Theodore Gracyk      Outline of Hanslick

© 2002 Theodore Gracyk

HANSLICK: On the Musically Beautiful

G. Payzant translation
(Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1986)

Chapter I  The Aesthetics of Feeling
Chapter II   Representation of feeling is not the content of music
Chapter III   The musically beautiful
Chapter IV Analysis of the subjective impression of music
Chapter V Musical Perception: Aesthetic versus Pathological
Chapter VI The Relation of Music to Nature
Chapter VII Content and Form in Music

Related links  

As much as possible, the outline uses the vocabulary of the Payzant translation. 

Square brackets [like this] offer my own interpretive comments.

This outline was written by Theodore Gracyk. 
(Copyright  Theodore Gracyk 2002)
It may be freely reproduced, so long as this complete citation is included with any such reproductions.  

CHAPTER I: The Aesthetics of Feeling

p. 1)   Hanslickís goal is to discover what is "enduring and objective" in one "particular art," namely music, grounding an aesthetics of music on an objective basis for the practice of criticism. He seems to think that the pursuit of objective criticism is already underway with literature and the visual arts.

p. 2)  The critical analysis of works in a particular art cannot be generated from a unifying "supreme" principle. 

[Beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, this principle was generally regarded as a principle about the role of beauty in art. But the Romanticism of the nineteenth century looked instead to human expression of emotion. In this respect, Hanslick's essay is reactionary, an attempt to turn combat the tide of Romanticism, at least with respect to the art of music. In Hanslick's day, the two schools of thought were primarily represented by the music of Brahms and the music of Wagner. Many important composers found themselves dragged into this debate.]

p. 3)  The main goal of the essay is to find the basis of "critical judgment" about music. Does it have anything to do with feeling [emotion]?

Prevailing views of music assign two distinct roles to feeling in relation to music.

  1. The defining purpose of music is assigned to its capacity to arouse feeling.
  2. Feeling is the content of music, that which musical art presents in its works.

"The two are similar in that both are false."

Beauty has no purpose. [Therefore, we will NOT ground critical judgments about music in any alleged purpose. Hanslick's position looks back to the aesthetic theory of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment of 1790, which famously argued that the experience of beauty is a recognition of purposiveness without purpose.]

pp. 3-4)   Feeling [emotion] distinguished from sensation [perception of sensory qualities]

Sensation is the basis of feeling.

p. 4)   However, feeling is not itself the basis of becoming aware of [objective] beauty.

[Hanslick seems to use 'beauty' in an extremely broad sense, almost as a synonym for 'aesthetic value.']

Beauty is discovered by contemplation in imagination, shaped by "active understanding, i.e., conceiving and judging."

Musical works as imaginary objects: "Out of the imagination of the composer, the piece of music arises for the imagination of the listener."

[The sensations that we experience when musicians perform are the means of transporting the piece from composer to listener. The point is to make a distinction between the physical thing we hear, the series of sounds, and the music. Since we allow that we hear the same music on different occasions when there is a different physical object, we do not want to equate the musical with any physical object. There are several theories about the best way to make the distinction between physical object and music Today we are more likely to say that the musical work is an intentional object.]

p. 7)   Feeling cannot be music's purpose because

  1. Feeling is not necessary to critical judgment (p. 5: feeling is a secondary effect of listening)
  2. Feeling is not exclusive to music (p. 5: it is equally at work in the visual arts and in "every genuine artwork")
  3. Feeling is not constant (p. 6: it is altered by texts and titles and it is perceived differently "according to our changing musical experiences" [that is, according to what other styles of music we know and the "circumstances" in which we hear it]

[These are all weak arguments. (1) only succeeds if we agree that there can only be one purpose for music. The objection fails if we think that music has multiple purposes, the way the food has both a nutritional and an aesthetic purpose. (2) assumes that there is a principle of musical beauty that is unique to music. But two arts might differ in the medium employed while having a common principle of beauty and a common purpose. Watercolors and oil paintings differ with respect to media but it doesn't follow that they cannot share a common purpose. (3) is not a problem if we grant that some people are better qualified than others to appreciate certain pieces of music. There is no constancy about the idea that we live on a planet that orbits the sun; I certainly experience the earth as stationary and flat, which just goes to show that appearances can be deceiving. If beauty is an objective property of music, then the fact that not everyone experiences it doesn't matter.]

The topic of feeling is taken up in greater detail in chapters IV and V.


Chapter II Ė Feeling is not the content

p. 9)    ANALYSIS OF FEELING (cognitive theory of emotion)

Specificity of emotion requires judgment and dynamic. What music w/out text canít do, music canít do.  (p.15) Music w/out text canít communicate concepts. Music alone canít communicate specific emotions. (Musicís ability to arouse emotions is treated in later chapters)


p.14)   Emotion not necessary for beauty [value]: absolute music (e.g., Bach's instrumental works) is often of great value and there is no agreement ("constancy") about emotions in it.


Music adds dynamics/motion to text, but same music takes on different emotions when text changes (e.g., Handel, p. 19) [different emotion because different concepts joined with dynamic]

p. 16)  Good music through its dynamics, can Ďtransform" weak texts into "a fervent manifestation of feeling". 

But if the same music can combine with different texts to convey distinct emotions, then the music does not by itself convey a specific emotion.


Consider this version of the traditional assumption: communication of emotion is an ideal thatís seldom realized.

Reduction strategy: suppose thatís true; "to be consistent we would have to say that the most nearly perfect compositions were those which {convey emotion} most specifically". In other words, an ideal implies that there are degrees of success and failure, and if communicating emotion is the ideal for music, the best emotional communication must coincide with the best music.

What music conveys (in combination with text) greatest specificity?

Recitative and other "dramatic" text which is normally combined with the weakest music.

Success in combining words and music involves "constant tension" (p. 23) and "generally succeeds in inverse proportion to the autonomous beauty [value] of the music". (p. 22)

Since musical success does not coincide with success in communicating specific emotions, communication of emotion cannot be a  goal of music.


CHAPTER III: The Musically Beautiful


p. 29)  Content of music is "tonally moving forms" with melody a "basic" form, combined with harmony, rhythm, timbre.

p.30)  Sequence of tones combines in "auditory imagination" according to its own "sense and logic" [syntax] The result can be described technically or poetically.

p.31)  The "cultivated ear" makes patterns of groups, giving coherence.

p. 64)  Main satisfaction is from "following and anticipating the composerís designs".

p. 33)  Artwork as objective mediation between artist and audience:

  • p. 35) If emotion was the content, our criterion for evaluating music would be degree of emotion and we would not care about their handling of melody, harmony, etc.
  • p. 36) Music can sound dated (beauty "wears out"); emotion does not, so this is due to convention [syntax] governing its composing.
  • p. 37) Invention is valued over intention (artistís intent does not interest us if invention is lacking).


p. 38) Beauty not limited to any specific style (each style has its own).

p. 39) Composerís biography irrelevant to music except for musical [sylistic] influences (e.g. Beethovenís politics vs. influences on his musical style).

CHAPTER IV: Analysis of the Subjective Impression of Music


  1. The Composer

pp. 45-46) Questionable to think that composer's emotions directly inspire the music

Composing is a deliberate, complex process that is not possible when there is too much passion.

p. 47) Composition is guided by "inner singing, not a mere inner feeling."

Musicís dynamic is created by objective features, not artistic intent.

p. 48) For example, style is a limit on "potential emotional state" [by limiting dynamics].

Each musical event involves composition plus reproduction [performance] and the latter is the vehicle for personal expression.


p. 49) So free improvisation (fusing the two) is highest degree of it.


II. The Listener

This section of the chapter is dominated by a discussion of music therapy and the common but mistaken assumption that sound acts directly on the listener without intervention of the imagination. 

p. 53) Arousal theory requires either psychological or physiological basis.  Both are doubtful (composers are unable to produce specific emotions "on demand").

p. 57) Physical responses are not aesthetical (not the goal of art).


CHAPTER V: Musical Perception: 
Aesthetic versus Pathological


Thesis: concentration on emotion leads to sacrifice of musical content. 

(Emotional state could better be produced with drugs)

Contrast:    Aesthetic [active]    Vs  Pathological  [passive] 
pp. 58-59) Attention to individuality
of the piece 
Response to its general character
p. 60) Listening
pp. 63-64) Enjoying
p. 66) Hear the music for its 
own sake
Sensuous effect of its physical materials
Trained ear
Appreciative" lay audience
Enjoyment of anticipation 
of musical design
Attends only to the upper 

p. 65)    Active listening decreases emotive content


Implication of Chapter V [argument not in text]: the more "active" the listening, the less "emotional" specificity

Catharsis requires recognition of emotion. Active listening not compatible with catharsis.

Objection raised: first hearing should be most cathartic, but many pieces become more cathartic upon repeated listening.

[Isn't there a hidden assumption here, that active listening is always better? And so if the best mode of listening decreases emotive content, such content is superfluous. But what if some music is better appreciated in terms of its general character and not the details of its design?]


CHAPTER VI: The Relation of Music to Nature

p. 68) Nature provides initial raw materials: sounds.

p. 69) And rhythm Ė but rhythm alone isnít music.

Music requires melody/harmony Ė tones, not just sounds.

p. 71) "Tone" = (df) sound of determinate, measurable pitch (tone on an instrument gives timbre)

p. 72) To measure a tone, we need a "tonal system" Ė scales. So "there is no such thing as the [musically] beautiful in nature.

So, "the folk song Ö [is] the first grade of genuine art" (p. 70: it requires "centuries of germination").

[Aaron Copland: "naivetť doesnít work in music."]

p. 74) Represented content/subject matter is "extramusical".

CHAPTER VII: Content and Form in Music

p. 29) "The content of music is tonally moving forms."

p. 78) Music is made of tones Ė tones are its content, not to be confused with "subject matter" inspiring it.

To have subject matter as content, the extramusical element must be definite and could be stated in words. We have no agreement on the "definite" description to give it.

So, it can only have an "indefinite" content Ė but that is not really a content "in the present sense."

p. 80) The "form" of music is not taken from nature [from chapter VI]. So, its content is not any "definite concept". So, its content is its own melodic themes.

p. 81) In the musicís themes, "form and content [cannot] be separated."




Related Links

Here are the texts of chapters 1 & 2, edited and annotated: RTF file  &  PDF file 

Here are the Preface and Chapters 2 & 3, unedited

Here's an essay about Hanslick by Geoffrey Payzant

Here's an essay about Hanslick by Justin London

Here's an essay on Hanslick by Robert Hall

Here's an essay on Hanslick by Tom Halliwell

Here are some materials on music and emotion from Ohio State, including a very short outline of Hanslick.

Here's an essay on Hanslick's involvement in the Brahms/Wagner debates of the 19th century.


The background of this page is a scan of 
Gustav Mahler, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

Last updated July 2, 2007

© 2002 Theodore Gracyk

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