„Schöne Stellen“—Beautiful Passages in Music

If we are asked about music that we especially like or are moved by, and if we then try to describe what this involves, we are very likely to find ourselves using the word “beautiful.” If we wish to very briefly explain our enthusiasm for one or another particular passage, this may serve as a sufficient answer. But what, in the end, do we mean by this—where, in fact, is the beauty in music located?

With the interplay between sonic object and experiencing subject, pleasant sensations during listening can be evaluated “as the effect of the beauty of what is being heard” (Konrad, 2008). But we by no means have consistently stable sensations. We experience the musical process as a constant actualizing of what is being directly heard, which is itself tied into a large range of interactions with its environment. We experience the individual musical event as what is presently manifest in relationship to what has preceded it and in expectation of what will come, parts of a complete structure.

In this process, occasionally certain musical events come to the forefront in a special way and have an effect ranging from fascination to absorption. Hence Theodor W. Adorno (1965) describes such beautiful passages as—despite the familiar critique—unique and irreplaceable, offering us the chance to lose ourselves “unhesitatingly.” Whether as a harmonic phrase, a melodic line, the use of voice or timbre, beautiful passages reveal themselves to the listener in phases of “condensed perception,” heightened attention, and intensified auditory pleasure (Konrad, 2008). The physiological reactions to these cognitive and emotional reactions range from a lightly elevated heart rate to goose bumps.
Beyond this, the description of the experience of such musical passages and moments often has recourse to a highly pictorial and expressive language. One example taken from the music press and describing such a moment: “A fireworks erupts, made of light and luster and a pure C-major; our hair punctually stands on end. The world around us has sunk away or soars at this point into the air.” (Büning, 2013)

The interdisciplinary project on Beautiful Passages in Music examines the connecting lines between subjective aesthetic experience, musical-acoustic characteristics, and the verbalization / conceptualization of these passages in particular. To this end, in a laboratory experiment study participants will be examined through peripheral-physiological measurements during their listening to music that they have themselves selected, collected in the framework of an explorative preliminary study.


Adorno, Th. W. (1997). Schöne Stellen (1965). In R. Tiedemann (Hrsg.), Theodor W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 18., Musikalische Schriften V (S. 695-718). Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.

Büning, E. (25.09.2013). Wagners schönste Stellen (23). „Siegfried“, dritter Aufzug, dritte Szene, Takte 265 ff.. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Abgerufen von http//www.faz.net

Konrad, U. (2008). Von den erogenen Zonen des Gehörs, oder: Schöne Stellen in der Musik. Zeitschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik, Jg. 38, H. 152, 73-83.