A university student is forced, by his lack of funds, to take the only lodging he can afford. In a strange part of the city he had never seen before, on a street named "Rue d'Auseil", he finds an apartment in an almost empty building. One of the few other tenants is an old German man named Erich Zann. The old man is mute and plays the viol with a local theater orchestra. He lives on the top floor and when alone at night, plays strange melodies never heard before. Over time, the student gains Zann's trust, and eventually learns of his secret, that the old man has discovered melodies and rhythms of sound of an almost otherworldly nature. Zann plays these sounds to keep back unknown and unseen creatures from Zann's window, which is said to look out into a black abyss, most likely another dimension. One night, Zann's music reaches a crescendo, and the student, staring out the window in hopes of seeing the normal world outside, instead stares into an infinite abyss. The window shatters, and an unnatural wind sweeps through the room, carrying away all of Zann's music notes into the darkness, despite the students attempts at catching them. Fleeing the house after he finds Zann seemingly dead despite his body still playing the violin, the student escapes not just the house but the neighborhood entirely. Years later, he writes down his accounts, and tells that he has never been able to find Rue d'Auseil again, as it does not appear on any maps, and no one else seems to ever have heard of it.
The setting of the story is presumably Paris, though the city is never named. Auseil is not a true French word, but it has been suggested that Lovecraft derived it from the phrase au seuil, meaning at the threshold. Auseil is read like oseille, meaning sorrel or, colloquially, money.
Lovecraft considered "The Music of Erich Zann" one of his best stories, in part because it avoided the overexplicitness that he saw as a major flaw in some of his other work. An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia notes that it "might, however, be said that HPL erred on the side of underexplicitness in the very nebulous horror to be seen through Zann's garret window."
The story was frequently anthologized even during Lovecraft's lifetime, including in Dashiell Hammett's 1931 collection Creeps by Night.
Ramsey Campbell has stated that "The Music of Erich Zann" was "the single Lovecraft story that the late Robert Aickman liked".
James Wade wrote a sequel to the story, "The Silence of Erika Zann", first published in The Disciples of Cthulhu (1976).
In Charles Stross's The Laundry Files novels series including The Jennifer Morgue, The Fuller Memorandum, The Apocalypse Codex, The Rhesus Chart, and The Annihilation Score one of the characters has a violin made by an "Erich Zahn" which is made from human bones and, when played, eats the soul of the intended victim.
Panu Petteri Höglund's collection of Cthulhu stories in Irish, An Leabhar Nimhe, includes a story called "Paappana, nó Ceol Erkki Santanen," with several allusions to this story, such as the name of the protagonist, Erkki Santanen.
A short film adaptation was directed by John Strysik in 1980.
Another short film adaptation was directed by Reuben Baron in 2016. This adaptation notably makes Erich Zann a Jewish Holocaust survivor, ironic in light of Lovecraft's anti-Semitism.
Leigh Blackmore scripted a short film version in 1975, however the script was never shot.
American composer Raymond Wilding-White created a piece in 1980 by the same name for violin and electronics, with Eugene Gratovich of DePaul University in the role of the university student.
Univers Zéro's album Ceux du dehors (1981) includes a track titled "La musique d'Erich Zann". According to drummer and bandleader Daniel Denis, all members read the short story in the studio and promptly improvised the piece.
German technical thrash metal band Mekong Delta titled their 1988 second album The Music of Erich Zann after the story.
British Anarcho-punk band Rudimentary Peni featured a depiction of Eric Zann on the original cover of their 1988 album Cacophony.
Hungarian Metal band Without Face has a song called "The Violin of Erich Zann" on the 2002 album Astronomicon.
German ambient band Forma Tadre titled their 2008 album The Music of Erich Zann.
French post-black metal band The Great Old Ones references the story in the song Rue d'Auseil on their 2012 album Al Azif.
Greek death metal band Septic Flesh references the story in the song "Lovecraft's Death" on their 2008 album Communion.
Alexey Voytenko composed "The music of Erich Zann" for violin solo in 2009.
American thrash metal band Revocation song "Madness Opus" off their 2014 album Deathless is based on off The Music of Erich Zann.
Eric Zann is a pseudonym of Jim Jupp, who has released an album on the Ghost Box Music record label.
French composer Claude Ballif wrote stage music of the same name.
American composer Richard Horner wrote a five-movement piece of the same title for electric guitar.
The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets' 2017 album The Dukes of Alhazred included a track titled Erich Zann.