Music for a dictionary of obscure sorrows

Thanks for taking the time to read this latest blog. The name of this website and this entire project of mine actually came from a list of definitions which attempts to identify ‘obscure emotions’ which most of us have all felt or will at some point experience. From this list, I have taken a selection of such terms and tried to apply a piece of music alongside them which gets somewhere close to replicating the feeling described by each equivalent definition.

Enjoy the journey!


  1. weariness with the same old issues that you’ve always had—the same boring flaws and anxieties you’ve been gnawing on for years, which leaves them soggy and tasteless and inert, with nothing interesting left to think about, nothing left to do but spit them out and wander off to the backyard, ready to dig up some fresher pain you might have buried long ago.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony no.6 in B minor (4th movement)

Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, completed shortly before the composer’s mysterious death in 1893 contains a final movement which is so doleful and devoid of hope that one might physically shiver just by listening to the fragmented strings which open the movement. The definition of Altschmerz given above seems to fit with the mood perfectly. This music is effectively a lament for better times and perhaps, lost hope. The search for comfort and reassurance tries to gain a footing but self-doubt is always stronger and manages to take control every time. A calmer second theme appears, albeit no less emotional than the first, all of it carrying a certain inevitability. Fist shaking assertiveness supported by brass and timpani crumbling away as the lachrymose first theme reappears. The artist tries hard once again to push away the misery with muscular statements, but the sorrow is all encompassing, and those wintry strings return once again to herald the inescapable descent into a fog of gloom, an irretrievable tragedy. It is now widely held that Tchaikovsky opted to drink unboiled water, leading to his death from cholera rather than face the exposure and subsequent punishment that his homosexuality would have resulted in. For some, this final movement of the final symphony serves as a suicide note. We will never quite know for sure.


  1. intr. feeling the tranquil pleasure of being near a gathering but not quite in it—hovering on the perimeter of a campfire, chatting outside a party while others dance inside, resting your head in the backseat of a car listening to your friends chatting up front—feeling blissfully invisible yet still fully included, safe in the knowledge that everyone is together and everyone is okay, with all the thrill of being there without the burden of having to be.

Schumann: Humoreske in Bb minor Op.20 : I Einfach

The wonderfully quirky Jekyll and Hyde nature of Robert Schumann’s work, particular his piano repertoire is represented as a perfect pastiche in this opening movement of his Humoreske. Simply titled “einfach” or “simple,” the starting melody is beautifully uncomplicated. Tranquil pleasure is a fitting description for the mood here. The world is at peace, you can relax, everything is possible, you are safe – that’s what this music is saying. A gentle, inoffensive musing inner section takes us on a languorous wander, but no risks are taken or need to be and soon we find ourselves back in the soothing original key of Bb major. At simply 2 minutes in duration, this is an exercise in pure repose.


  1. the frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time, which is like standing in front of the departures screen at an airport, flickering over with strange place names like other people’s passwords, each representing one more thing you’ll never get to see before you die—and all because, as the arrow on the map helpfully points out, you are here.

Beethoven: Piano Sonata no.17 in D Minor (Tempest) 3rd movement

This 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Tempest piano sonata is bursting with frustration and energy – it’s argumentative and angry – that’s what makes it a complementary piece to ponder the definition of Onism which suggests the dissatisfaction of facing every day human limitations – after all, it’s a huge world out there and there is so much to see and explore. Rachmaninov captured it the best when he said “Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music.”


  1. a state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence, which force you to revise your image of what can happen in this world—mending the fences of your expectations, weeding out all unwelcome and invasive truths, cultivating the perennial good that’s buried under the surface, and propping yourself up like an old scarecrow, who’s bursting at the seams but powerless to do anything but stand there and watch.

Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor (1st movement)

Edward Elgar’s utter dismay at the senseless savagery and waste of life witnessed by a whole new kind of warfare is well documented. His much-loved Cello Concerto which was completed in 1919, offers sober and sombre reflections on the remains of a world changed forever. There is no shortage of words to describe the various emotions and states of mind that he conjures up, just through this initial movement, let alone the entire concerto: wistful, rueful, nostalgic. Ultimately, the music fits that particular state of exhaustion aptly.


  1. the desire that memory could flow backward

We take it for granted that life moves forward. But you move as a rower moves, facing backwards: you can see where you’ve been, but not where you’re going. And your boat is steered by a younger version of you. It’s hard not to wonder what life would be like facing the other way…

Rachmaninov: Etudes-Tableaux op.33 no 2 in C major

Comprised within a set of spectacularly difficult-to-play, virtuosic pieces by Rachmaninov and composed in 1911, this 2nd etude in C major evokes flowing water and dreamy landscapes. There is a tinge of regret and “what might have been” within the flowing arpeggios. This piece could conceivably serve as the mood music for that ponderance of “if life could flow in the other direction…then what?” It’s supremely polished and technically brilliant, but with a real meditative message contained within.


  1. a kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details—raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind, clouds of cream swirling in your coffee—which leads to a dawning awareness of the haunting fragility of life.

Chopin Etudes Op.25 no 12 in C minor

Occasionally given the programmatic title “Ocean,” Chopin’s final etude in C Minor easily conjures up wild images of tempestuous, stormy waters. Speaking of vivid sensory details, this majestic study of just over 2 minutes glitters with such dramatic imagery that it is hard to believe that their composer originally intended them as purely functional academic works designed for aspiring concert pianists to polish and hone their dexterity. This etude fits well to the description given above and takes the listener on an impassioned journey through the fragility of life itself. The expedition, with its despairing C minor opening, takes the listener through a kaleidoscope of emotions before arriving at a forceful and definitive conclusion in C major.

Nodus Tollens

  1. the realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore—that although you thought you were following the arc of the story, you keep finding yourself immersed in passages you don’t understand, that don’t even seem to belong in the same genre—which requires you to go back and reread the chapters you had originally skimmed to get to the good parts, only to learn that all along you were supposed to choose your own adventure.

Rachmaninov: Preludes Op.23 no.5 in G minor

This ever-popular Prelude sets out its stall with a somewhat rigid and inflexible march-like theme in G minor (representing the steady daily plod of life, perhaps?) before developing the central theme before a rather languorous and sultry 2nd theme. This contemplative middle section might provide a perfect synergy to the definition given above, where the protagonist is starting to realise that something clearly doesn’t fit and asks himself whether the time has come to “shed his skin?”

Ever growing curiosity and an accelerating “pushing of the envelope” illuminates the path back toward the original theme and a neat little coda wraps up the little adventure. The protagonist having exercised their wish to muse and ponder, goes back to normal everyday life.


  1. the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.

Schumann: Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op 26, no.2 Romanze

This pleasing sounding word and its definition required a pretty specific piece of music to try and match the intended emotion. I have therefore chosen another Robert Schumann miniature, his Romanze from his 1839 work Faschingsschwank aus Wien. Taking up just one sheet of music and although relatively simple to play, there is a whole world of regret tinged with sadness contained within. You can picture the dusty old bookshelves and reflect wistfully on the passage of time easily with this piece as your guide.


  1. a conversation in which everyone is talking but nobody is listening, simply overlaying disconnected words like a game of Scrabble, with each player borrowing bits of other anecdotes as a way to increase their own score, until we all run out of things to say.

Elgar: Symphony no 2 Op.63: 3.Rondo

Sitting as the penultimate movement of Elgar’s enigmatic and less familiar 2nd Symphony is this Rondo. The music is appropriately busy, packed with scampering passages distributed across all sections of the orchestra – indeed, it sometimes seems like a patchwork of different ideas and perhaps somewhat disconnected at times, making it a good aural representation of this word. A final scuttling race toward the conclusion of this particular conversation is staged before everyone ultimately runs out of things to say.


  1. nostalgia for a time you’ve never known

Imagine stepping through the frame into a sepia-tinted haze, where you could sit on the side of the road and watch the locals passing by. Who lived and died before any of us arrived here, who sleep in some of the same houses we do, who look up at the same moon, who breathe the same air, feel the same blood in their veins—and live in a completely different world.

Chopin: Nocturnes Op.9 no.1 in Bb minor

Chopin’s very first Nocturne announced his truly unique, poetic style to the world in a work which employs the left-hand arpeggios and rhythmical freedoms in the right hand which ultimately came to characterise his particular style. The range of tonal colours and depth of feeling which this first Nocturne evokes is remarkable given the tender young age of Chopin when he composed it, around 1830. It’s a true dreamscape and a wonderful composition with which to consider the definition above.


  1. the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place, as maladapted to your surroundings as a seal on a beach—lumbering, clumsy, easily distracted, huddled in the company of other misfits, unable to recognise the ambient roar of your intended habitat, in which you’d be fluidly, brilliantly, effortlessly at home.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor, Op.37 III Rondo

Possibly the most popular of all Beethoven’s Piano Concerti, a slightly agitated theme opens the movement, passing between the piano and the orchestra in some neat interplay. Deft passagework from the soloist reinforces that sense of being “out of place.” A calmer 2nd theme offers a new perspective, perhaps a picture of the intended habitat where our pondering protagonist would be fully at ease; the music grows restless once again and through some extraordinary connecting framework, Beethoven takes us back to that initial feeling of agitation and rootlessness. Happily, we will not remain stuck in this frame of mind – instead we are transported with a bang into the relative major (C major) for a brief but joyful interlude which affirms our arrival at the place we’re meant to be.


  1. the bitter sweetness of having arrived here in the future, where you can finally get the answers to how things turn out in the real world—who your baby sister would become, what your friends would end up doing, where your choices would lead you, exactly when you’d lose the people you took for granted—which is priceless intel that you instinctively want to share with anybody who hadn’t already made the journey, as if there was some part of you who had volunteered to stay behind, who was still stationed at a forgotten outpost somewhere in the past, still eagerly awaiting news from the front.

Handel: Water Music Suite no.1 in F major, HWV 348: 5. Air

Premiered in 1717 for King George I to great acclaim, Handel’s remarkable Water Music speaks through the centuries with a great clarity of the full range of human emotions, which despite changing fashions, tastes and attitudes remain fundamentally unchanged. Taken from the suite in F major, this 5th movement is an air which is undoubtedly bittersweet and tinged with the sense of unanswered questions and what might have been. It’s gentle music, heartfelt and filled with a sense of longing.


  1. the realization that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition: 4. Bydlo

Originally composed for solo piano, this 4th picture is taken from Ravel’s famous orchestration of this majestic work. “Bydlo,” meaning “Cattle” in Polish is a musical contemplation of “a Polish cart on enormous wheels drawn by Oxen.” Written in the extremely unusual key of G# minor, the music begins with a trudging quality, perfectly capturing the great lumbering creature moving toward the viewer, becoming louder and gradually receding into the distance, the sound gradually dying away into nothing. This is a deeply thoughtful sketch and affords the listener space for great contemplation.


  1. the inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like—as if all your social taste buds suddenly went numb, leaving you unable to distinguish cheap politeness from the taste of genuine affection, unable to recognise its rich and ambiguous flavours, its long and delicate maturation, or the simple fact that each tasting is double-blind.

Grieg: Peer Gynt Suite no.1 Op.46: II The death of Åse

A truly tragic piece of music written by Norway’s most famous musical son Edvard Grieg, Åses død is a deeply sorrowful reflection on the death of a character within Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt. It has the composer’s unique musical style all over it – a mystical Scandinavian flavour, lush strings and rich harmonies. I chose this musical representation of the word Mauerbauertraurigkeit because it seems to fit the description of a sudden loss of hope, a desire to push even close friends away and a struggle to arrest the lethargy.