, before all things whatever, to look after a greatness of soul well expressed, which excites in us a tender admiration. By this sort of admiration our minds are sensibly ravished, our courage elevated, and our souls deeply affected.

Clark, “European Theories of the Drama,” 167

The only English philosopher during the Baroque who mentioned the phenomenon of catharsis in music was Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), in his Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections (1742). His discussion is disappointing, however, as it reflects the “stiff upper-lip” of English high society and their public lack of enthusiasm toward the emotions:

There is also another charm in Musick to various persons, which is distinct from the harmony, and is occasioned by its raising agreeable passions. The human voice is obviously varied by all the stronger passions; now when our ear discerns any resemblance between the melody of the composition [Air of a Tune], whether sung or played upon an instrument, either in its time, or modulation, or any other circumstance, to the sound of the human voice in any passion, we shall be touched by it in a very sensible manner, and have Melancholy, Joy, Gravity, Thoughtfulness excited in us by a sort of Sympathy or Contagion.

It is ironic that this tepid discussion of catharsis came at the same time and place as the music of Henry Purcell, who wrote some of the most emotionally powerful music of the seventeenth century.

In view of the above history perhaps every intelligent citizen needs to consider the nature of music education in the United States. The first question must be: Is the purpose of music education to heighten the intellectual awareness of my child or to entertain him? The subsequent question should be: Should catharsis be at the center of music education? Enabling the student to get to know, experience and heighten his own emotional make-up is something that music can do that no other core subject can do.

Three millennia of philosophers and modern Nobel Prize winning medical research have made perfectly clear the inherent values of music education. When will we connect the dots?

This essay first appeared in my book, Ancient Views on What is Music.