On the musically melancholic: temporality and affects in western music history

Yonatan Bar-Yoshafat

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Music’s power to express and arouse feelings has been one of its principal attributes from antiquity. While the topic remains prevalent in contemporary discourse, relatively little attention had been given to specifically melancholic expressions in European music. The article examines various stages in western music history vis-à-vis the changing formulations and receptions of melancholy as a cultural phenomenon, from the time it was perceived as a sign of either a physical or a moral problem to later historical periods, when positive and negative views on melancholy intertwined. In this article, I point at an interesting connection between melancholic representations in music works and music’s unique relationship with time. As I show, prevalent conventions of pre-modern music, which manifest cyclical (or ‘theological’) structures of time, keep the listener’s experience simultaneously rooted in the present and floating in eternity. Alternatively, the linear (or ‘teleological’) sense of temporality found in early-modern and modern music works allows for the possibility of ‘looking back’ and experiencing longings. Various diachronic and synchronic temporal sensitivities, which manifest explicit (via titles or texts) or implicit melancholic feelings, are explored. Music’s linearity is shown to provide it a lost past to mourn.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)918-938
Number of pages21
JournalHistory of European Ideas
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


The research was supported by The Open University of Israel’s Research Fund [grant no. 31911].

FundersFunder number
Open University of Israel’s Research Fund31911


    • C. P. E. Bach
    • Guillaume de Machaut
    • John Dowland
    • Robert Schumann
    • Temporality in Western music
    • melancholic representations


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