Dissertation Index

Author: Tan, Daphne

Title: Ernst Kurth at the Boundary of Music Theory and Psychology

Institution: Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester

Begun: September 2010

Completed: April 2013


This dissertation provides an in-depth account of the final published monograph of Ernst Kurth (1886—1946), Musikpsychologie (1931), together with discussion of its larger music theoretical, music psychological, and philosophical context, and its critical reception. Kurth is best known to Anglo-American audiences for three influential publications written between 1917 and 1925. In them, he presents analyses of the music of Bach, Wagner, and Bruckner that are as ambitious in scope as they are idiosyncratic. Rather than a précis of his earlier writings, Musikpsychologie offers an original theory of music-as-experienced—one that Kurth envisions as centrally located within the wider disciplinary network of Musikwissenschaft.

Part One of the dissertation outlines foundational aspects of Kurth’s theory. Drawing on letters and contemporaneous reviews of Musikpsychologie, as well as Kurth’s own references to secondary sources, it focuses on the psychological principles and philosophies that inform his study. The project evaluates Kurth’s attempts to distinguish his work from other approaches to music and the mind, notably those of the “tone psychologists” (including Carl Stumpf) and Hugo Riemann’s theory of Tonvorstellungen. It illuminates Kurth’s concern for “musical forces” and metaphorical language. In his estimation, analogies between music and the observable world are inevitable yet limited in their ability to clarify the listening experience.

Within the context of the above foundations, Part Two of the dissertation examines Kurth’s system of harmony as it appears in Musikpsychologie. This system is approached from three perspectives and three questions: a) chordal fusion, or how it is that we sense simultaneous tones as harmonious; b) chordal tension, or why we feel tension when hearing simultaneous tones; and c) chordal movement, or what underlying principles govern our responses to the succession of chords. Many of the ideas presented in 1931 are found in germinal form in Kurth’s habilitation thesis, Die Voraussetzungen der theoretischen Harmonik (1913). This study underscores points of connection between these two works and moreover, the evolution of Kurth’s thinking. The final chapter considers issues of form and rhythm in Musikpsychologie, setting the course for future research. The dissertation includes extensive, original translation of the source material.

Keywords: Ernst Kurth, Musikpsychologie, music psychology, Riemann, Stumpf, Gestalt musical forces, metaphor, harmony


Part I: Musikpsychologie: Its Foundations and Language
Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: On Musikpsychologie, Tonpsychologie, and Tonvorstellungen
Chapter 3: “Force, Space, Matter”: Metaphors for Musical Experience

Part II: Music Theory in the Context of Musikpsychologie
Chapter 4: “The Sounding Simultaneity” and the Theory of Fusion
Chapter 5: “Dynamism in the Chord”
Chapter 6: “Chordal Motion”
Chapter 7: Analysis of the Whole: Form, Rhythm, and Ways Forward




     Return to dissertations