Music Begins Where Language Ends

Heinrich Heine? Claude Debussy? Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky? Richard Wagner? Leonora Schmitz? Henry R. Cleveland? Jean Sibelius? John S. Dwight? Ludwig van Beethoven? Anton Rubinstein? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The expressiveness of words is paltry in the domain of deeply felt emotions and sensations. Yet, music can resonate with these profound feelings. Here are two versions of this sentiment:

  • Music begins where language ends
  • Where all words end, music begins

Numerous famous people have been credited with this adage including Russian composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, French composer Claude Debussy, German composer Richard Wagner, and German poet Heinrich Heine. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This article is intended to provide an overview of this large and complex topic. Research is difficult because the phrasing of the adage is highly variable. In addition, the saying has appeared in multiple languages, e.g., English, German, French, and Russian. The native language of QI is English; therefore, this article is inevitably skewed toward English, but QI has attempted to locate instances in other languages.

Here is a set of dates and phrases summarizing the occurrences of this adage during a few early decades:

  • 1835: Music begins where language ends
  • 1841: Where the speech of man stops short there music’s reign begins (translation from French)
  • 1845: (Music) begins where speech leaves off
  • 1849: When words lose their power, it is then that the true office of music begins
  • 1853: Music begins where words leave off
  • 1855: Music begins where words cease
  • 1857: The province of music begins where language fails
  • 1865: Where the power of the words ceases, there that of the music begins
  • 1866: Where all words end, music begins

Currently, the earliest match located by QI appeared in a July 1835 essay by Henry Russell Cleveland titled “The Origin and Progress of Music” in “The New-England Magazine”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Music begins where language ends; it expresses thoughts and emotions, to which speech can give no utterance; it clothes words with a power which language cannot impart. Our favorite songs are set to music, because we are not satisfied with hearing them recited; we want to express more vividly the emotions which these words excite within us; and music alone will do it. Hence it is, that after hearing them sung, the words appear powerless if read in the common tone of voice.

This adage has remained popular during the ensuing 185 years, and the remainder of this article discusses several variants with citations.

If you are interested in a specific prominent individual who has employed this saying you may wish to veer off and consult one of QI’s specialized articles.

Composer Richard Wagner employed the saying in 1841, and an article focused on that ascription is here.

Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky credited Heinrich Heine with the saying in 1878, and an article focused on that attribution is here.

Composer Claude Debussy received credit for the saying in 1889, and an article focused on that attribution is here.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1841 Richard Wagner published a short story titled “Une Soirée Heureuse” (“A Happy Evening”) in the Paris periodical “Revue et Gazette Musicale”. The adage was spoken by a character in the tale. The French excerpt below 2 is followed by a translation into English: 3

C’est une vérité établie à tout jamais : là où le domaine du langage poétique cesse, commence celui de la musique. Rien ne me paraît plus insupportable, que tous ces contes niais sur lesquels on prétend que ces compositions se fondent.

It is a truth for ever, that where the speech of man stops short there Music’s reign begins. Nothing is more intolerable, than the mawkish scenes and anecdotes they foist upon those instrumental works.

During the 1840s the utopian community Brook Farm was established in Massachusetts. In 1845 an unnamed reviewer in the community’s journal, “The Harbinger”, discussed a recent musical performance in Boston and employed an instance of the adage: 4

And then again, music in its very nature is the language of something which words cannot tell; yes of something which thought cannot comprehend in its narrow, rigid moulds. It begins where speech leaves off. ”

In 1849 “The American Review” published a piece titled “What Is Music?” by H. S. S. which described a listener’s reaction to music: 5

When afflicted, he receives sympathy and consolation; when happy, his joy is consecrated in its purity by the sounds in which he vents his delight; in either joy or sorrow, when words lose their power, it is then that the true office of music begins, and in its strains it conveys those indefinite feelings to others which, arousing in their hearts the same indefinite emotions, still give evidence that the one has been understood by the other.

In 1851 “The Literary Garland: British North American Magazine” reprinted the essay by Henry Russell Cleveland: 6

The cry of horror, at sudden and fearful events, the loud shout of thanksgiving and jubilee, the soft, sweet tone that lulls the cradled infant, are more than imitative sounds; they address themselves directly to the understanding and feelings. Music begins where language ends; it expresses thoughts and emotions, to which speech can give no utterance; it clothes words with a power which language cannot impart.

In 1853 “Dwight’s Journal of Music” published an untitled short item that included a version of the adage. The piece was probably written by the journal’s editor John S. Dwight: 7

Music is deeper than speech, and makes its appeal to that within us that is deeper than thoughts of the understanding. Music expresses that part of our best and deepest consciousness, which needs precisely such a fluid, sympathetic language as its tones alone afford. Music begins where words leave off; by it our inmost, spiritual natures commune with each other.

In 1855 “Musical World” of New York printed a piece containing a version of the saying: 8

The lyric is best used as the out-gush of some single feeling which, as the top-wave of sensibility, is taken by music as it breaks and borne still higher—for music begins where words cease.

In 1857 “New York Musical Review and Gazette” published “The Effects of Music” by C. J. M. which included the following statement: 9

The province of music begins where language fails the poet, and the painter finds his easel insufficient.

In 1865 “The Fortnightly Review” of London printed a piece by music critic Leonora Schmitz which included the following: 10

Where the power of the words ceases, there that of the music begins.

In 1866 “The Contemporary Review” of New York printed an article by H. R. Haweis which contained the following: 11

Words are but poor interpreters in the realms of emotion. Where all words end, music begins; where they suggest, it realizes; and hence the secret of its strange, ineffable power.

The first attribution of the saying to poet Heinrich Heine located by QI appeared within an 1878 letter from Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky to his patron about a symphony he was composing. This evidence was weak because Heine died more than two decades before in 1856: 12

I can tell you no more, dear friend, about the symphony. Naturally my description is not very clear or satisfactory. But there lies the peculiarity of instrumental music; we cannot analyse it. ‘Where words leave off, music begins,’ as Heine has said.

“The Era Almanack of 1882” published in London credited Ludwig van Beethoven with a remark on this topic. Beethoven had died many years before this in 1827: 13

Beethoven himself said, “Where poetry ends there music begins.”

According to Claude Debussy’s biographer the French composer employed an instance of the adage while discussing his disenchantment with fellow composer Richard Wagner: 14

In October 1889, when the last pilgrimage to Bayreuth had destroyed his faith in Wagner, Debussy made the following statement: ‘I do not feel tempted to imitate what I admire in Wagner. My conception of dramatic art is different. According to mine, music begins where speech fails.’

In 1892 an English edition of a book by Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein titled “Music and Its Masters” appeared. The work included the following: 15

For me, music, (with the exception of song and church-music) begins only where words cease.

In 1937 the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” of Missouri ascribed the adage to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius: 16

Sibelius has denied any program intentions whatever in his symphonies. “My symphonies,” he said, “are music conceived and worked out in terms of music and with no literary basis. I am not a literary musician, for me music begins where words cease.”

The 1968 compendium “20,000 Quips and Quotes” included the following extension of the adage: 17

Where words cease, music begins, and where music ceases, kissing begins. –Norman Douglas

In conclusion, this article is part of a collection of pieces which present a snapshot of current research. Currently, Henry Russell Cleveland is the leading candidate for creator of this adage based on the 1835 citation. Yet, the rapid efflorescence of variant statements during the following years suggest that the idea was present in the zeitgeist. Future researchers may discover earlier citations in English or another language.

Image Notes: Depiction of “Musicians on a Balcony” by Hans Holbein the Younger circa 1527. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Terry Teachout whose inquiry led QI to publish a set of articles on this topic. Teachout asked about the attribution of the phrase “Where words leave off, music begins” to Heinrich Heine. Thanks also to twitter discussants David Wright, Cameron Wood, Joe Weber, and Amy Alkon.)


  1. 1835 July, The New-England Magazine, Article: The Origin and Progress of Music: No. 1, Author not listed, (1844 book claims author is Henry Russell Cleveland), Start Page 58, Quote Page 59 and 60, Eastburn’s Press, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1841 Octobre 24, Revue et Gazette Musicale, Volume 8, Number 56, Une Soirée Heureuse: Fantaisie sur la musique pittoresque by Richard Wagner, Start Page 463, Quote Page 464, Column 1 and 2, Au Bureau D’Abonnement, Revue at Gazette Musicale, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1898, Richard Wagner’s Prose Works by Richard Wagner, Volume 7: In Paris and Dresden, Translated by William Ashton Ellis, A German Musician In Paris: 03: A Happy Evening, Start Page 69, Quote Page 73, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1845 August 16, The Harbinger: Devoted to Social and Political Progress, Volume 1, Number 10, Musical Review: Music in Boston During the Last Winter–No. III, Start Page 154, Quote Page 155, Column 2, Published by The Brook Farm Phalanx: Redding and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1849 September, The American Review: A Whig Journal, Devoted to Politics and Literature, What Is Music? by H. S. S., Start Page 247, Quote Page 250, Column 2, Published at 118 Nassau Street, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1851 October, The Literary Garland: British North American Magazine, Volume 9, Number 10, The Origin and Progress of Music, Start Page 472, Quote Page 472, Column 2, John Lovell, Montreal. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1853 July 30, Dwight’s Journal of Music: A Paper of Art and Literature, Volume 3, Number 17, Editor: John S. Dwight, (Untitled short item), Start Page 134, Quote Page 134, Column 3, Printed by Edward L. Balch, Boston, Massachusetts; reprint by Arno Press, New York in 1967. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1855 March 24, Musical World, Volume 11, Number 12, Editor: Richard Storrs Willis, Wedding Music To Verse (Continuation Title), Quote Page 133, Column 2, New York, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1857 April 18, New York Musical Review and Gazette, Volume 8, Number 8, Papers On Music, No. III., The Effects of Music by C. J. M., Quote Page 117, Column 2, Published by Mason Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1865, The Fortnightly Review, Volume 2, Editor: George Henry Lewes, Robert Schumann by Leonora Schmitz, Start Page 744, Quote Page 753, Chapman and Hall, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1866, The Contemporary Review, Volume 2, Schubert and Chopin by H. R. Haweis, Start Page 80, Quote Page 92, Alexander Strahan, London and New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1906, The Life & Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, Edited by Modeste Tchaikovsky, Letters Translated from Russian to English by Rosa Newmarch, Letter From: Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, To: N. F. von Meck (Nadejda Filaretovna von Meck), Location: Florence, Date: February 17th (March 1st) 1878, Start Page 274, Quote Page 277 and 278, John Lane: The Bodley Head, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  13. 1881, The Era Almanack of 1882, The Opera Season by Joseph Verey, Start Page 33, Quote Page 33, Publisher not identified, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  14. 1933, Claude Debussy: His Life and Works by Léon Vallas, Translated from the French by Maire and Grace O’Brien, Chapter 6: Before ‘Pelléas’: The ‘Quartet’ and the ‘Proses Lyriques’ (1892-9), Quote Page 84, Oxford University Press, London. (Verified with scans)
  15. 1892, Music and Its Masters by Anton Rubinstein, Quote Page 89 Charles H. Sergel & Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  16. 1937 October 31, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Symphony Begins Season with Mozart and Sibelius, Quote Page 7H, Column 8, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  17. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Subject: Kiss, Quote Page 452, Column 1, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)