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Nietzsche on the Power of Music

“Without music life would be a mistake.”

“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional,” Oliver Sacks wrote in contemplating music’s singular power over the human spirit — a power that has humbled some of humanity’s most brilliant minds into a state of awe that transcends the intellect.

Among them was the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900). He who proclaimed that “god is dead” and believed that nothing worthwhile is easy found in music life’s sole unmerited grace.

In an autobiographical fragment quoted in Julian Young’s altogether fantastic Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (public library), the German intellectual goliath writes:

God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.

Nietzsche wrote these lines two months before his fourteenth birthday — a detail doubly poignant when contrasted with the “vain ostentations” marketed to teenagers today. But his profound reverence for music never left him. Toward the end of his life, he immortalized it in an aphorism included in his 1889 book Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer:

What trifles constitute happiness! The sound of a bagpipe. Without music life would be a mistake. The German imagines even God as a songster.

Complement the wholly illuminating Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography with the great philosopher’s ten rules for writers and his heartening 1882 New Year’s resolution, then revisit these seven essential books about music and the mind.

Published September 18, 2015




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