Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Occult Basis of Music
GA 283

3 December 1906, Cologne

Translated by Charles Waterman

For those who think of music from the aesthetic point of view, there is something puzzling about it; for simple human feeling it is a direct experience which penetrates the soul; and for those who want to understand how it produces its effects, it is a rather difficult problem.

Compared with other arts — sculpture, painting, poetry — music has a special character. All the other arts have some kind of model in the external world. The sculptor works from a model, and if he creates a statue of Zeus or Apollo, it takes an idealised human form. It is the same with painting — and today the tendency is to give an exact impression of what the senses perceive. Poetry, similarly, tries to deal with some aspect of the real world. But if one tried to apply this theory to music, one would get nowhere — for how could one copy, for example, the song of birds!

What is the origin of musically-shaped sounds? How are they related to anything in the objective world?

It is precisely in connection with this art of music that Schopenhauer has advanced some interesting views; in a certain respect they are indeed clear and striking. He assigns to music a quite special place among the arts, and to art itself a quite special value in human life. His philosophy has a fundamental ground-note which may be expressed as follows:

Life is a sorry business, and through thinking I try to make it bearable. Pervading everything in the world is a blind, unconscious Will. It shapes the stone and then the plant — but always, in all its manifestations, with a restless yearning for something higher. The savage feels this less than does the genius, who experiences the painful cravings of the Will in the highest, most intense, degree.

Besides the activity of the Will — Schopenhauer continues — man has the faculty of forming mental images. These are like a fata morgana, like pictures in the mist, like the spray thrown up by the waves of the Will. The Will surges up to shape these illusory pictures. When in this way man perceives the working of the Will, he is less than ever satisfied; but a release from the blind driving-force of the Will comes to us through art. Art is something through which man can escape from the restless craving of the Will. How does this happen?

When man creates a work of art, it springs from his image-forming faculty; but genuine art, Schopenhauer insists, is not merely a copy of external reality. A statue of Zeus, for example, is not produced by copying; the sculptor draws for his model on the characteristics of many men, and so he creates the archetypal image, which in nature is distributed among numerous separate individuals.

So the artist surpasses nature. He extracts her archetypal essence, and this is what the true artist renders. By penetrating into the creative depths of nature, he creates something real and achieves a certain release for himself.

So it is with all the arts except music. All the other arts have to work through images and produce only pictures of the Will. But musical sound is a direct expression of the Will itself. The composer listens to the pulse-beat of the Will, and renders it in the sequence of musical sounds. Music is thus intimately related to the working of the Will in nature, to “things in themselves”; it penetrates into the elemental archetypal being of the cosmos and reflects the feeling of it; that is why music is so deeply satisfying.

Schopenhauer was no occultist, but in these matters he had an instinctive apprehension of the truth.

Why does music speak so intimately to the heart, and so widely, and why is its influence so powerful, even in early childhood? For answers to these questions we must turn to the realm where the true models for music are to be found.

When a composer is at work, he has nothing to copy from; he has to draw his music from out of his own soul. Whence he derives it we shall find out if we turn our attention to the worlds which are not perceptible to the ordinary senses.

Human beings are so made that it is possible for them to release in themselves faculties which are normally asleep; in the same way that someone born blind may be given sight by an operation, so can a man's inner eyes be opened, enabling him to gain knowledge of higher worlds. When a man develops these slumbering faculties through concentration, meditation and so on, he advances step by step. First of all he experiences a special configuration of his dream life. His dreams take on a much more orderly character; on waking, he feels as though he were rising from out of the waves of an ocean in which he had been submerged, a world of flowing light and colour. He knows that he has experienced something; that he has seen an ocean of which he had no previous knowledge. Increasingly his dream-experiences gain in clarity. He remembers that in this world of light and colour there were things and beings which differed from anything physical in being permeable, so that one can pass right through them without meeting any resistance. He comes to know beings whose element, whose bodies, the colours are. Gradually he extends his consciousness over this world, and on waking he remembers that he has been active within it.

The next step occurs when he — as it were — carries this world back with him into waking life. Then he sees the astral bodies of other men and of much else, and he experiences a world which is much more real than the physical one — a world which in relation to the physical world appears as a densification, a crystallisation, from out of the astral world.

Now it is also possible to transform into a conscious condition the unconscious state of dreamless sleep. The disciple who attains to this stage learns to extend his consciousness over those parts of the night which are not filled with dreams, but are normally spent in complete unconsciousness. He then finds himself conscious in a world of which previously he knew nothing, a world which is not intrinsically one of light and colour; it first announces itself as a world of musical sound. The disciple acquires the capacity to hear spiritually; he hears sequences and combinations of sounds which are not audible to the physical ear.

This world is called the devachanic world (Deva=spirit, chan=home). One must not think that when a man enters this world and hears its tones resounding, he loses the world of light and colours. The world of tones is shot through with light and colours, but they belong to the astral world. The essential element of the devachanic world is the endlessly flowing and changing ocean of musical tones. When continuous consciousness extends to this world, its tones can be brought over, and it is then possible to hear also the ground-tones of the physical world. For every physical thing has its ground-note in the devachanic world, and in every countenance devachanic ground-notes are figured forth. It was on this account that Paracelsus said: “The kingdoms of nature are the letters of the alphabet, and Man is the word formed from them.”

Whenever anyone falls asleep, his astral body goes out from his physical body; his soul then lives in the devachanic world. Its harmonies make an impression on his soul; they vibrate through it in waves of living sound, so that every morning he wakes from the music of the spheres, and out of this realm of harmony he passes into the everyday world. Just as the human soul has a sojourn in Devachan between incarnations, so we can say that during the night the soul rejoices in flowing tones of music: they are the very element out of which it is itself woven and they are its true home.

The composer translates into physical sounds the rhythms and harmonies which at night imprint themselves on his astral body. Unconsciously he takes his model from the spiritual world. He has in himself the harmonies which he translates into physical terms. That is the secret connection between the music which resounds in the physical world and the hearing of spiritual music during the night. But the relation of physical music to this spiritual music is like that of a shadow to the object which casts it. So the music of instruments and voices in the physical world is like a shadow, a true shadow, of the far higher music of Devachan. The primal image, the archetype, of music is in Devachan; and having understood this, we can now examine the effect of music on human beings.

Man has his physical body, and an etheric model for it, the ether-body. Connected with his ether-body is the sentient body, which is a step towards the astral. Inwardly bound up with him, as though membered into him, is the Sentient Soul. Just as a sword and its scabbard form a single whole, so do the Sentient Soul and the sentient body. Man has also the Intellectual Soul, and as a still higher member the Spiritual Soul, which is linked with the Spirit-self, or Manas. In completely dreamless sleep the higher members, and so also the Sentient Soul, are in the devachanic world. This is not like living in the physical realm, where everything we see and hear is outside ourselves. The beings of Devachan interpenetrate us, and we are within everything that exists there. In occult schools, accordingly, this devachanic-astral realm is called the world of interpenetrability. Man is played through by its music.

When he returns from this devachanic world, his Sentient Soul, his Intellectual Soul and his Spiritual Soul are permeated with its rhythms; he carries them down into his denser bodies. He is thus able to work from out of his Intellectual Soul and his Sentient Soul on to his ether-body, and to carry the rhythms into it. As a seal stamps itself on the wax, so the astral body imprints the devachanic rhythms on the ether-body, until the ether-body vibrates in harmony with them. Ether-body and astral body bear witness in their own being to the spiritual tones and rhythms. The ether-body is lower than the astral body, but in activity it is superior.

From out of his Ego man works on his bodies in so far as he transmutes the astral body into Manas, the ether-body into Buddhi, the physical body into Atma. Since the astral body is the most tenuous, the transmutation of it calls for the least strength. Man can work on his astral body with forces drawn from the astral world. But to work on his etheric body he has to call on forces from the devachanic world, and for working on his physical body he needs forces from the higher devachanic world. During the night he draws from the world of flowing tones the strength to carry them over into his sentient body and his etheric body. Although on waking in the morning he is not conscious of having absorbed this music of the night, yet on listening to music he has an inkling that these impressions of the spiritual world are within him.

When a man listens to music, the seer can observe how the rhythms and colours flow into and lay hold of the firmer substance of the ether-body, causing it to vibrate in tune with them, and from the harmonious response of the ether-body comes the pleasure that is felt. The more strongly the astral body resounds, the more strongly do its tones echo in the ether-body, overcoming the ether-body's own natural rhythms, and this gives feelings of pleasure both to a listener and to a composer. In certain cases the harmonies of the astral body penetrate to some extent into the sentient body, and a conflict then arises between the sentient body and the ether-body. If the tones set up in the sentient body are so strong that they master the tones of the ether-body, the result is cheerful music in a major key. A minor key indicates that the ether-body has prevailed over the sentient body; and the painful feeling that ensues gives rise to the most serious melodies.

So, when someone lives in the experience of music, he is living in the image of his spiritual home. It naturally elevates the soul to feel this intimate relationship to its primal ground, and that is why the simplest souls are so receptive to music. A man then feels himself truly at home, and whenever he is lifted up through music he says to himself: “Yes, you come from other worlds, and in music you can experience your native place.” It was an intuitive knowledge of this that led Schopenhauer to assign to music a central place among the arts, and to say that the composer discerns with his spiritual ear the pulse-beat of the Will.

In music, man feels the echo of the inmost life of things, a life related to his own. Because feelings are the most inward part of the soul, and because they are related to the spiritual world and are indwelt by musical sound — that is why man, when he listens to music, lives in the pleasure of feeling himself in harmony with its tones, and in touch with the true home of his spirit.