The Liveliness In Everything

Goethe’s intuitive understanding of music

Author: Dietlinde Küpper
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is considered one of the greatest poets in European history, but his curiosity and inquisitiveness also led him to immerse himself in various other areas of art and natural science with the desire to understand the essence of the world behind things. In reception, his relationship with music is treated rather stepmotherly, although despite his lack in musicality, but guided by his reliance on his own intuition, he reached insights that are confirmed today by science.

Goethe’s “Faust” poem, with its barely fathomable depth, surprises us again and again with topical references – for example, in Act II of Part II, an artificial human is even created. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe left us not only dramas, poems and novels. He had a wide range of interests and was a professional in subjects such as medicine, optics or meteorology; he painted and he designed buildings and garden landscapes that we still consider successful today. How he thought about various things can still be comprehensively traced in detail today – for example, there are more than 15,000 preserved letters.

As a researcher, he was not merely interested in the bare facts and the conclusions to be drawn from them; he was looking for a “living concept,” as he called it:

a directly experienced grasp of deeper interrelationships, a view that not only focused on the individual aspects of an investigation, but one that wanted to understand the whole in its essence.


When we form “a concept” of the world, we often act just like Goethe: We are deeply convinced of some things that cannot be proven. Why? Because we feel it or know it deep inside. That my cat knew what I had decided when it looked me so intensely in the eye; that the move would not bring me happiness. That my deceased child is still close to me; that life has a deeper meaning that I can’t put into words. How do we “know” these things?

Most of the time we simply trust this feeling, but sometimes we experience an overwhelming evidence, we know that we are not imagining a certain perception.

“Wonderfully sheltered by good powers” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He probably experienced these comforting energies deep within himself as something reliable.

Sure, we can also be deceived; it is extremely slippery terrain to embark on a search for truth where there is no “evidence.” And yet – if we trust our intuition, we can sharpen it. We can find out some things, understand and classify some things better, and deeper connections can show up.

The world behind things, which can reveal itself to the feeling in great clarity, for which Goethe had the finest antennae. That there is no death for the soul, he knew, as it says in the poem “Legacy”:

“No being can decay to nothing!

The eternal continues to stir in all,

In being keep you happy!

Being is eternal; for laws

Preserve the living treasures,

From which the universe is adorned.


Das Musikzimmer im Goethe-Haus in Frankfurt a. Main

When the now sixty-year-old Goethe published his “Theory of Colors” in 1810 after years of preparatory work – to this day it is as fascinating as it is controversial – he also wanted to get to the bottom of the laws of acoustics and the origin of tonal systems. After many discussions with his friend Carl Friedrich Zelter, composer and his expert in music, he drew up a tabular outline of “tonetics”. The middle main section consists of three columns: Origin of Music, Handling of Instruments, and Mathematical Classification of Intervals.

In the left column it says about the origin of music:

“Organic (subjective): in that the tonal world reveals itself from and to man himself”.

Tone systems, as for example our major and minor, had formed according to his conviction thus directly over the practice and less over the detour of a thinking about suitable sounds together. Thus it goes on to say: “comes forth in the voice / returns through the ear / exciting to the accompaniment the whole body”. On the basis of which considerations Goethe was convinced that the order of the tones had formed by itself through singing, we do not know, and this of course remained speculative.

Who could ever know what happened thousands and thousands of years ago when people began to express themselves musically, to sing or to carve flutes out of bones?

Goethe had clear ideas here, science did not.

But more is now known about the origin of tonal systems. Only a few years ago, an interesting phenomenon was discovered: that there is a striking connection between the way human language expresses itself acoustically and the sound systems that people invented around the world a long time ago.


For Goethe, polarity underlay everything that existed as a primordial antithesis that manifested itself everywhere.

The pair of opposites happy (major) – sad (minor) also fits seamlessly into this idea. There are certainly also corresponding indications. For example, if one mirrors a major triad downward, a minor triad is created. In C major, for example, F minor. The research results from Duke University. However, it says nothing at all about this polarity between major and minor. This pnly Goethe addressed. Instead, another team around Dale Purves tracked down even more parallel relationships between speaking and singing. The researchers investigated whether the difference between tonal and non-tonal languages is also reflected in traditional music. (Shui’ er Han et al. 2011)

In the “tonal” languages, varied pitches play a role in word meaning; in the others, they do not. For example, in Chinese Mandarin there are four “tones” that can be used to change word meaning; high / rising / falling / falling-rising-falling. In the “non-tonal” languages, such as German, the speech melody plays no role at all for the meaning.

About the Author 

After completing her master’s degree in German and musicology, Küpper worked for five years in Italy as a teacher and translator. For Bayerischer Rundfunk and Deutsche Welle, the author wrote features on Mozart, Handel, and contemporary music, among others. Also several essays on Richard Wagner. She published a study on the American symphonist Gloria Coates.

Bildnachweis: © Adobe Photostock

This article appeared originally on the German Homepage  Tattva Viveka: Die Lebendigkeit in allem sehen

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