Music Doctrine of Affections
Maria Semi
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0295


The “doctrine of affections” is a legendary creature created by early-20th-century German musicologists: its head is made of prescriptive treatises and its body of descriptive compositions. The term has however entered scholarly parlance and is commonly used to refer to a cluster of theorizations and compositional strategies that shared a common aim: emphasizing the affective dimension of music in order to move the listener. The “doctrine of affections” derives its name from the German term Affektenlehre and it lived its golden age in the Baroque era (see the Oxford Bibliographies article on Baroque Music and its section “Music-Theoretical Issues”). It merges a renewed humanistic interest in the ars rhetorica, ensued to the rediscovery of texts such as Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria during the 15th century, with an interest in the mechanics of the passions, fostered by Descartes’ Passions de l’âme (1649). The power of music to raise or soothe the passions had already been discussed by philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle (the latter’s theory of catharsis proving especially successful during the Renaissance), and in some sense “doctrines of affections” have often accompanied the history of thinking about music and its effects. However the “doctrine of affections” stricto sensu is tied to the revival of doctrines of musical ethos by the humanists, in combination with medical elements derived from galenic temperament theory and with the idea of musica humana derived from Boethius (Ficino’s theories being a notable example of this combination). Baroque doctrines of affections, while deriving some themes—such as the link between modes and affects—from these former traditions, modified their gravity center. From a Renaissance medical model interested in the bodily transformations induced by music, the focus shifts to a rhetorical model interested in producing determinate effects on the listeners in the orator’s mode. During the 16th and 17th centuries, from the philosophical upsurge of interest in passions themselves and in their communicability and from the coeval transformations in musical compositional techniques, a renovated rhetorical discourse on affective music and its relation to the poetical texts was drafted. Drawing on the speculations of authors like Descartes, Mersenne, and Kircher, 18th-century theorists tried to single out the affective power of modes and figures, albeit without creating universal theories. These musico-rhetorical theories dawned when a new way of addressing the world of the passions and affections was devised later in the 18th century.

General Overviews

This section addresses general overviews related to the topic “doctrine of affections.” It is articulated in three subsections. Affektenlehre 1900s–1950s lists the works of musicologists who were seminal in creating the idea of Affektelehre that dominated until the studies of Palisca and Buelow, which are representatives of the second subsection: Critique of the “Doctrine” of Affections. The third subsection, Twenty-First-Century Views, deals with recent relevant literature.

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