How Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ makes us feel

The first time I heard Clair de Lune many years ago, I immediately thought it was a beautiful piece, but I didn’t think there was anything special. Just like any other classical piece that is underrated among most young people, I didn’t give much thought to it. It wasn’t until recently that I realized the beauty in it. It made me realize how much music without words can stir up such strong emotions, bring you back to a specific moment in time, or remind you of something going on in your life at the moment. I admit, having played the piano and flute since the age of five, I always regarded classical music as a chore. I dreaded every single time I was made to sit on the wooden bench in front of the piano, which is what made me quit the instrument for 6 years. But when I came back to it by will, I learnt to appreciate the music I was playing. Clair de Lune is the piece that got to me the most, and listening to the piece, it got me wondering how the piece managed to stir up such strong emotions within me.

The reflective and thought provoking sentiment of Clair de Lune was absolutely intended by Debussy. The title Clair de Lune means ‘moonlight’ in French. Fair enough- the piece does remind us of the moonlit night, but what is interesting is that the piece was originally called ‘Promenade Sentimentale’ meaning a ‘sentimental walk’. This title targets more specifically the emotions the song is meant to provoke, as if the piece itself is a journey through one’s personal emotions. At the same time, the title is open for interpretation; it is for the listeners to spark individual sentiments within themselves and make personal connections rather than being told what to feel by the composer. This is one of the many reasons why I love this piece- it stirs up so many inexplicable emotions , and these feelings seem to differ from person to person.


Clair de Lune stands out for me, but I’m not alone in thinking this. The piece has been thought timeless for numerous years. The self-reflecting nature of the piece evokes different emotions from people of diverse experiences and levels of maturity. So, to gather up some proximate first hand evidence, I decided to ask my closest friends to listen and comment on the piece. For the four who were civilized enough to keep their patience for the 5 minutes, they left these comments:

“Surreal and dreamy. It sounds like water drops falling on a spring at night.” says an art student at college, aged 18

“Reflective thought provoking”, a friend at school, aged 16

“Calm, peaceful, at ease, relaxed”, says another friend, aged 16.

And unsurprisingly, says a crazy friend who is the chief editor of the school magazine,

“I feel like I’m Princess Jasmine in Aladdin and I’m gliding through the desert with my jingling bangles. When the music gets upbeat I feel like I’m dancing in the desert with belly dancers and sand particles and I feel like I found some treasure and I’m happy.”- this made me laugh.

(Want to read more about the responses to this piece?)

clair de lune


‘The first beat in the Debussy Clair de Lune is a rest, followed by a note deep in the bass and then an alto third. This first measure leads us to expect a beat of two rather than three’, says concert pianist and scholar Paul Roberts in Images: The Piano Music of Claude Debussy (Amadeus Press, 1996). This “rhythmic ambiguity” gives the pianist the freedom to experiment with rubato. Throughout the piece, Debussy avoids any regularity in beat or phrase —for example, by alternating triplets and duplets. “The result is a sense of floating, a dreamy suspension of momentum,”, he says. The frequent silences that contain a sense of expectancy and anticipation give the listener a time to think and reflect.

Concerning the second section of Clair de Lune, Debussy said, “The left-hand arpeggios should be fluid, mellow, drowned in pedal, as if played by a harp on a background of strings” (From Debussy Remembered by Roger Nichols, Amadeus Press, 1992). The rubato and the sense of freedom in playing the piece encourage the listener to feel. The freedom allows each note to be heard individually with frequent diminuendos created naturally by the dimming of the sound. This allows an element of sadness and solitude weave through every note.

The piece starts on the tonic and ends on the tonic, like most pieces, and studiously avoids the note until the end. Numerous studies have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. So if we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited. The pauses in between the notes as well as the tonal ambiguity of not knowing what harmony is awaiting keeps the listener interested. The longer we are denied the pattern we expect, the greater the emotional release when the pattern returns.

The call and response- like phrases in the beginning of the piece that is made up of harmonic chords is somewhat comforting, and it sounds rather like a lullaby. The slow tempo, and the always- harmonically unfinished phrases in the piece create a sense of ambiguity and suspense. It almost seems to annoy the listener as it lacks a sense of completion, but this feeling evokes curiosity and thought at the same time, making the piece reflective.

According to a musicologist Leonard Meyer, in his classic book ‘Emotion and Meaning in Music’ (1956), it is the suspenseful tension of music (arising out of our unfulfilled expectations) that is the source of the music’s feeling. In this piece, the sudden crescendo and build up of dynamics as the music reaches the climax that is unexpected, is perhaps what stirs up such emotions. Meyer argued that the emotions we find in music come from the unfolding events of the music itself, perhaps in this case the ambiguity the piece creates inside its form. Meyer further wrote, ‘for the human mind, such states of doubt and confusion are abhorrent. When confronted with them, the mind attempts to resolve them into clarity and certainty.’ The uncertainty makes the feeling, and it is what triggers that surge of dopamine in the caudate, as we struggle to find out what will happen next. So our neurones search for the order, trying to predict some of the notes to come, but we can’t predict them all, which is what keeps us listening, waiting expectantly for our reward.

The relationship between music and brain stimulation to give us sentiments is a topic that has only recently started attracting scientists and psychologists in the field. Research has been advancing vastly as we are beginning to understand in detail how such music stimulates our brain to evoke such emotions. This made me want to research more about the science behind it all.


If you thought this post was interesting, check out what and Scientific American have to say about the way music makes us feel.

2 thoughts on “How Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ makes us feel

  1. Jim Hall says:

    RE “The uncertainty makes the feeling, and it is what triggers that surge of dopamine in the caudate, as we struggle to find out what will happen next.”

    May I ask, what’s the dopamine actually doing in this instance? Is it aiding cognition or assuaging anxiety?


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