Tonality in Music as a Key Concept to Explain Life

Can Batukan

conference: DARE 2015: the dark precursor
date: November 11, 2015
venue: Orpheus Institute, Auditorium
format: in words
practice: music and sound
keywords: affect, becoming-animal, François Zourabichvili, refrain, rhythm, tonality

abstract video about the author(s)


What do I mean by tonality? Is there a closeness between tonality and affection? Why did Deleuze use so many musical terms such as “rhythm,” “vibration,” “resonance,” “tone,” and “ritornello”? (Deleuze and Guattari 1980; Deleuze 2002).

Each musical piece is a totality of sound waves. Produced by single or multiple sources, they interact between themselves and with the environment that they are in, creating an “atmosphere” by travelling distances and transmitting energy; furthermore, they go through our bodies. So what do we mean by tonality in music? Is it so crucial in understanding Deleuze? Is it so crucial in understanding life? Can an oscillation be related to what we call “the soul” in living beings? Can music, as a certain form of harmony in sound waves be considered as a model for explaining affectivity?

“Tonality” and “affection” are closely related terms that constitute the antithesis of all thinking based on human rationality. Furthermore, these two concepts may serve as tools to understand the animal question and its links to music (Heidegger 1995).

Animals can produce various sounds with rhythm, tonality, intensity, and variation, and so on; nevertheless, we assume that they do not have a language. There are scientific studies that prove plants are affected by certain types of music and react according to the levels of tonality and atonality, to expressions of affectivity. It is argued today that all living creatures have a language in their own way to communicate with one another (Gould and Gould 1994; Dawkins 1998; Grandin and Johnson 2005).

These are the pure basis of “having a soul” or “being alive” (vitality). This “being alive” does not lie in human logos (reason) only; it lies in the production of meaning inside the universe. Tonality (in music, in painting, in literature) explains the nature of this production and, for Deleuze, this can be examined in all kinds of art and thinking, but music differs from the others especially in its physical relation to the body.

Deleuze says that we need to understand that everything in the universe is a “becoming” and build our “becoming-animal” by “recapturing the forces” (Deleuze 2002, 56) through arts, literature, and music—especially through music—to travel distances inside bodies, to grasp the unity of the body/soul. How? (Deleuze and Guattari 1980, 237).

“Becoming-animal” can only be built by grasping the functioning of affects defined by Spinoza. “Becoming-animal” as the grasping of the nature of affects and the affirmation of life as a whole unites all becomings (Deleuze 1969). Those sound waves which are going through our bodies can be considered as mediums of transmitting energy between “bubbles” of life, as Uexküll (1957) once called it: as transmitters between worlds. Just as language is a transmitter of meaning and significance for humans, music can be a transmitter of meaning and affectivity for all living beings. Music is an infinite source to show why there cannot be a single and central point of view (human perception and sensation) from which to understand and explain the universe (Zourabichvili 2003). Following the analysis of the concept of devenir-animal, we may clarify the role of tonality in music in the elucidation of life in general.


Dawkins, Marian Stamp. 1998. Through Our Eyes Only? The Search for Animal Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1969. Spinoza et le problème de l’expression. Paris: Editions de Minuit.

—. 2002. Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation. Paris: Editions du Seuil.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1980. Mille Plateaux. Paris: Editions de Minuit.

Gould, James L., and Carol G. Gould. 1994. The Animal Mind. New York: Freeman and Company.

Heidegger, Martin. 1995. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Translated by William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Temple, Grandin, and Catherine Johnson. 2005. Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Uexküll, Jacob von. 1957. “A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds.” In Instinctive Behavior: The Development of a Modern Concept, edited and translated by Claire H. Schiller. New York: International Universities Press.

Zourabichvili, François. 2003. Le vocabulaire de Deleuze. Paris: Ellipses.


about the author(s)

Can Batukan

Can Batukan was born in Ankara in 1978. He graduated from Saint-Joseph High School and studied mathematics and economics with a minor in literature and philosophy at Istanbul BILGI University. In 2015, he completed his PhD research, entitled “The Question of the Animal in Heidegger and Deleuze,” at the University of Galatasaray. His main areas of interest are continental philosophy, critical theory, philosophy of music, animal philosophy, philosophy of nature, philosophy of life, metaphysics, ontology, Eastern philosophies, Presocratics, Aristotle, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze.

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University of Galatasary, Istanbul, TR


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