Opus 4, No. 2: Jungian “Personality Type” Analysis Applied To Music

by Allan Greene

One of my all-time favorite ballets, and one of the great dance creations of the Twentieth Century, is Balanchine’s “Four Temperaments”.  When I was Company Pianist with the Dance Theater of Harlem we must have performed it fifty times.  I did maybe twenty performances as the piano soloist with orchestras in Paris, Houston and the Spoleto USA Festival.  I am steeped in this work.                                   

At the time I was performing it, however, I was completely unaware of the connection between the four medieval “temperaments” or “humors” (choleric, melancholy, sanguine, and phlegmatic) and the much more recent work of the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung.  In the early 1920’s Jung synthesized ideas dealing with the relationship between physiology and personality, many of which he had come across in readings about world civilizations, into what he called the Psychology of Type (his 1921 book was called Psychologische Typen).  He noted how the differentiation of four personality types was common to the classical Greece (through the physician Galen), the medieval Persian physician Avicenna and early modern Europe. 

At first Jung drew on these historical ideas to resolve the conflict he was having with his mentor, Freud.  The two had a celebrated professional break-up in 1912, and Jung spent some time trying to reconcile with himself why this had occurred.  Out of this he created the concepts of introvert and extrovert, which have morphed into touchstones of our modern psychology.  In Psychologische Typen he extended the number of personality types to eight.

The idea for Balanchine’s Four Temperaments was not Balanchine’s (nor was it Galen’s) but, according to program notes for the American Symphony Orchestra prepared by Adrian Corleonis, came from the composer Paul Hindemith.  Corleonis doesn’t show however where Hindemith came across the idea.  It’s always possible that he was familiar with Carl Nielsen’s Second Symphony (1901), nicknamed also “The Four Temperaments”.

The essential idea in all of this is that there are four kinds of personality: one tending toward sadness (melancholy), one tending toward hesitance (phlegmatic), one tending toward cheerfulness (sanguine) and one tending toward anger (choleric).  All human beings possess one of these four personality types, and, according to pre-Modern medical science, must be treated appropriately.

It is my belief that all pieces of music, too, are constituted of recognizable “personalities”, and the best performances of them understand and animate the interaction of these personalities.

I don’t think it’s novel to claim that different kinds of music possess different personalities.   J.S. Bach, after all, insisted that E-flat major had a different character than D major, and wrote his preludes and fugues in the Well-Tempered Clavier to reflect this.  Fast music is frequently thought of as happy, slow music as sad.  The Csardas in Delibes’ Coppelia is understood by most listeners to be masculine, strong, large, melodramatic.  For that matter, Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies are typically felt to be languid, supine, curvaceous, classically feminine qualities.  All twenty-four of Chopin’s Opus 28 preludes inspired the German conductor Hans von Bulow to rhapsodize about the “story” told by each of these abstract vignettes.  Nineteenth-century Romanticism, in music, was built on the conviction that music embodies and communicates not only recognizable emotions but stories with discernible characters and locations.

Music theory, as it is understood in the Western academic tradition, is a “science” of quantifying the meaning of musical sound, in order to analytically interpret musical pieces.  It deals with scales, chords, harmonies, rhythms and “rhetorical” devices like repetition and compression.  It is a simple machine, in the Newtonian sense, a mechanical model which produces a cause-and-effect picture of  “how music works”.  It cancels from the equation emotions and story-telling as extraneous to what is “in” the music.  It is widely taught and widely accepted as the proper way to interpret musical works.

As I mentioned in September’s column, when I was in college I tried to use a different “theoretical” approach than the music theory I was taught, and was dismissed by the faculty as a crank.   My approach was to break down music (in my case, the first movement of Brahms’ Opus 2 Piano Sonata) by identifying the personalities of the various components of the music and showing them as so many characters in search of a drama.  That was, after all, what was going through my mind as I played the piece in performance, and I thought it would be enlightening to give my colleagues a peek under the tent.

Unfortunately, this way of looking at music, which had thrived for hundreds of years, had been in eclipse for several generations.  In its stead was a faith in the Infallible Score.  If the composer didn’t put it down in writing, the input is irrelevant, no matter how illuminating it is.  Music Theory, as it is studied academically, doesn’t need anything more than the notes on the page.

It’s odd that in music, of all things, the predominant school of analysis means to suck the emotion out of the art.  It’s that assumption that I intend to address.

It is my belief that all pieces of music, too, have identifiable “personalities” or are constituted of groups of recognizable “personalities”, and the best performances of them understand and animate the interaction of these personalities. 

As many Jungian psychoanalysts have it, it is a life goal to integrate one’s personality into a world of diverse personalities, to allow one’s personality to mature into a “well-roundedness”, smoothing out the spikiness of adolescence and sanding down the rough edges of young adulthood.  I’ve always thought that musical masterpieces reveal the same sense of totality and completeness that a mature person or a well-modulated group of people does.

One Jungian psychologist, Otto Kroeger, specializes in applying typological principles to group dynamics.  In his book Type Talk at Work (2002, 2009) he illustrates how each of the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types can successfully lead work-groups, regardless of the leader’s degree of introversion or diffidence.  This a more complex application of the “functions” discussed in the next section, Forever Jung.

Again, it is possible to apply these dynamics to pieces of music, by analogy.  These “personalities” are spoken about all the time, and always have been, although they’ve usually been called “styles”, having been influenced by a certain school of training or performance, or influenced by specific kinds of works or composers.  We don’t think twice about saying that the opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth is angry, or that Swanhilde’s opening variation in Act I of Delibes’ Coppelia is happy.  We can also easily identify musical ethnicity, as is done in so many great Nineteenth Century ballets in their character variations.

What we don’t much do is note the interplay of all these “personalities” within a single piece, although they’re surely there.  All right, Mozart’s Turkish Rondo is Turkish (sort of), so are important elements of the final movement of his A Major Violin Concerto, K. 219 (also frequently called “Turkish”).  Why are they Turkish?  Why are they there?  What was Mozart trying to tell the Viennese?  Was he just making fun of the Ottomans, long-time antagonists to the Hapsburgs?  Did he sense beauty or danger in these foreign objects?

To answer, we have to burrow into Mozart’s behavior, hence his personality, which brings us back to Jung.  But the answer, whatever it is, gives us a framework for understanding Swan Lake, and, in particular, the White Swan Pas de Deux and the interplay of its music, movement and drama.  That’s what I really want to write about, but I’m going to have to write about it in my November and December columns to do so.

This month I’m laying the conceptual groundwork for this kind of Jungian personality analysis applied to a work of art.

Forever Jung

Here’s where I’m heading: Jungian psychotherapists counsel their patients to become “whole” persons, or to use their term of art, “differentiate” themselves.  They assume that people have innate tendencies of processing the information about their world (their “dominant function”), secondary ways of processing this information when their innate tendencies aren’t working (their “auxiliary function”), dicey approaches if neither of those are working (“tertiary function”), and totally opposite-to-what-one-instictively-uses approaches that surface during nervous breakdowns and panic attacks (“inferior functions”).

According to the Jungians, one matures into a holistic personality, well-rounded and at peace with oneself, by learning how to use all the approaches to dealing with one’s world, the easy (“dominant function”), the comfortable alternative (“auxiliary function”), the awkward and uncomfortable (“tertiary function”), as well as the excruciating (“inferior function”).  One cannot achieve this before the age of fifty, say the Jungians.  A younger person just hasn’t assembled the critical mass of life experiences to have achieved “differentiation” (full psychological maturity).

I am suggesting that a masterpiece of music, by my analytical standard, is also holistic, well-rounded and at peace with itself.  It draws on styles and techniques that are diverse and that separately might be at odds with one another, but have been composed not only to live together but to create a whole greater than the sum of their parts.

Which brings me to the Four Temperaments… Not the Hindemith-Balanchine Four Temperaments, not yet, at least…  but the Four Temperaments which Galen, the First Century B.C. physician, wrote were the basic types of human disposition, Angry (Choleric), Laid-Back (Phlegmatic), Upbeat (Sanguine) and Sad (Melancholy).  Carl Jung turned to these traditional personality types to try to explain why he and his mentor Sigmund Freud had a bad professional break-up in 1912.

This is how Jung invented the concepts of introversion and extroversion, and to accompany them, the concepts of intuition and sensation.  According to Jung, the reason that he and Freud (the Extrovert) had come to loggerheads was that Freud drew mainly upon external data, like physical evidence, to support his work, and had little tolerance for meditative soul-searching; whereas Jung (the Introvert) preferred searching his personal thoughts and feelings to discover and verify his work, and was a little shaken up by Freud’s brashness.

Jung developed this observation into eight personality types, which were later elaborated by Isabel Briggs-Myers in her work for the United States War Department in the 1940’s into sixteen basic personality types.  These are widely used today, and known in the field of psychology as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators.  The sub-field of industrial psychology is largely based on this work.

Jung called his four original personality functions thinking, feeling, intuition and sensation, which correspond to Galen’s Four Temperaments: phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric and melancholy.  Otto Kroeger asserts that the best workplaces are composed of all personality types, who, when appropriately tasked, contribute every possible way of approaching every situation that comes up in the course of business.

It is my claim that the best music is made up of all types of musical “personalities” which, skillfully developed, form a holistic composition exuding emotional depth and emotional balance.  Some might characterize such a piece as enfolding the Four Temperaments.

This now brings us to Paul Hindemith’s three themes and variations thereupon for piano and string orchestra, The Four Temperaments.  The idea seems cartoonish, to compose variations Happy, Sad, Mopey and Angry.  But those of us who know the music, likely through George Balanchine’s expressionistic choreography, know that there is a deep well of human frailty expressed in those twenty minutes of music and dance, and why? I’m not going to go through the score page for page on this web page, but instead assert a priori that the work’s power derives from the interplay of its musical temperaments.

Jungian “personality type” analysis applied to music


[Hindemith, The Four Temperamants, Theme, Melancholic, Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Choleric]

This is going to be how we are going to look next month at the music Tchaikovsky composed for the “White Swan” Pas de Deux (Part V of Scene 13) of his Swan Lake, Opus 20.  In the last installment in December, we’ll examine how this analysis works with the combination of music and choreography.

Allan Greene

BIO: Contributor Allan Greene has been a dancers’ musician for nearly forty years. He is a composer, pianist, teacher, conductor, music director, father to Oliver, 9, and Ravi, 6, and husband to Juliana Boehm. He has also been an architect, an editor, a writer and a boiler mechanic. He lives and works in New York City. His ballet class music can be found on www.BalletClassTunes.com

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Catherine L. Tully is the owner/editor at 4dancers.org. To learn more about Catherine and the other contributors at 4dancers, see the "Contributor" tab at the top of the page. To reach Catherine, send an e-mail to info (at) 4dancers (dot) org

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