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Encyclopedia of Aesthetics
Arnheim, Rudolf
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Arnheim, Rudolf
To explore the work of Arnheim, a contemporary psychologist of art, this entry comprises two



The first is an overview essay about Arnheim's psychology of art and its relationship to aesthetics.
The second essay is by Arnheim, who here introduces a basic idea—dynamics—through which he
proposes to understand some features common to all the arts. See also PERSPECTIVE; and TRIBAL

Survey of Thought
Rudolf Arnheim (b.1904) has been a long-standing proponent of a perceptualist approach to
(primarily visual) art based on Gestalt psychology. His central work is Art and Visual Perception:A
Psychology of the Creative Eye, published in 1954 and revised in 1974. Arnheim uses the central
thesis of Gestalt psychology—visual organization—as a guide to the fundamental meaning of the
work of art. Every work, whether figurative or nonfigurative, has what Arnheim calls a “structural
skeleton,” and the configurations that constitute this skeleton disclose the work's meaning.
“Structure” and “organization” have both phenomenal and physical meanings, for in Gestalt
psychology's drive toward a kind of monism within which value may be naturalized, perceptual
states have been hypothesized to bear a formal or “isomorphic” structure to the underlying brain
processes supporting them.

Arnheim's approach mitigates against obscure iconographic symbolism because this is seen to deal
only in accidental, historical significances rather than “universal” spontaneous symbolism. For
Arnheim, in fact, a true symbol is something that tells us something about its referent through its
own appearance. Confronted with an Annunciation, for example, Arnheim would care little about the
attributes of the angel and the Virgin; more interesting would be their bearing to one another,
whether they share the same space, the means by which the artist might differentiate their realms.
Arnheim's theory raises several problems for aesthetic theory. As a primarily psychological theory,
how relevant is it to aesthetics? Is Arnheim's understanding of the nature of art useful? Are his
theories of expression and representation enlightening? And, finally, can a perceptualist approach
do justice to the variability of the historical reception of art?

Arnheim always identifies himself as a psychologist and perhaps shares the natural scientific
antipathy to philosophical hairsplitting of his teachers, Max Wertheimer (1880–1943) and Wolfgang
Köhler (1887–1967). As a specifically psychological theorist, what can Arnheim contribute to the
philosophy of art? Arnheim might have helped matters if he had underscored the gestalt idea that
phenomenological description is a necessary propaedeutic to psychological explanation.
Regardless of his conclusions, Arnheim's writings could then be situated in a broadly
phenomenological tradition, and, like phenomenological aestheticians, this descriptive
phenomenology could be subjected to ontologizing. Gestalt psychology, however, has a delicate
relation to the phenomenological/physical distinction. When Arnheim points to the “stresses” and
“strains” in visual configurations, he is appealing to phenomenological facts, but when he appeals to
brain dynamics underlying such percepts, it seems to undercut the authority of the
phenomenological (Beardsley, 1980).

Although Arnheim has reflected on such problems (1966, pp. 51–73), the purported novelty of
speaking in both objective and psychological senses has to be addressed. He might have relied on
the efforts of Maurice Mandelbaum (1964), also influenced by Köhler, in particular the notion of a
“radical critical realism,” which does not assume any relationship between stimulation and
perception. Only when the ambiguities of this situation are worked out could the true role of
phenomenology be understood, because the role of this phenomenology would have been situated
within the psychology.

In contrast to his most important competitor in psychological aesthetics, E. H. Gombrich, Arnheim

easily discusses decoration, design, and ornament in the context of painting and sculpture and does
not tend to produce a dichotomy between high and low art. He is also quite able to discuss
traditional and East Asian forms of art. In this, his ideas of art are rather democratic. At the same
time, critics like David Carrier (1986) have expressed doubts that Arnheim's theory is able to handle
nonstandard works that are neither easel pictures nor freestanding sculptures. Once again,
Arnheim's theory suffers from a lack of clarification of its fundamentals. Technically, his idea of art is
both formal, focusing on the qualities of the artifact, and relational, requiring that works of art be
made intentionally for artistic purposes. But the underlying ontological idea is unclear. On
inspection, it is evident that Arnheim considers works of art as inherently lacking in the
completeness of aspects or qualities enjoyed by real objects. In detail, this is essentially similar to
the much more explicit framework provided by the phenomenologist Roman Ingarden in his
discussions of “indeterminacies” of purely intentional (artistic) objects.

In such a more explicit framework, it is much easier to understand Arnheim's discussions of the
distinctions between spatial and temporal works of art (1986, pp. 78–89), and the properties of
individual media such as sculpture (1992, pp. 82–91) and architecture (1977). Carrier's contention
that Arnheim is essentially unable to consider what is essentially “postperceptualist” art should be
made in the context of Arnheim's collaboration with the artist-theorist Robert Sowers (1923–1990),
who made much more explicit Arnheim's ideas about the various spatial modalities. Sowers (1984,
1990) outlined three abstract modalities—image, object, and habitation—that suggest a way in
which an underlying core of invariants can be discerned amid seeming superficial differences.
Judging from the more contemporary examples he is able to cite, Sowers's efforts seem promising.
But they cannot be said to have solved the applicability of a perceptualist framework to postmodern

Arnheim's familiarity with perceptual psychology is promising for his discussions of both
representation and expression. To represent, in gestalt perspective, is to offer a pithy, clear-cut
(“prägnant”) equivalent of an object. Neither bearing a true resemblance to the object, nor a simple
denotative relationship, such an equivalence recalls Gombrich, but there is a difference. Arnheim's
idea has tied up with it the nature of the medium into which the translation of equivalence is made
(1974, pp. 139–144). Depending on the medium—painting, for example—the kinds of limited
resemblances that can be equated are broad and elementary. In contrast, when Gombrich stresses
equivalence, he stresses an almost literal substitution in which there is confusion (“illusion”)
between the object and the representation. The success of Arnheim's alternative version depends
on the rigidity with which he affirms this resemblance. Although he is most often thought to affirm it
assertively, it is significant that Gombrich, well known for his critique of the “innocent eye,” criticized
Arnheim for the seeming relativization of perception suggested by his system.

Arnheim's contribution to the debate over the conventionality of perspective serves to illustrate his
views on representation. Almost all involved in the debate either affirm (J. J. Gibson, Gombrich) or
deny (Nelson Goodman) the validity of central perspective. Arnheim agrees that perspective is
conventional and that it is not privileged in some way. But he still retains a privileging by affirming
the importance of “inverted perspective” (1986, pp. 159–185). Inverted perspective is that system of
rendering space that follows the demands of the medium and thereby resists perspective
deformations and displays all relevant details (instead of overlapping) and suggests pictorial
importance by size. Since “realistic” or “mimetic” painting attempts to counteract the medium, and
ambiguously portray three dimensions on two, it is subject to variable reception, adaptation, and
habituation. Whereas the central perspective debate becomes one over the critical fortunes of
primarily Western art, Arnheim culls his examples of successful representations from all
geographies and historical periods.
Arnheim's reading of expression is perhaps less promising, if only because it seems to demand an
objectivity. Arnheim is a cognitive theorist of expression, and has never assumed a literal arousal of
emotion by art (1966, pp. 302–319). In this his theory should be seen in the context of the cognitive
theories of Susanne Langer and Carrol Pratt, who have influenced contemporary aesthetics. Once
again, the expressive component of a visual percept is a part of its rich phenomenology; it cannot
really be differentiated from so-called secondary qualities. But centralizing expression in this way,
and making it as theoretically viable as, say, color, also precariously places expectations on the
critical agreement found in expressive judgments ascribed to works of art. Arnheim, of course, is
confident that, with the proper controls, such judgments can be confirmed (1986, pp. 297–326).
Another angle that Arnheim follows is the understanding of the cause of the expression physically,
in the physiology of perceiving. However, either a philosophy of critical agreement or a realist
ontology of expressive properties is notoriously difficult to defend.

All of Arnheim's extremely interesting and promising ideas presented thus far seem to suffer from an
appropriate limitation or staking of boundaries within which they can be assumed to operate. The
ambiguous relation of Gestalt psychology to sociology might contain the heart of the matter. After
consistently denying that past experience, emotion, personality, social class, and especially culture
can alter perception, Gestalt psychology might seem to have left no room for the social at all. In the
case of the perceptions of different cultures, the fact that the human nervous system can adapt to
the differing conditions obtaining in either culture is assumed to resolve the fact that at certain times
it does not. Such a “psychologism” becomes trivial when it does not link up with the importance of
the causes of such conditions.

A reasonable philosophy of science might portray the problem in the following way. Psychological
knowledge as directed to the arts attempts to give (among other things) explanation to aspects of
perceiving common to all perceivers. It has nothing to say about the way in which an institution
arose utilizing some aspect of perceiving in contrast to a different institution that arose utilizing a
different aspect of perceiving. The fact that perception is found in both instances is tautologous and
bound only to the definition of psychology. In this sense, psychology is inherently incomplete in
dealing with the ways in which perceivers apprehend works of art. All is not lost, however, for the
Arnheimian. A scientific realist might still try to combine sociological laws with psychological laws in
order to make explanatory statements about the ways in which people perceive works in different
societal contexts.

By working extensively with the findings of one school of psychology, Rudolf Arnheim has
enlightened many aspects of art, and especially the ways in which formal means give rise to
meaning in works of art. Although many of his assumptions about perceiving, representation, and
expression rise or fall with the fortunes of this school, those that are phenomenological can be said
to provide important material for any philosophical approach to art to take into account. Those
strictly psychological assumptions concerning the same phenomena can be maintained if they are
communicated within their present semistable social context, and could only begin to be accorded
some sort of universality if contextualized within some theory of social institutions.



Works by Arnheim
Arnheim, Rudolf Experimentell-psychologische Untersuchungen zum Ausdrucks-problem. Psychologische
Forschung 11 (1928):2–132.

Arnheim, Rudolf Film als Kunst. Berlin, 1932. Translated by L. M. Sieveking and Ian F. D. Morrow as Film
(London, 1933); first half reprinted as Film as Art (Berkeley, 1957).

Arnheim, Rudolf Rundfunk als Hörkunst. Munich, 1979. Original German manuscript completed in 1935;
translated by Mary Ludwig and Herbert Read as Radio (London, 1936); reprinted as Radio: An Art of
Sound (New York, 1971).
Arnheim, Rudolf Nuovo Laocoonte. Bianco e Nero 8 (31 August, 1938): 3–33. Translated by Arnheim as A
New Laocoön: Artistic Composites and the Talking Film in Film as Art (Berkeley, 1957), pp. 199–230;
original German manuscript, Neuer Laokoon: Die Verkoppelung der künstlerischen Mittel, in Kritiken und
Aufsätze zum Film, edited by Helmut Diederichs (Munich, 1977), pp. 81–112.

Arnheim, Rudolf Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. Berkeley, 1954; new exp. rev.
ed., Berkeley, 1974.

Arnheim, Rudolf Toward a Psychology of Art: Collected Essays. Berkeley, 1966.

Arnheim, Rudolf Visual Thinking. Berkeley, 1969.

Arnheim, Rudolf Entropy and Art: An Essay on Disorder and Order. Berkeley, 1971.

Arnheim, Rudolf The Dynamics of Architectural Form. Berkeley, 1977.

Arnheim, Rudolf The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts. Berkeley, 1982; new
version, Berkeley, 1988.

Arnheim, Rudolf New Essays on the Psychology of Art. Berkeley, 1986.

Arnheim, Rudolf To the Rescue of Art: Twenty-Six Essays. Berkeley, 1992.

Arnheim, Rudolf The Split and the Structure: Twenty-Eight Essays. Berkeley, 1996.

Other Sources
Beardsley, Monroe . The Role of Psychological Explanation in Aesthetics. In Perceiving Artworks, edited by
John Fisher , pp. 185–212. Philadelphia, 1980.

Carrier, David . Theoretical Perspectives on the Arts, Sciences and Technology. Leonardo 19 (1986): 251–

Ingarden, Roman . The Literary Work of Art. Translated by George G. Grabowicz . Evanston, Ill., 1973.

Mandelbaum, Maurice . Toward a Radical Critical Realism. In Philosophy, Science, and Sense-Perception:
Historical and Critical Studies, pp. 171–245. Baltimore, 1964.

Sowers, Robert . A Theory of Primary Modalities in the Visual Arts. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
42.3 (Spring 1984): 271–276.

Sowers, Robert . Rethinking the Forms of Visual Expression. Berkeley, 1990.

Smith, Ralph , ed. Essays in Honor of Rudolf Arnheim. Journal of Aesthetic Education 27 (special issue)
(1993): 1–189.

Verstegen, Ian . The Thought, Life, and Influence of Rudolf Arnheim. Genetic, Social and General
Psychological Monographs 122 (1996): 197–213.

Ian Verstegen

Dynamics of Art
Dynamics, the primary quality of artistic form, is emerging in aesthetic theory only now and quite
hesitantly. Aesthetic theory has been dominated by the axiom that visual art deals essentially with
objects. These objects differ in size and shape as well as in their spatial position. Secondary, formal
analysis considers the mutual relations of objects and their capacity to change and to move from
place to place. All these aspects of sensory reality derive from the objects and their defined shape.

This aesthetic approach reflects the practical way in which people handle the material world. The
world consists of objects, desirable and undesirable ones, needed for use or to be avoided as
obstacles. To a considerable extent, this practical approach determines our way of experiencing the
world. Yet it is not the most spontaneous and ultimately decisive quality of experience.
Spontaneously as well as ultimately, the world impresses us as a constellation of forces. These
forces are not secondary properties of things, but they are what strikes us first. The world is given
as occupied by forces that deal with us and are dealt with by us. Coping with them is what life is
ultimately about. Children and “naturals,” who are least monopolized by practical function,
experience forces most directly, and artists emphasize them as themes of their visions.

Human direct experience is limited to what the senses receive. Therefore, perceived forces are but
images of physical forces. A hammer striking an anvil is heard as a sound or seen as a motion. The
information received is indirect. It is a translation, partial and indirect, as all translations are. The
least indirect communication with the physical world is haptic, by touch or kinesthesia, that is, by the
sensations of pressure or tension produced by the nerves of muscles, tendons, and joints. The
actions of our bodies and the impact they suffer from outer forces are perceived as being generated
and received “by us.” Hence, dance and pantomime are the most elementary media of art.

It is essential for the present argument that performing art is not only the most elementary but also a
most abstract form of artistic statement. What dancers experience kinesthetically when they stretch
their arms or bend their bodies is not behavior of shapes but of pure forces. Only secondarily are
these forces attributed to the body in motion. The forces occupying the body are perceived by the
performer as a constellation, limited by no contour but only by the range of their power and
possessing no other shapes but the directions in which they reach. They are pure, abstract

To be sure, dancers and actors control their behavior not only by their kinesthetic sensations but
also by what they see their bodies doing. This correspondence between two different modalities of
perception is taken for granted in practice but is far from obvious in theory. It relies on what
psychologists call an isomorphic relationship, made possible by the abstractness of perceptual
dynamics. The abstract qualities of dynamics are essentially the same in the various perceptual
areas, which makes them relatable.

Isomorphism also enables the audience of a performance not simply to see what is happening on
the stage but also to experience the dynamic qualities enlivening the images of the performing
bodies. This evocation of dynamics through perception will be continuously central to the following
discussion. What needs to be said here is that any perception of dynamic forces is a reflection of
physical forces, generated in the cortical centers of the perceiver's brain. Very little is known so far
about the physiology of these processes; but they must be assumed to exist, if it is true that no
conscious sensation is without its physical equivalent.

When we move from visual performance to the other medium reflecting physical forces of the outer
world least indirectly, we come to the experience of music. Music as such—that is, music apart from
language and performance—has mostly been dealt with as an expression of human emotion, and
there is indeed a close affinity between music and human feelings, experienced in our minds or
made audible in speech. Emotion is also one of the motives for making and seeking music. Even so,
one ignores the very nature of music when one treats it as a mere secondary reflection of human
feelings. In and of itself, music is the purest but also the most abstract medium of auditory
dynamics. Detachable even from any generating body—when we listen to music without the use of
our eyes—the nature of music has been most tellingly defined by Arthur Schopenhauer in book 3 of
his Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. What he means by his key concept, the will, is precisely what
is discussed as dynamics in the present essay. The dynamics of music are conveyed, for example,
in diatonic music, by the tension and distension created by the relation between the tonic and the
other tones of the scale, which strain toward the tonic as a base or strive away from it. Similarly,
discord strives for resolution, and the rising and descending in melodic sequence expresses the
overcoming of gravitational weight or the giving in to the relaxation of repose. The regular beat as
against the withholding and impulsive forward push of syncopation conveys the expressive
dynamics of rhythm in the progression of time.

It is the inherent abstractness of the musical medium that invites its application to all human
experiences involving dynamics. Our perception of the forces of physical events may find its
repercussion in the musical representation of violence, and especially in the forces that animate
human passions. Dynamics is the decisive feature distinguishing life from death, and as the arts
endeavor to represent life they rely on dynamics as their principal means of expression.

Only because dynamics is so abstract was it possible, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe did in a
conversation with Johann Peter Eckermann, to compare music with architecture. Among the visual
media, architecture is the one that displays the dynamic forces most purely. Although architecture is
visual, whereas music is aural, they are both detached from the representation of natural objects
and share similar dynamic forces.

Buildings, dwelling in three-dimensional physical space and in interaction with human users, display
dynamic expression in two different ways. First, they are experienced as sequential. In this respect,
there is a basic difference between a procession walking along the peristyle of the Parthenon
around a central, inaccessible sanctuary and the straight approach to the altar of a basilica.
Similarly, the sequence of spatial sights revealing the various areas of a palace as one walks from
its entrance through its halls, corridors, and rooms, from the ground floor to the top, represents the
time dimension of architecture, not unlike a symphonic structure in music.

In its atemporal visual aspects of the three dimensions of space, a building displays a powerful
abstract dynamics first of all by rising from the ground and challenging thereby the attractive force of
gravity. Like the shapes of all atemporal media, however, those of architecture work in two opposite
directions. Read from the ground upward, a building displays an increasing detachment from its
base, that is, with a decreasing effect of gravitational attraction. Read from the top down, dynamics
is reversed. This is particularly evident in a pyramidal shape. A pyramid contracts as it grows from
the base to the top. It unfolds with increasing impact from the peak down.

Apart from the force of gravity, the shapes of architecture display in and of themselves a rich action
and interaction. Tension is created by the contrast between large and small or between straightness
and the curvature of arches or the volutes of Ionic capitals. The principal generator of dynamics is
the deviation from the “keynote,” the vertical-horizontal framework. The leaning campanile of Pisa
owes its dynamics to its deviation from the plumb line, not only physically but also visually. The
obliqueness of a gable or pediment crowns the static cube of a building with a lively completion. But
even a straight wall is described incompletely by its geometrical parameters. To do justice to its
expression, one must perceive it as the resultant of equal, but opposite forces that push it from both
sides and thereby keep it in balance.

Despite creating this lively world of visual images, however, architecture's sturdy immobility in a
mobile setting stands as a counterweight of security and permanence. The visual arts of sculpture
and painting serve a similar function, although with lesser power. Their timelessness enables them
to function as an effective elaboration of architecture and is supported in turn by architectural
settings. The visual arts synchronize events and by confronting them display their interaction in a
synoptic, uniting presence. But while excluding the dimension of time, they cannot do without the
representation of dynamics. They are unwilling to ignore life.

To account in theory for the presence of dynamics as the principal generator of expression, it has
often been maintained that the arts replace absent movement with what is remembered from
experience in actual space. It is said that when we see a picture of a bird in flight we know that it is
in motion and endow it with imagined mobility. But dynamics need not rely on motion. As in
architecture, the appropriate qualities of shape evoke, in the viewer's perception, the sensations of
directed tension in a much more immediate way. As mentioned earlier, these sensations are
conscious reflections of processes in the nervous system. They respond with dynamic
configurations to the stimulus patterns conveyed to them by the sense organs.

In the particular case of representational art, past experience does act as a source of dynamics. The
mental images of the objects of reality remembered by viewers interact with the images offered by
the artist. The slim figures of the sculptor Alberto Giacometti are normally seen in relation to the
known proportions of the human body, and the synchrony of the two sources of optical experience
produces a deviation from the norm. Deviations make for dynamic tension.

Similarly, color creates tension through the coexistence of perceptual factors. The contrast between
known natural colors, such as the pink of skin or the green of foliage, and the deviations from such
norms often preferred by artists creates tension. So does any dissimilarity between a pattern of
shape and a pattern of color in the same objects: where there is coherence of shape, there may be
detachment of color, and vice versa. Furthermore, within the organization of color schemes there is
the tension of discord and the distension of concord, analogous to what happens in music. And just
as in music a leading tone strains toward the tonic, tertiary color mixtures strain toward the primary
color that is dominant in the mixture.

Like architecture, sculpture shares three-dimensional space with the viewer, and because the
viewer's access to space depends on two-dimensional projections on the retina, perceiving a piece
of sculpture comes about as a synthesis of various perspective aspects, as the viewer walks around
the work; but because these aspects vary from each other, to fuse them as the same object creates
considerable tension. Here again, the different aspects are perceived as deviations from one

Even so, such a “composite” experience adds up to the presence of immobile objects, sharing the
dwelling place with the viewers. Sculpture, however, lacks the practical interaction with consumers
who, in architecture, occupy a building and use it as a facility. Sculpture is an object of
contemplation, and as such it partakes in the function of the visual arts to synthesize the sequence
of represented action in a single, lasting image. Because such an image is to depict life, however, it
must express the dynamics of directed tension. In architecture, there is a fairly clear distinction
between the vectors enlivening the shapes of walls and the vectors accompanying the action from
the outside toward the inside and vice versa. In sculpture, there is no such distinction. The carriers
of dynamic shape animate the various volumes all around and in all directions. This is particularly
true for much modern sculpture, where the traditional distinction between the mass of the body and
the forces mobilizing it is often replaced with a network of almost disembodied strivings, operating in
much empty space. One is reminded of modern physics, where the distinction between mass and
energy has given way to mere configurations of forces.

Painting limits itself to the second dimension. When it depicts three-dimensional space, it squeezes
depth into a surface, thereby obtaining a dynamic effect. This effect is perceived as the effort to
unfold distances where none are actually given. The compressed surface pattern, however, has a
compositional organization and meaning of its own, and this surface image interacts in a dynamic
counterpoint with the composition of the objects occupying the three-dimensional arena.

In all arts, the “structural skeleton” of the dynamic forces carrying expression is not identical with the
shapes actually presented by the artist. The skeleton presents the configuration of forces, as it
were, “in the nude” of pure abstraction. To make an expressive theme perceivable, the artist
discovers and stresses the structural skeleton of, say, the human body in its more elaborate actual
appearance. For the same reason, beauty does not really reside in the proportions and shapes as
such, as has been traditionally maintained, but in the vitality and harmonious interrelations of the
directed tensions generated by the proportions and shapes.

Finally and briefly, literature appeals directly to the senses only through the musical and rhythmical
expression of sound. It profits thereby from the dynamic qualities of sound, referred to earlier. But
being essentially a referential medium, which makes use of the perceptual world by the mental
images it evokes, literature refers in an indirect fashion to the dynamic qualities inherent in sensory


Arnheim, Rudolf . Dynamics. In Art and Visual Perception (1954), new exp. rev. ed., chap. 9. Berkeley,

Arnheim, Rudolf . Visual Dynamics. American Scientist 76.6 (November–December 1988): 585–591.

Bartenieff, Irmgard, and Dori Lewis . Body Movement: Coping with the Environment. New York, 1980.

Kivy, Peter . The Corded Shell: Reflections on Musical Expression. Princeton, N.J., 1980.
Langer, Susanne . On Significance in Music. In Philosophy in a New Key, 3d ed., chap. 8. Cambridge,
Mass., 1957.

Lipps, Theodor . Raumaesthetik und Geometrisch-optische Täuschungen. Leipzig, 1897. See sec. 1, “Zur
Aesthetik der schönen Raumform.”

Meyer, Leonard B. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago, 1956.

Torroja Miret, Eduardo . Phenomena of Stressing. In Philosophy of Structures, translated by J. J. Polivka

and Milos Polivka , chap. 2. Berkeley, 1958.

Wölfflin, Heinrich . Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur (1886). In Kleine Schriften, edited by
Joseph Gantner . Basel, 1946.

Zuckerkandl, Victor . The Sense of Music. Princeton, N.J., 1959.

Zuckerkandl, Victor . Die Wirklichkeit der Musik: Der musikalische Begriff der Aussenwelt. Zurich, 1963.

Rudolf Arnheim

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