Musicians’ dreams

Can musical inspiration strike in dreams?

In 1918, Igor Stravinsky was composing ‘L’Histoire du Soldat’. One night he dreamt that a young gypsy woman appeared at the side of a road with a child on her lap. The woman was playing the violin to entertain the child, who applauded wildly. The next day, Stravinsky could remember the dream and incorporated the gypsy music into the ‘Petit Concert’ piece in the second part of the performance.

Science too has had its fair share of dream-induced revelation: in 1865 Friedrich Kekulé famously arrived at the hexagonal structure of benzene through a dream in which a circle of snakes each bit the tail of the animal in front.

Ten years earlier, Robert Schumann had a dream in which angels dictated music to him. When he awoke, he wrote the music down and used it as a basis of a longer piece published after his death.

More dramatically, Giuseppe Tartini dreamt that he had made a pact with the devil, who, handed Tartini’s violin, proved that he did indeed have all the best tunes. “Great was my astonishment,” said Tartini, “when I heard him play a sonata of such exquisite beauty as surpassed the boldest flight of my imagination.” When he awoke, Tartini tried to recall the piece, with partial success. “The sonata I then composed [the ‘Devil’s Trill’ sonata], although the best I ever wrote, was far below the one I heard in my dreams.”

Beyond these and other anecdotal reports there has been little scientific study of the role of dreams in music. A rare example was a recent study by Uga and colleagues in Italy, who compared the dreams experienced by 35 musicians and 30 non-musicians over a period of 30 days. The musicians dreamt of music nearly twice as much as the non-musicians, and the frequency of musical dreams was linked not to how much they played but the age at which they started playing.

Nearly half the music dreamt was novel, suggesting that new works can be generated in dreams.

Kroth et al. in California asked a different question – is dreaming linked to musical preferences? Their study of 68 graduate students found a range of significant associations. For example, students keen on heavy metal were more likely to dream that they were dreaming, that they had fallen unconscious or asleep, and to experience dreams of ‘recurring pleasantness’. Fans of rap/hip hop were more likely to have sexual dreams. Jazz was also associated with recurring pleasantness, while devotees of classical musical had more dreams of flying and ‘discontentedness’.


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009.

Psychology, Neuroscience, History
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development