I've been thinking about catharsis (in the sense used in aesthetics) and I'm trying to feel out the edges of its accepted application.

Trance music is often described using words such as "euphoric" and "exhilarating". Whilst these are a good description of the resultant emotional state many experience when listening to this kind of music, these words fall short of describing the devices employed by the artist in creating that state. A defining characteristic of trance music is a slow build up of tension, usually through gradual introduction of instrumental parts, increase of reverb, cut-off and other effects, and crescendo. These produce an increasingly full sound which eventually reaches a climax at which the tension is released. This release is achieved by a large discontinuous change, usually one which renews emphasis on the rhythmic aspects of the work. Where there is dancing, it continues with renewed energy.

Unlike "euphoric" and "exhilarating", "catharsis" seems like it may capture the build up and release of tension I have described. Yet the Greek meaning, "purification", seems to imply it is the release of specifically negative emotions. In its (rather occasional) every-day usage I've only really heard it used in discussing drama or in reference to violence in films, video games, or defecation. It seems to me that the emotions evoked during the building-up parts of trance music are perhaps not negative enough to make the term "catharsis" appropriate.

Furthermore, there seems to be some kind of notion that the emotions from which there is release must be pre-existing - that they are things you already feel deep down and the work simply gives a means by which they can be safely expressed. I'm not saying that this isn't true of trance music (far from it) but perhaps it excludes the use of catharsis to describe the building-up-and-release I have described above.

So, to me, the question boils down to this: is any build of tension and subsequent release enough to warrant the label of catharsis?

If one accepts the idea that trance music is cathartic, a number of other situations would seem to be included along with it, such as a child opening their Christmas presents after a number of restless nights with them sitting under the tree, getting that delivery from an online retailer that you were looking forward to, or finally meeting up with friends/family after a long journey. These are certainly quite mundane compared to the canonical examples (the downfall of Macbeth, vomiting &c).

If one does not accept this idea, then is there a better word?

I should probably emphasise that I'm asking about whether the "build up and release" device used by the creators of trance music makes use of catharsis, not whether a listener can find trance music cathartic (I'm sure they do!).

  • It sounds like you're fashioning a vocabulary for describing the emotional affects of trance music where only a simple vocabulary is available. In this case borrowing or stealing terminology from a neighbouring discipline where some degree of association is available is generally accepted, but in the new field the meaning tends to diverge. Apr 9 '14 at 21:43
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    @MoziburUllah I understand you to be saying that the word doesn't apply very well because it was never supposed to apply to modern day culture, music (i.e. outside of literature where it began), or perhaps both. That's fair enough. I have no desire to fashion a vocabulary for describing the emotional effects trance music though - the idea of doing so sounds rather pointless and silly. I'm just wondering if that particular feature (which is the salient feature of trance music) is well described by an existing term that has been, and still is, widely used in the study of aesthetics.
    – Lucas
    Apr 9 '14 at 23:11
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    @MoziburUllah What I have described actually quite a common motif throughout all music, it's just not as relentlessly exploited elsewhere. There's a real problem with interpreting old aesthetic ideas in a modern context: do you know anyone who drinks Canary wine? (no, because it doesn't exist any more, yet it is used as a canonical example in aesthetics)... its also used in comedy.
    – Lucas
    Apr 9 '14 at 23:13
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    Opinion based. Question should be closed
    – user2683
    Oct 14 '15 at 10:37
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    Catharsis is really a term of art in psychoanalysis and poetics, it enters English not directly from Aristotle but from an analogy with the medical term for cleansing through vomit and diarrhea. It does not apply to all forms of emotional cleansing, and from the POV of modern practitioners of DBT, for instance, would not cover what is going on in mediation, which is more of a balancing of unresolved forces kept segregated by consciousness than an expulsion of toxic influences that build up in some sort of cathexis. To apply it to both integration and expulsion seems counterproductive.
    – user9166
    Apr 3 '18 at 17:57

[I]s any build of tension and subsequent release enough to warrant the label of catharsis?


'Catharsis' properly involves a 'cleansing purgation'; per Aristotle, it refers to the purgation of pity and fear via the shared experience produced by drama (Poetics, VI). Centuries of term papers to the contrary, it wasn't necessarily a profound insight into the nature of the Reality of Art; it was mostly a reposte to Plato's charge that drama tended to heighten emotions in a manner unhelpful to philosophy. We can't be sure of Aristotle's ideas, though, because he fleshed them out in either his Poetics, Vol. II, or dialogue On Poets, both of which have been lost.

Based on what we've got, there are various interpretations of how catharsis comes about and whether the emotions should be entirely removed or remain in a purified form. Suffice it to say that 'techno' is just 'fast electronic music', and its offspring trance definitionally aims at ecstasy, not purgation and emotional clarity. To that end, it is characterized by its repetition, not by any build-and-release mechanism which some DJs might happen to employ. On the other hand, emotions are a subjective affair, such that any mundane act approached in the proper spirit or in the right circumstances might prove to be cathartic; that's no slight to canonical examples, particularly since Elizabethan tragedy has next to nothing to do with the Greeks' and needn't involve catharsis at all.

  • Unless you're talking about sadcore trance. If you are, you're just wrong.
    – user30898
    Jun 5 '18 at 18:55
  • @Steve As User2683 noted, the question certainly invites unsourced or uninformed opinions. Since 'sadcore' is a catchall for musically or lyrically depressing music, though, there's no requirement it be cathartic, however much that may be your experience or some DJs' aim in producing it. To the extent that it wallows in sadness instead of transcending it, it would actually be antithetical to catharsis. None of which invalidates your personal ability to achieve catharsis through it; good on ya.
    – lly
    Jun 6 '18 at 4:27
  • good point. I've never heard of someone listening to sadcore for a reason other than it being cathartic. Guess there's more than one reason to listen to it. By that logic, can anything actually be cathartic though? That might be the creators intent or the reader/listeners experience, but transcending the specific imagery used to achieve catharsis is ultimately up to reader/listener. Catharsis in this context seems more like a reaction to a work rather than an inherent property of a work. Is that the argument you're making?
    – user30898
    Jun 6 '18 at 13:42
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    @Steve You don't have to agree with it, but Aristotle's take was that the purgation of fear and pity was an unavoidable and natural human (read: upper-class Greek male) response to properly-constructed Greek tragedy. Based on his surviving work, he presumably would have viewed an upper-class Greek male who did not experience catharsis as somehow emotionally defective. Again, though, it's really a rationalization to justify drama improving the philosopher's emotional state rather than impairing it, the way Plato thought. In a way, it was PR. It wasn't a research finding or law of nature.
    – lly
    Jun 7 '18 at 1:28
  • Damn, you know your stuff. +1
    – user30898
    Jun 7 '18 at 14:06

It is interesting to note that the only place outside the Poetics in which Aristotle talks of 'catharsis' is the Politics, where he applies it to the experience of listening to music : Politics, VIII, 1341b32-1342b17.

Noreen W. Kruse refers to one (one) interpretation of catharsis in the Poetics. The view of :

catharsis as emotional purgation or therapeutic relief, assumes that pity and fear are, in many respects, disturbing and uncomfortable emotions. Therefore, they should be eliminated. Somehow, in viewing a tragedy, these affections are raised to a pitch, and when they are finally relieved, the morbid element is thrown off. Butcher*, for example, contends that "as the tragic action progresses, when the tumult of the mind, first roused, has afterwards subsided, the lower forms of emotion are found to have been transmuted into higher and more refined forms."

(Noreen W. Kruse, 'The Process of Aristotelian Catharsis: A Reidentification', Theatre Journal, Vol. 31, No. 2 (May, 1979), pp. 162-171 : 164.

*S.H. Butcher, Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art: With a Critical Text and Translation of the Poetics, trans., and comm. S. H. Butcher, 4th ed. (1894; reprint NY, 1951, 254.

'...these affections are raised to a pitch' and 'when the tumult of the mind, first roused, has afterwards subsided' are phrases that fit well with your idea of catharsis as a 'build of tension and subsequent release'.

Now, Aristotle would not go along with the idea that 'any' - just any - build of tension and subsequent release are catharsis in his sense. But Aristotle gave 'catharsis', a term he did not invent, a special, narrow meaning exactly right for his purposes. But he does not own the term. Aristotle often took over common terms and gave them a special sense; there is no reason why you should not do likewise to 'catharsis' and extend its sense for your own purposes. This happens all the time in language, which is vital, flexible and capable of growth.

As long as you make clear how you are using 'catharsis' and are aware that it does not coincide with Aristotle's use, you should feel free to use it. It is the closest word to what you want, so extend it to cover what you want.

  • Yes, a long-running issue in philosophy is the ability to specially repurpose terms for particular ideas, which tends to cause at least as much confusion as clarity. 'Catharsis' isn't the closest term to 'buildup-and-release' in English; that would be 'release', which implies its built-up object, or synonyms like 'freedom' or 'liberation' which can be contextualized. Similarly, songs like 'Sultans of Swing', 'Freebird', and OP's swelling techno are far more 'orgasmic' than 'emotionally purifying' to most listeners.
    – lly
    Jun 6 '18 at 4:23
  • Aristotle repurposed a common Greek word in Greek; it's a different thing to repurpose a specialized Greek term of art in English instead of just using a more general term. That said, so long as the focus was on emotional purification, sure 'catharsis' would be the right word.
    – lly
    Jun 6 '18 at 4:25
  • @lly. +1. Thank you for your comments. I entirely agree about 'release' - of course, you are right. As well, 'katharsis' - I don't know how to use Gk letters on this site - is so closely associated with Aristotle's aesthetics that there is a risk of confusion if the term is used in a wider sense. As long as the Q-er makes clear his or her usage, I think the risk is minimised. Btw the Q-er appears to have disappeared from the scene. If there's no positive response to my answer, I'll delete it. Best - GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jun 6 '18 at 7:09
  • There's a mechanism for marking upvotes, silly, like the one I'll use to preserve this part of the conversation. As far as Greek letters, κάθαρσις. Wiktionary makes it difficult to enter them as well so your best options are to head to Wikipedia entries and cut-&-paste or click over to Greek articles where available (they'll be modern) or to talk to someone about how to enable Greek typing support for your OS. It's pretty intuitive on Macs: there's a language tab in the upper right with an easy toggle. Keyboard Viewer lets you figure out the right accent keys.
    – lly
    Jun 6 '18 at 9:53
  • @lly. Extremely helpful reply - thank you. Best : G
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jun 6 '18 at 11:08

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