Dionysian Versus Apollonian Concepts of Music

Apollo and Dionysus by Leonid Ilyukin

"It is easier to see the responsibilities of the acoustical engineer or the audiologist toward the world soundscape than to understand the precise manner in which the contemporary musician is supposed to attach himself to this vast theme, so I am going to grind my axe on this point for a moment longer.

There are two basic ideas of what music is or ought to be. They may be seen most clearly in two Greek myths dealing with the origin of music. Pindar's twelfth Pythian Ode tells how the art of aulos playing was invented by Athena when, after the beheading of Medusa, she was touched by the heart-rending cries of Medusa's sisters and created a special nomos in their honor. In a Homeric hymn to Hermes an alternative origin is mentioned. The lyre is said to have been invented by Hermes when he surmised that the shell of the turtle, if used as a body of resonance, could produce sound.

In the first of these myths music arises as subjective emotion; in the second it arises with the discovery of sonic properties in the materials of the universe. These are the cornerstones on which all subsequent theories of music are founded. Characteristically the lyre is the instrument of Homer, of the epos, of serene contemplation of the universe; while the aulos (the reed oboe) is the instrument of exaltation and tragedy, the instrument of the dithyramb and of drama. The lyre is the instrument of Apollo, the aulos that of the Dionysian festivals. In the Dionysian myth, music is conceived as internal sound breaking forth from the human breast; in the Apollonian it is external sound, God-sent to remind us of the harmony of the universe. In the Apollonian view music is exact, serene, mathematical, associated with transcendental visions of Utopia and the Harmony of the Spheres. It is also the anahata of Indian theorists. It is the basis of Pythagoras's speculations and those of the medieval theoreticians (where music was taught as a subject of the quadrivium, along with arithmetic, geometry and astronomy), as well as of Schoenberg's twelve-note method of composition. Its methods of exposition are number theories. It seeks to harmonize the world through acoustic design. In the Dionysian view music is irrational and subjective. It employs expressive devices: tempo fluctuations, dynamic shadings, tonal colorings. It is the music of the operatic stage, of bel canto, and its reedy voice can also be heard in Bach's Passions. Above all, it is the musical expression of the romantic artist, prevailing throughout the nineteenth century and on into the expressionism of the twentieth century. It also directs the training of the musician today.

Because the production of sounds is so much a subjective matter with modern man, the contemporary soundscape is notable for its dynamic hedonism. The research I am about to describe represents a reaffirmation of music as a search for the harmonizing influence of sounds in the world about us. In Robert Fludd's Utruisque Cosmi Historia there is an illustration entitled "The Tuning of the World" in which the earth forms the body of an instrument across which strings are stretched and are tuned by a divine hand. We must try once again to find the secret of that tuning."

R. Murray Schafer