Phenomenological Description of the Notion of Inner Song: Doing Phenomenology to Understand Music Practice

BSP 2020 Conference

« Engaged Phenomenology »


In the present paper, I will introduce the notion of inner song, and demonstrate how an accurate description of the phenomenon requires a rigorous praxis of phenomenology giving voice to actual performers coming from various backgrounds.

If I observe a composer working at the table, I can see him writing what “sings in his head”. If I go to one of the Keith Jarrett’s concerts, I can hear and see him improvising what he “hears in his head.” If I watch the video of Glenn Gould rehearsing Bach in his home,[1] I can see how he plays on the piano what he hears from Bach. Playing music does not go without “singing in the head”, or even singing out loud for those that it helps.[2] If I don’t pay attention to the inner song, if I don’t listen to it, then I will only perform something mechanically, compose something that would be a patchwork of other tunes, or improvise something repeating other things already existing. The inner song is what gives life to the performance. Moreover, I would say that it is what brings the performance to existence. “Singing in the head” while playing or rehearsing looks trivial. Any musician, even an amateur, would say that it is the foundation of music. However, I argue that this almost insignificant phenomenon is precisely the heart of music practice, and for the phenomenologist, a door open to various uncovered regions of consciousness.

In my research I call inner song the phenomenon of musical imagination corresponding to the action (both trivial and crucial) of “singing in the head”. I use it in the particular case of music practice and explore it from the point of view of the musician him or herself. My research is therefore based on the Husserlian framework, but also on my own experience as an amateur musician, and on the experience imparted by more than fifty musicians I have interviewed in the past ten years. After ten years researching this topic through a constant dialogue both with phenomenology and music practice, I can now offer a detailed description of the inner song.

The expression inner song has two definitions: (1) in a generic sense as the musical object of imagination, (2) in a particular sense as related to three music practices: (a) the inner song of the composer as pure phantasy, (b) the inner song of interpretation as image consciousness, (c) the inner song of improvisation as sign-consciousness. [3] In these three cases, the inner song is given to consciousness because an imaginative voice voices it in consciousness, thus allowing it to appear against the background of the imaginary as a unified object. The voice provides the (1) sensuous content of the inner song, and (2) its temporality in the form of a succession.

I cannot offer a detailed description in this paper so I will only sketch the various layers constituting the inner song and provide their main characteristics. I will describe: (1) the imaginary as its background, (2) the voice that is its principle of individuation, and finally (3) the three forms of the inner song as  (a) pure phantasy in the case of the inner song of the composer, (b) image-consciousness in the case of the inner song of the interpreter, and (c) sign-consciousness in the case of the inner song of the improviser.


The imaginary field of a musician is made of sounds, emotions, colors, images, noises, tunes, etc. It sounds, sometimes continuously.[4] While I describe the imaginary using a Husserlian concept,[5] I modify it. For me, the imaginary is a region of consciousness: (1) founded in the perceptual field and (2) modifying it. The imaginary is founded in the perceptual field in the sense that it is ontologically dependent on it.[6] Imagining starts with perceiving. Musicians say that the sounds of the street, any melody, anything smelled, touched, or heard, participates in the constitution of the world from which the inner song springs.[7] Consequently, the imaginary is made of the same kind of data as the perceptual field: first sensuous, but also feeling-sensations, desires, and volitions, all of them coming with a certain excitement.[8] However, when the data of perception are given in the imaginary, they are re-presented, presented again but in a different way, modified, accompanied by a different excitement. In his work, Husserl distinguishes the content of perception called sensations from the content of imagination called phantasms. Their distinction is not always clear because it is as problematic to claim that they differ because of their content as to claim that they differ because of the act of apprehension.[9] For me, they differ because of their milieu, the place of their givenness: one is given in the field of perception that has certain characteristics, primarily that it presents the objects as existing, whereas the other is given in the field of imagination that has other characteristics, primarily that it re-presents objects that matter not for their existence but for their aesthetic impact on consciousness.[10] Once the data of perception are given in the imaginary, they are given in a new horizon of apprehension with a different color, a different meaning, fantasized, deformed, and reformed. If I hear a certain chord in perception for instance, it can be given again in imagination, but it would sound different, more joyful, less intense, with a different rhythm, etc. As the imaginary has a temporality, it also modifies the data along with their temporalities. Indeed, I understand the temporality of the imaginary not as a constituted temporality but as a constituting temporality. This means that: (1) it finds its temporal ground in a primary impression[11], (2) it is itself characterized by a suspended temporality that is like a quasi-present always at hand, and that (3) it modifies or constitutes the temporality of the data that it re-presents.[12]

The constitution of new objects made of the hyletic data of the imaginary and characterized by their own temporality happens thanks to a voice.[13] Indeed, the inner song manifests itself[14] against his background because an imaginative voice voices it. As musicians say: it sings in me.[15] This voice starts in a primary impression in the living body. It is then the principle of individuation, of delimitation, that allows the inner song to be manifested against the floating creative abundance of the imaginary. Without this voice, no particular object would be singled out of the multiplicity. I explained earlier how the imaginary is founded in the perceptual field. Similarly, the imaginative voice, as a voice springing out of the imaginary, is also founded in the perceptual voice.[16] Thus, in order to understand it, I must explain the constitution of the perceived voice. I describe it as constituted through the synthesis of two different voices:[17] (1) the voice apprehended as Körper, and (2) the voice apprehended as Leib. In the first case, the voice is given through the perception of the ear. It is given as a Körper that can be perceived by others as well. In the second case, the voice is given through the feeling of the living body. It is given as Leib, its constitution is part of the constitution of the living body as a whole. It cannot be perceived by others. In this latter case, the voice is constituted through the vibration of the body feeling itself, touching itself. In other word, I argue that it is constituted in tactility, therefore localized in the living body, and consequently providing a primary impression.[18] The perceived voice is constituted as a unified object through a synthesis uniting the two different modes of givenness as Körper and Leib. There is therefore a co-constitution. Here, I argue that the voice as Leib takes precedence over the voice as Körper. Indeed, it can be given alone whereas the voice apprehended as Körper is always also apprehended as Leib.[19] The imaginative voice is founded on this voice in the sense that it is ontologically dependent on it. As such it provides: (1) the flesh of the sound of the inner song made of the hyle, and (2) the first layer of temporality of the inner song which is a temporal succession unfolded through vocalization. The voice is the first layer of the constitution of the object. I argue that it is constituted through passive synthesis. It is an essential feature of the inner song, whatever form of consciousness it takes then. In other words, the inner song always has a primary layer constituted passively in the same way, and then it is possible to differentiate three forms of inner song as pure phantasy for the inner song of the composer, image-consciousness for the inner song of the interpreter, and sign-consciousness for the inner song of the improviser; these three forms being distinct because they are constituted by three different kinds of acts, three different kinds of active synthesis.[20]

As opposed to Husserl who uses the constitution of the Einbildung as a model to understand imagination, I use the inner song as pure phantasy as the model of the description.[21] Indeed, I argue that whatever form it has, the inner song is always first and foremost constituted in imagination, sometimes freely, sometimes guided by an image or a sign. Indeed, even when there is perception of a score, the score, is only prescribing how to imagine, does not depict it as is the case in photography for example. Thus, interpreting is not just about playing what is written, it is about imagining it, feeling it, bringing it to life in the imaginary through representation.[22] Earlier, I characterized the imaginary as a re-productive field. It indeed produces something new through the reshaping of something already given; in other words, there is a representation because there is a previous presentation. Thus, the inner song as pure phantasy is related to memory. However, it is not a souvenir because, rightly, it creates something new with the souvenir.[23] Listening to the experience of composers[24] has allowed me to identify four elements: (1) the idea which is a first level of non-intentional passive synthesis from the matter itself, (2) the development of the idea which is a progressive sketching of the object through successive modifications,[25] (3) the interpretation of the inner song which is a reflexive process to apprehend the object – it allows the composer to hear the inner song and decide what they want – and (4) the end of the modification (a full stop) which is a conscious decision to close the series of modifications. I argue that the first element is given through the spontaneous association of sounds in passive synthesis; in this sense it is received by the musician. Then, in composition the development of the idea is free in the sense that it is not guided by a perception, but it implies certain rules (there are possibilities and impossibilities in composition)[26] as well as boundaries (time to actually write a piece, instruments used, etc.)[27]. The whole process ends when the object is considered fully constituted. However, I would say that further modifications are always possible de jure, even if they are not made de facto.

The constitution of the inner song of the interpreter presents a different intentional act. I characterize it as an image-consciousness because there is a relationship of likeness between the represented object of the score, and the noema which is the inner song.[28] Indeed, through an appropriate reading of the score, the musician tries to get what the score really signifies.[29] It is not necessarily what the composer had in mind. It is also not reproducing exactly what the score means. It is representing in imagination (vorstellen) an object that has a relationship of likeness with what the scores represents. For this reason, I describe the inner song of the interpreter following the structure of the Einbildung described by Husserl in Phantasy, Image-Consciousness, and Memory §9.[30] This structure is made of three elements that are presented as follows in the case of the inner song of the interpreter: (1) the physical object, which is the score as Körper, (2) the Bildobjekt which is the score as it carries a system of signs, and (3) the Bildsubjekt which is the music represented in the score. The inner song is the noema formed in consciousness through the reading of the score. In this structure, the physical object does not really matter for the constitution of the inner song, it is only the bearer of something else. What matters is the relationship between Bildobjekt and Bildsubjekt, i.e. between the sign and what it represents. In this relationship, the Bildobjekt does not matter for itself, but as it represents the Bildsubjekt. There is therefore a conflict of representation: the a-perceived Bilsubjekt is seized upon through the perceived Bildobjekt. The constitution of the inner song happens through two acts: (1) an act of interpretation of the given through reflection, (2) an act of imagination; consciousness reaches then what is perceived through an act of judgment. As various musicians say when explaining how they research the composer’s life, culture, style, etc., the interpretation of the sign goes along with a process enrichment of the understanding.[31] A synthesis of apprehension then unites the hyletic data coming from the perception of the score, with the hyletic data coming from the imaginary, in order to constitute one unified object of imagination.[32]

Finally, when the inner song is guided by the prescription of a sign, but the sign points towards a represented object that does not have a relationship of likeness with the noema, I describe the inner song as sign-consciousness. Indeed, improvising means elaborating from a sign that points to something larger than itself. In my research I work primarily with the example of improvisation based on a basic score, but I want to enlarge the definition of sign in order to argue that it is not necessarily a visual perception. In folk music one learns through the fingering for instance. In this case, however, the elementary fingering is still pointing to more than what it represents, and the basic melody is enriched during the process of improvisation. Improvisation is therefore always characterized as a consciousness of signs with a visual or tactile perception pointing outward to a represented object that is not related to the inner song through likeness.[33] Even more than is the case in image-consciousness, there is an essential poverty of the sign in comparison to what it represents. The sign is only a point d’appui to create something new. [34] From interviews with musicians who are also improvisers[35] I can identify six elements as a part of the inner song as sign-consciousness: (1) a necessary primary process of digestion of the elementary data provided by the sign,[36] (2) a crystallization[37] of the given in the imaginary, (3) embodiment in a living body reacting to sound,[38] (4) the connection, and moreover the affective connection, with the instrument through tactility,[39] (5) the mastering of technical possibilities that makes the expression of a complex inner song possible,[40] and (6) the reaction to the environment and to the conditions of realization of the improvisation.[41] The examination of the inner song of the improviser demonstrates in a more dramatic manner the very close relationship between performing and hearing the inner song. Indeed, as opposed to composition that might imply a temporal distance between the time of the composition and the performance, or the interpretation in which the musician can work on the inner song independently of the performance, improvising supposes the immediate performance of the inner song; grasping the inner song means here grasping it with the fingers.



I would like to finish this paper by going back to the words of the great violist and conductor Rudolf Barshaï who finished the composition of the 10th Symphony from Mahler. In the documentary The Note, A Lifelong Quest for One Single Note he says: “I finally heard what I was searching for” and he continues by evoking the indescribable joy that sprang out along with it.[42]

I can identify two important things from this quote: (1) the idea that grasping the inner song implies a gradual fulfillment of the intention, and (2) that the complete fulfillment of the intention corresponds to the feeling of finally “getting the object” which is a source of joy. I did not mention in this paper the question of the various degrees of fulfillment of the intention in the givenness of the inner song. I would like to argue that it goes from a more elementary fulfillment to a complete fulfillment of the intention in some very rare and heavenly moments. Any form of the inner song, pure phantasy, image-consciousness, or sign-consciousness, supposes a process of searching for the inner song, seizing upon it, and progressively grasping it. It is what the composer tries to do when he writes and edits his writings, it is what the interpreter does during the endless hours of practice at home, it is what the improviser is doing when he plays on stage.[43] I would argue that most of the time we don’t have the patience to be demanding in our search, we get used to imperfect grasping. However, the more I try to get into the life of the greatest musicians of all times through reading, documentaries, or even personal encounters, the more I think that this search for perfection, to finally hear what we are searching for, is the mark of the greatest. The joy of finding it and having reached this peak might not happen so often, but it is an unforgettable reward.[44]

[1]                     In the documentary The Art of Piano, Donald Sturrock, 1999.


[2]                     It is interesting to hear the pianist Evgueni Kissin saying in an interview in the documentary The Gift of Music by Christopher Nuppen (1998) that his career started when he was a baby repeating through singing everything he heard on the radio or everything his sister played. As I will argue later, music starts through voicing tunes, and creating starts with repeating and memorizing through repetition.


[3]                     I don’t enter in the discussion about the ontology of the score in order to explain what scores carry an image and what scores carry a sign, I argue from the Husserlian distinction between sign and image in Logical Investigations, III §14 that: (1) when there is a relationship of likeness between the object represented in the score and the inner song as a noema in consciousness, then it is an image consciousness, and (2) when there is no such a relationship, then it is a sign-consciousness. The third mode of consciousness which is pure phantasy differs from these two types of consciousness because the constitution of the object of imagination is not guided by a perception.


[4]                     Cf. Interview with Alexandre Bénéteau


[5]             Husserl describes it as a floating presence (Schweben, vorschweben) and investigates it in the Crisis and Thing and Space.


[6]             I use the Husserlian concept of foundation for which he provides two understandings in the Logical Investigations: (1) ontological in the Logical Investigations  II/III and (2) gnoseological in the Logical Investigation VI. Cf. Thomas Nenon, « Deux modèles de fondation dans les Recherches logiques », Methodos [En ligne], 9 | 2009, mis en ligne le 20 février 2009, consulté le 04 juillet 2020. URL : ; DOI :


[7]             This is something that I discussed with Luigi Grasso ( and Vincent Segal ( for instance, but many musicians conveyed this message as well. In my dissertation, I argue that the inner song belongs to an embodied consciousness in the sense that (1) it is embodied in the living body, but also (2) a consciousness that is in the world, in constant interaction with it.


[8]             In my dissertation I investigate these different components more in depth by working on the notions of Empfindungen (sensations), and Erregung (excitement) from the Logical Investigations V .


 Alexander Schnell in Temps et Phénomène argues that they differ because of their temporality.


[10]           I develop that in my dissertation, following and adjusting Husserl’s description of the object of imagination in the Logical Investigations V and VI.


[11]           In Inner Time Consciousness Appendices I, II, and III, Husserl argues that temporality unfolds from a primary impression. In the specific case of the inner song, the temporality is embodied, in the sense that the musician does not imagine something without feeling it, and more specifically feeling its temporal development on the body. I discussed this question more in depth with the teacher of eurythmic method Stephen Neely ( that when we work with the inner song it is really important to be able to embody it, walk it, dance it, express it with the hands (this is interesting to watch in the director’s gesture for instance, especially someone like the Maestro Carlos Kleiber who looks like he’s dancing with his hands).


[12]           Just as musicians say that “there is always something singing” (cf., and consistent with the Husserlian understanding of the imaginary, I would like to argue that the imaginary is pure present. However, it is not pure present in the sense that there is a presentation of the objects. Indeed, as I said earlier the imaginary is re-productive. It is therefore a quasi-present. This notion of quasi is investigated in  Husserl’s texts on phantasy in Phantasy, Image-Consciousness, and Memory.

[13]           I thank the composer Olivier Calmel who was the first to mention this voice during our discussion (cf.

[14]           In my dissertation I develop this notion of “manifestation” thanks to Patočka.

[15]           Interestingly enough, the title of the documentary by Arnette Schreier from 2001 about the Wagnerian singer Waltraut Meieir is entitled I Follow a Voice Within Me. The idea of a voice voicing the inner song is obviously particularly visible in the case of singing. However, I argue that the voice is an essential characteristic of the inner song. In other words, that any inner song is always given through a voice voicing it.

[16]           However, there are not only two kind of voices. In my dissertation I also mention: (1) the linguistic voice that would be the phenomenological voice as Derrida understands it, and (2) the voice as instrument in the specific case of the singer.

[17]           I describe it more in detail in my dissertation and base my description on a close study of Husserl, Ideas 2, especially §41, and Derrida Speech and Phenomenon.

[18]           In my dissertation I work closely with the §36 of Ideas 2.

[19]           I investigate this more in depth in my dissertation, but this information can also be found in various documents about the experience of being deaf, one of them being the testimony of Marion Devosse

[20]           I cannot develop the question of these two different syntheses here, but I develop them in more detail in my dissertation using the common traits and the differences between the experiences of interpreters, improvisers, and composers, and basing my description essentially in Husserl’s Passive and Active Synthesis.

[21]           Again, I am working on the specific case of composing music, not on the spontaneous hearing of an inner song in our daily lives.

[22]           In a German documentary from 2012 entitled I am Lost to the World about the conductor Carlos Kleiber I noticed that the German language uses vorstellen to describe how the musician has a vision of what they read: they imagine it. It is a word that has a particular meaning in a H context: vorstellen is not wahrnehmen. It is a presentation without the pretension to the actual existence of the object.

[23]           I develop this particular question in my dissertation and address the question of the re-presentation of the inner song as a souvenir. Indeed, a musician can recall the inner song, thus, it means that it is somehow kept in memory. This is actually a huge part of music practice: the composer works through recalling the inner song, trying to get it through multiple recalls, the interpreter tries to recall tunes which are potentially already played but presenting them differently, and the interpreter tries to get the essence of the object through multiple recalls.

[24]           Interviews published in this section of my website:

[25]           In the case of classical composition it is the process of writing down the inner song.

[26]           I discussed this question particularly with the composer Olivier Calmel: In my dissertation I develop the notion of skilled consciousness mentioned by Husserl when he speaks about imagination as Einbildung. I argue that the inner song requires a skilled consciousness in two senses: (1) having learned music, and (2) being embodied and constituted in a particular culture.

[27]           I addressed the question of the boundaries particularly with the electronic composer Jesse Stiles

[28]           I refer here to Husserl’s definition of image consciousness in the Logical Investigations VI, §14, p. 219.

[29]                                                                   The various interpreters with whom I discussed all conveyed this message even if some of them stressed more the importance of the appropriate reading as if the score would be the object to grasp. I argue that the appropriate reading is the capacity to grasp the sign correctly in order to imagine within the appropriate boundaries that it provides.

[30]           P. 21, I develop this question in detail in my dissertation.

[31]           Here again comes the notion of skilled consciousness which, in this situation, is: (1) learned technique (in order to understand what the sign signifies, the consciousness should have learned the correspondence and should be able to remember it ) and (2) culture (both in the sense that the musician belongs to a certain culture, and build their own culture). I discussed this question particularly with the Japanese classical flutist Madoka Sato who explained me how she tried to get to know the European heritage in order to play classical music (cf.

[32]           I investigate this is problem of the synthesis of unification of the field of perception with the field of imagination in more detail in my dissertation.

[33]           In my dissertation I work on the notion of sign from Husserl’s Logical Investigations III and V and argue that a sign is not necessarily a written sign.

[34]           In my dissertation, I develop this question using Ingarden’s works on music.

[35]           I think here about the jazz musicians (cf.;;, folk musicians (cf., or organists (cf.;

[36]           I discussed that more depth with the saxophonist Camille Poupat who explained the practice of dictates in jazz tradition (cf.

[37]           I borrow this expression from the French writer Stendhal that describes the process of falling in love in De l’Amour. The crystallization is a metaphor used by the French writer to describe how love embellishes what it loves and draw from the object of love the perfections that it sees in it. In improvisation this process involves the embodiment in a culture, and the constitution of a culture.

[38]           I discussed this question with jazz musicians.

[39]           This is something that is important in interpretation as well (cf. interview with Anne-Marie Morin However, I would argue that it is more apparent in the case of improvisation. I discussed this question more particularly with the electronic musicians working directly with the matter provided by the musical instrument.

[40]           This is a question that I discussed with organists who have to deal with a very complex mechanism (cf.;

[41]           This is a question that I discussed more with the pianist Manuel Rocheman who explained how the various musicians of an ensemble improvise together (cf.

[42]           Rudof Barshaï, The Note – A Lifelong Quest for One Single note, 2012.

[43]           Maybe in this last case it is more perilous because it supposes a mastery of grasping through performing in the instant.

[44]           I think here of a story about the conductor Carlos Kleiber (in the documentary that I mentioned earlier) who would have reached this perfection in a rehearsal, and would have then cancelled the announced concert, certain that it could only be less perfect that what he just heard.


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