Music And The Sublime

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Photograph Compliments of Alexandra Nicolae

Music is everywhere. What is the relation of music and the sublime?

The Definition Of Sublime

Some of the greatest minds in philosophy, psychology, and psychoanalysis have attempted to define the sublime. A few of these minds: Sigmund Freud, Immanuel Kant, Carl Jung, Schiller and Hegel, both of them Friedrichs, Etc.

Edmund Burke set the theory of sublime art in A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757. He defined the sublime as an artistic effect productive of the strongest emotion the mind can feel. Burke defined the sublime as the strongest passion possible, broken down into three components: the awful, the lofty, and the splendid.

Music creation and song craft embrace these qualities.

The Attributes Of Music And The Sublime

The sublime, by its nature, embraces genres and different attributes, likewise music. We can call upon the spirit of the sublime by considering some its components.


Have you ever taken a hard look at wave files? When you stretch the files down into milliseconds, it becomes apparent that the period of time you thought was brief is not. There are immense distances between the notes when broken down to a visual level.

Consider the concept of vastness in astronomy. What are the most fundamental questions in astronomical observation? How did it begin, what governs its existence, and will it end? Can the sheer size of the universe invoke terror? It is incomprehensible.

I concede that the comparison between a musical note and the size of the universe is metaphorical, or is it?

A person considering the cosmos can feel a profound humbleness; likewise, the musician, when considering a musical note. Both forms of contemplation can result in personal transformations.

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Experiencing and creating music is like a grand adventure. For those of us who are all in, the road might seem never to end.

Like Homer’s Odyssey, there are many similarities in music’s journey.

Odysseus’s journey took ten years, a substantial portion of anyone’s life. His goal was to return to his faithful family, his wife, Penelope, and his son Telemachus; they were the song of his heart.

Odysseus had challenges and temptations, distractions from his objectives.

Among many tribulations, he had to subdue Polyphemus, the Cyclops. Circe distracted himself and his crew with comfort and pleasures, the easy life. Then Calypso offered him immortality and waylaid him for seven years.

Penelope must have been quite a woman.

Music consumes our lives, despite or in tandem of other goals. Like The Odyssey, music is sublime.


A film like “Cleopatra” boasts a visual and emotional magnificence. It, too, is an exercise in the sublime, grandiose in its production.


Darkness is the opposite of light. Our ancestors experienced the darkness of night in a much more profound way than we could even imagine. The discovery of electricity has allowed us, for good or bad, to illuminate our immediate world.

The traveler on European 18th-century roads traveled on unilluminated dirt paths. Those who came before us considered darkness terrible. Is it any wonder? In the blackness of night, how can you see the way before you?

Generating light for most of humanity’s past has required intense labor. Fire in the pit or hearth needed hours of exertion. There were no switches to flip or buttons to push.

Darkness symbolizes the unknown, sorrow, and fear. Is it any wonder why pre-nineteenth century societies considered night as a source of dread and wonder? These are considerations of the sublime.


Privation is a condition or circumstance in which things necessary for elementary human existence are lacking. In the case of physical privation, examples could be food and warmth. Mental privation might include love and human contact. Evil illustrates the lack of good.

These examples are not to be confused with deprivation, defined as losing something an individual or group once had. Privation represents something that was never available in the first place.


Obscurity is a more profound representation of the sublime than anything else. Not only is darkness and privation part of obscurity, but many more components are inherent in its manifestation.

Our paleo-ancestors faced obscurity daily. As night fell, there were no electric lights to push back the veil of darkness. The obscurity that the night created manifested aloneness and danger. Stories of dread, phantoms, and corporal spirits became legends.

Ignorance is a component of obscurity. Many parts of our lives are difficult to understand. We may consider, intentionally or not, the mysteries we encounter as insignificant, hidden, and unfamiliar. The sublime is, as well, represented here.

Separation from human contact can have negative connotations but is an integral part of the creative process. As an artist, isolation is a necessary component of creativity. The sublime embraces this component of obscurity.

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How is loudness part of music and the sublime?

Undoubtedly you have been in a thunderstorm as lightning crackles directly overhead. In that loudness, there is depth and intensity – the ground and house shake, disorienting the unprepared person; a true revelation of the sublime. A thunderstorm reveals majesty, representing real power.

Interestingly, the definition of noise is having a volume louder than 80 decibels. Modern orchestras achieve sound levels up to 95-98 decibels. The impact of that volume, compounded with the intentional reverb design in concert halls, can be huge.

What’s a great club without intense levels of music reproduction? How many shows have you gone to where you should have been wearing ear protection?

Loudness is part of the sublime.

Considerations Of Music And The Sublime

Is it any surprise that the world’s great religions have used all the components of the sublime? Even the most basic tribal societies would use these attributes to varying degrees.

The sublime is a way to convey the divine without having religion attached to it. These spectacles tell the stories of love, loss, and power in real-time, with the very personal interaction of the observers. The force of these extravaganzas is that the participants use their imaginations while participating in the event. They engage their dreams, fantasies, and aspirations – and so it is with music.

The Experience Of The Sublime

The sublime implies a meaning just below the line, below the limits of human understanding. Some experiences touch the eternal and infinite, things that can transport or overpower us.

Sans, the religious metaphysical, have you ever experienced the exhilaration of an exquisitely prepared meal? Or a wine that is breathtaking in its profile? Have you been in love so deeply that the experience overpowers you? Has there been the loss of a loved one that left you empty and discarded? Were you ever able to own an automobile that filled some of your primal desires? How about natural scenery so grandiose its existence humbled you? If so, you have experienced the sublime.

Our creative challenge is to make sense of our rational and emotional minds. How can we bring the sublime into balance?

The Inspiration Of Writing Music

The creation of music embraces all these aspects of the sublime.

‘The beautiful 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.’ Eduard Hanslick, 1854

The Inspiration And Emotion

Let’s talk about feelings.

We, humans, experience emotional states that defy description. A confluence of emotions goes on under the surface of our consciousness. All of us know that we negotiate our outward feelings. If you don’t believe this occurs, you can’t deny all day, every day, whether awake or asleep, that our emotions are ever-changing.

Every aspect of the sublime previously discussed represent our emotional states. Confidence, fear, love, hate, hardness, anger, joy, loneliness, melancholy, all of these emotions are in a constant state of flux.

One of the most amazing things about wordless abstract musical content is that the composer has created music that mirrors our emotional life. Especially in the manner in which our emotional states change instantaneously.

Lyrical songs are much more concise and to the point but still embrace these aspects of the sublime. These songs are stories that have been shared in human history repeatedly. 

How Is The Story written?

Humanity’s mythic stories embrace the sublime, likewise, the music we create.

Warfare is the premise of our existence. Do you think I am full of shit? Do you have a mortgage? A car payment? A significant other? You may be in the process of compromise, but understand this, everything is a negotiation.

We wage modern warfare with words and agreements, not sticks, rocks, clubs, or axes. Regardless what you believe, it is still war.

And there you have it, love, loss, and power, the essence of the mythic.

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Songwriting And The Conveyance Of The Sublime

Songwriting is all about projecting emotion onto your topic. That’s it, the number one criterion. Is it your emotions, their emotions, or corporate humanity’s?

You don’t have to be a prolific songwriter to be a good songwriter, but it helps. Think about the number one component of filmmaking and writing fiction: show, don’t tell.

Stanley Kubrick used film as his medium of conveyance. I don’t know of a better example than 2001, A Space Odyssey. Eighty-eight minutes of the movie is dialogue-free.

There is a ton of wisdom there. Show, don’t tell leads to ambiguity. Jim Morrison was the king of the ambiguous. Look at what he did; Jim Morrison created masterful lyrics. He let his listening audience decide how they would feel about his work. In deliberately utilizing imprecise and unclear words, the listener is allowed to emotionalize and interpret the song’s meaning.

Sublime Emotion

We musicians have groove, rhythm, and melody available to imply emotion and interpretation. Lyrics can suggest a story; the instrumentation, arrangement, and the construct can indicate the mood.

Music is sublime.

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