Muzică și psihanaliză

Muzică și psihanaliză bune pe pandemie și nu numai!

Andrea Sabbadini
Psychoanalysis and Choral Singing

I have been singing in choruses for over thirty years. I remember that only one hour into my first rehearsal back in 1987 (we were working on Berlioz’s Te Deum) I was already promising myself that I would go on singing choral music for the rest of my life – or at least as long as I had a good enough voice to do so. Since then I have sung in more than three-hundred concerts, covering most of the classical repertory, from Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium to John Adams’ Harmonium, including numerous performances of such staple works in the choral canon as Bach’s Mass in B-Minor, Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s, Verdi’s, Brahms’s and Fauré’s Requiems, Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Orff’s Carmina Burana.

To motivate me over the years in attending weekly rehearsals with almost obsessional regularity and hardly ever missing a concert, a workshop, or a tour abroad, have been my love of music (inherited, I think, from my late father), the chance to actively participate in it myself despite having no formal musical education, and the sheer joy of performing wonderful choral masterpieces with other like-minded individuals.

For me, a valuable aspect at work during choral singing is the identification with other singers in the same section, reinforced rather than invalidated by the (harmonic) contrast with the other voices. Not only does the music we work on as our shared love-object put us all on the same psychological wavelength even when we are not singing in unison, but also some of our physiological functions – breathing patterns, pulse rate, adrenalin flow, hormonal changes, etcetera – become almost magically coordinated under the beat of the conductor’s baton, thus creating in us all a most powerful feeling of physical and emotional closeness to one another, a sense of belonging in a tight community, an extended family almost, even if we may have little in common with the other singers, or hardly know each other.

I consider that ‘bridge towards the Other’ (Pigozzi 2008) which is the human voice to be of great psychological and interpersonal significance. Familiar voices and sounds during the earliest phases of human life are of crucial importance for the establishment of the sense of self: all goes back, in Rose’s (1993) colourful image, to ‘Opus Nº 1, the first duet’ between mother and baby. The need to be heard remains vital also within adult relationships: if our voices and words are being ignored we can feel invalidated or even annihilated in our sense of identity. We may also notice that the experience of being heard, in the deepest meaning of the word, constitutes one of the main therapeutic factors in psychoanalysis. Our so-called ‘talking cure’ is also a ‘listening cure’.

The experience of choral singing, involving the body alongside the mind, is threfore particularly attractive to me because of its fascinatingly complex relationship with my daily psychoanalytic work. I shall mention here some of its main manifestations.

Both music and psychoanalysis are exquisitely auditory experiences and both require interpretations by those performing them, as well as by those listening, in order to come alive.

Between the two activities there are of course striking differences. For instance, the loneliness of the psychoanalytic work in my consulting room is in contrast with being part of a large chorus (those I have been involved with have all been of about one hundred elements). As a result, ‘letting it all out’ through my voice as a singer, after having ‘taken it all in’ with my listening as an analyst, has for me a powerful liberating effect. And while our music performances take place in front of audiences, the analytic work does not: the very private, intimate activity of listening to one’s analysands’ associations is in many respects the reverse to the very public exhibition of our singing voices to an audience. Furthermore, the fact that choral singing involves working towards a clear, not too distant aim (the concert), is in contrast with the frustrations, or at least the uncertainty of results, of open-ended, long-term analytic work. A well-deserved triumph, for once, of the Pleasure Principle over the Reality one!

The parallels and similarities are also worth noticing. While attending to patients is a mostly intellectual activity and singing a mostly physical one, both require intense mental concentration and involve strong emotional components, often coloured by transference and countertransference features. When singing I can sometimes indulge in the pleasantly regressive dependence, reminiscent of the transferential one between analyst and patient, on the chorus as a whole and on the parental figure of the conductor – someone who, incidentally, needs to be not just a talented musician but also a true leader: fair, appreciative of our strengths and tolerant of our weaknesses, authoritative without being authoritarian, and with a sound (forgive the pun!) understanding of group dynamics.

Alongside the conductor as an obvious transference object for the chorus, the accompanist with his or her piano and, at dress rehearsals and concerts, the soloists and the orchestra with their instruments, not to mention the venues themselves where we sing, have important transferential functions to play. As a whole, they offer to the musical process something similar to what is provided to the therapeutic one by a containing and reliable analytic setting. Besides, as Marie Bridge (2015) has suggested, ‘listening to other parts at the same time as to one’s own has a parallel with listening to a patient while also listening to one’s own counter-transference’. Trust is here an essential component: for therapists their trust in the analytic process, for the individual singers their trust in their chorus. Bridge (op. cit.) gives as an example of such trust what happens when, in a long musical phrase, singers stagger their breathing in a spontaneously unsynchronised way ‘so that the legato is maintained as if there were no breath’.

Unlike in the case of most other activities, musical ones included, psychoanalysis and singing require no specific tools or instruments (with the only exception of a chair and a couch for the former, and of printed scores and a pencil for the latter): all that is needed for their practice are the bodies and the voices these produce. Both activities are ultimately centered upon the creative expression and vocal communication of emotionally charged meanings: in analysis facilitated by the theoretical, technical and ethical principles regulating its practice, in singing by the compositional and performing conventions of the music to which the texts are set. I remember Sir Michael Tippett insisting with us, during a rehearsal (on 18 May 1994) of his oratorio A Child of Our Time, that what most matters is ‘to tell it as a story’ – something which may apply to sung music forms (such as choral works, operas, or lieder) in a more explicit way than it does to purely instrumental ones (such as sonatas, concertos, or symphonies).

In more general terms, choral singing can itself have a containing function, perhaps especially evident in connection to the bass section: singers from the other voices (sopranos, contraltos and tenors) often refer to us basses as contributing a ‘supportive’ foundation, from underneath so to speak, to their own performances. It is a well known phenomenon that music can have ‘therapeutic’ qualities by filling space and time with sounds which transform the making of it, and listening to it, into psychologically enriching experiences in both performers and audiences – making them smile or moving them to tears, calming their anxieties and lifting their depression, even allowing them to make important discoveries about themselves…

Having ‘put into words’ here some aspects of my own experience of being an analyst who sings in a chorus, I can accept that there may be valid reasons for keeping my interest in, or passion for, these activities in separate compartments, and to argue that music – perhaps the most abstract of all art forms, the ‘a-semantic language par excellence’ (Barale 2014) – belongs to an almost sacred universe where it should be enjoyed… and then left alone.

I can only conclude that I know that my involvement with choral singing and with psychoanalysis has over the years much enriched my appreciation of both.


Barale, F. (2014) Una prefazione. In De Mari, M. – Carnevali, C. – Saponi, S., Eds., Fra psicoanalisi e musica. Roma: Alpes Italia, 2015.

Bridge, M. (2015) Personal Communication.

Nass, M. (1984) The development of creative imagination in composers. In International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 11: 481-492.

Pigozzi, L. (2008) A nuda voce: vocalità, inconscio, sessualità. Antigone: Torino.

Rose, G. J. (1993) On form and feeling in music. In Feder, S. – Karmel, R. L. – Pollock, G. H., Eds., Psychoanalytical Explorations in Music (Second Series). New York: IUP.

Copyrights © Andrea SABBADINI, 2019