The Healing Influence Of Music Continued
Sources: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery
Dr. Herbert Lilly, in a monograph on musical therapeutics, expresses the
opinion that musical sounds received by the auditory nerve, produce
reflex action upon the sympathetic system, stimulating or depressing the
vaso-motor nerves, and thus influencing the bodily nutrition. He
maintains, without fear of contradiction, that certain mental conditions
are benefited by suitable musical harmonies. Muscle-fatigue is overcome
by stimulating melodies, as is strikingly exemplified in the effect of
inspiring martial strains upon wearied troops on the march. And it
appears to be an established fact that the complex process of digestion
is facilitated by cheerful music, of the kind termed "liver music" by
the French, which is provided by them at banquets.
But in regard to this subject, there have been not a few scoffers and
dissenters, even among people of distinction. Douglas Jerrold, the
playwright, was one of these, for he declared that he disliked dining
amidst the strains of a military band, because he could taste the brass
in his soup. Charles Lamb, in his chapter on "Ears," remarked, that
while a carpenter's hammer, on a warm summer day, caused him to "fret
into more than midsummer madness," these unconnected sounds were nothing
when compared with the measured malice of music. For while the ear may
be passive to the strokes of a hammer, and even endure them with some
degree of equanimity, to music it cannot be passive. The noted author
relates having sat through an Italian opera, till, from sheer pain, he
rushed out into the noisiest places of the crowded streets, to solace
himself with sounds which he was not obliged to follow, and thus get rid
of the distracting torment of endless, fruitless, barren attention!
According to his frank avowal, music was to him a source of pain, rather
than of pleasure.
The Reverend Richard Eastcott, in his "Sketches of the Origin, Progress
and Effects of Music," told of a "gentleman of very considerable
understanding," who was heard to declare that the rattling of a fire-pan
and tongs was as grateful to his feelings as the best concert he ever
heard. However, such rare exceptions, if not germane to our subject, may
be said to prove the general rule that music is of real value in
therapeutics, and that most people are susceptible to its beneficent
Music has accomplished a great many things and has been put to many
uses, but it is seldom employed in making good boys out of bad.
An almost accidental experiment at the Middlesex County truant school
at North Chelmsford has shown it to be a truth, that wickedness takes
flight at martial strains; for a full-fledged brass band, in which the
delinquent youths are the musicians, has fairly revolutionized the
discipline of the school, and many a lad who did not have half a chance
has been started "right" on the road to success.
The question is often asked: How can music effect a
character-metamorphosis in the boy who has every mental and moral
indication of turning out badly?
Music is an educative factor of prime importance, and promotes the
evolution of good hereditary traits. Whatever the psychologic
explanation of its effects may be, it appears to develop the qualities
of kindness and manliness.
Not every one, however, is influenced by the foregoing considerations. A
recent writer, in an essay on the "Plague of Music," remarks that under
the name of music we are afflicted with every variety of noise; for
example, the sounds produced by hurdy-gurdies, bag-pipes and minstrels;
the harpman, the lady who has seen better days, and who sings before our
house in the evening. "Not to mention the millions of pianos and the
millions of fiddles that never cease being thumped and scratched all the
world over, night and day. The contemplation of such collective discord
is truly appalling."
The famous English philosopher, Roger Bacon (1214-1292), known as "The
Admirable Doctor," wrote that a cheerful mind brings power and vigor,
makes a man rejoice, stirs up Nature, and helps her in her actions and
motions; of which sort are joy, mirth, and whatever provokes laughter,
as also instrumental music and songs, facetious conversation, and
observation of the celestial bodies.
It has been proved, by physiological experiments upon men and the lower
animals, that musical sounds produce a marked effect upon the
circulation. The pulse-rate is usually quickened, and the force of the
heart-beats increased in varying degrees, dependent upon the pitch,
intensity and timbre of the sounds, and the idiosyncrasy of the
It may be safely affirmed, therefore, that music should have a place
among psychic remedial agents.
A recent writer has remarked that the "Marsellaise" was like wine to the
French revolutionists, and lifted many a head, and straightened many a
weary back on some of those terrible forced marches of Napoleon's.
Music may be classed in the same category with certain drugs, as a
therapeutic agent. And like drugs, each composition has its own special
effect. Thus a brisk Strauss waltz might act as a stimulant, but it
would not answer as a narcotic. A nocturne would be sure to
The time may come when a German street-band will be recognized as a
powerful tonic; a cornet solo will take the place of a blister; a
symphony or a sonata may be recommended instead of morphine; the moxa
will give way to Wagner, and opium to Brahms. A prolonged shake by a
singer will drive out chills and fever, according to the theory of
Hahnemann. Cots at symphony concerts may yet command the highest
Music is one of those intangible but effective aids of Medicine, which
exert their healthful influence through the nervous system. It is in
fact a mental tonic. A writer in the London "Lancet" remarks that "a
pleasing and lively melody can awake in a faded brain the strong emotion
of hope, and energizing by its means the languid nerve control of the
whole circulation, strengthen the heart-beat and refresh the vascularity
of every organ. Even aches are soothed for a time by a transference of
attention, and why then should not pain be lulled by music?"
Robert Burton, author of "The Anatomy of Melancholy," in commenting on
the curative effects of music, remarked that it is a sovereign remedy
against mental depression, capable even of driving away the Devil
"When griping grief the heart doth wound,
And doleful dumps the mind oppress,
Then music with her silver sound,
With speedy help doth lend redress."
Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, Scene 5.
The nurse's song, Burton wrote, makes a child quiet, and many times, the
sound of a trumpet on a sudden, bells ringing, a carman's whistle, a boy
singing some ballad on the street, alters, revives and recreates a
restless patient who cannot sleep in the night. Many men are made
melancholy by hearing music, but the melancholy is of a pleasing kind.
In a curious German treatise, "Der Musikalische Arzt," we find
the following quotation from an article entitled "Reflections on Ancient
and Modern Music."
"If it be demanded how musick becomes a remedy, and inciteth the patient
to dance, 'tis answer'd that sound having a great influence upon the
actions of the air, the air mov'd causeth a like motion in the next air,
and so on till the like be produced in the Spirits of the body, to which
the air is impelled."
According to the French physician, Jean Etienne Dominique Esquirol
(1772-1840), music acts upon the physique by determining nervous
vibrations, and by exciting the circulation. It acts upon the morale
by fixing the attention upon sweet impressions, and by calling up
Francois Fournier de Pescay, a contemporary of the above-named,
commented on the fact that many famous writers of antiquity regarded
music as a panacea, whereas in the light of modern medical science, it
cannot be considered as an effective remedy in such affections as
rheumatism, for example.
An adagio may set a gouty father to sleep, and a capriccio may
operate successfully on the nerves of a valetudinary mother. A slight
indisposition may be removed by a single air, while a more obstinate
case may require an overture or a concerto. The tastes of the patient
should be consulted.
Country squires, when kept indoors by stress of bad weather, will
experience much relief in a hunting-song, while young gentlemen of the
town will perhaps prefer an old English derry-down. Hospital inmates
will usually be content with hurdy-gurdies, and the poorer classes may
be supplied with ballads at their own homes. Some patients will recover
with all the rapidity of a jig, while others will mend in minuet-time.
And surely the public welfare will be eminently promoted, when our
physicians' prescriptions are printed from music-type, and when we have
nothing more nauseous to swallow than the words of a modern
According to the Dutch physician Lemnius (1505-1568), music is a chief
antidote against melancholy; it revives the languishing soul, affecting
not only the ears, but the vital and animal spirits. It erects the mind,
and makes it nimble.
The Reverend Sydney Smith graphically described the effect of enlivening
music upon an audience, who had been manifestly bored and were gaping
with ennui during the execution of an elaborate fugue, by a skilled
orchestra. Suddenly there sprang up a lively little air, expressive of
some natural feeling. And instantly every one beamed with satisfaction,
and was ready to aver that music affords the most delightful and
And such is doubtless the opinion of the great majority of people of
culture and refinement, especially those of a jovial or mercurial
temperament. According to Martin Luther, the Devil is a saturnine
person, and music is hateful to him.
Many and sundry are the means, says Robert Burton, which philosophers
and physicians have prescribed to exhilarate a sorrowful heart, to
divert those fixed and intent cares and meditations, which in this
malady so much offend; but in my judgment, none so present, none so
powerful, none so apposite as mirth, music and merry company.
During recent years the influence of music in disease has been the
subject of renewed attention. In London Canon Harford, an enthusiastic
believer in the efficacy of this method of treatment, organized bands of
musicians, under the auspices of the Order of Saint Cecilia, who visited
certain hospitals, where permission had been given, and there exercised
their art with results highly encouraging and beneficial.
And in Boston Dr. John Dixwell has for many years been active in
providing music for hospital patients. His admirable enterprise has been
successful, and has received the endorsement of the medical fraternity.
A wise discrimination is essential in the selection of music especially
adapted to benefit any particular class of cases.
The National Society of Musical Therapeutics was founded in the city of
New York, by Miss Eva Augusta Vescelius, in the year 1903, with the
object of encouraging the study of music in relation to life and health;
and also for the promotion of its use as a curative agent in hospitals,
asylums, and prisons. The therapeutic use of music is believed to have
passed the experimental stage. It is now admitted, says Miss Vescelius,
that music can be so employed as to exercise a distinct psychological
influence upon the mind, nerve-centres and circulatory system; and may
serve as an efficient remedy for many ills to which the flesh is said to
be heir. The selection of music in hospitals and asylums needs
thoughtful consideration, for there we meet with all kinds of discord.
An emotional song, for example, which would give pleasure to one, might
sadden another, and a patient suffering from nostalgia would not be
benefited by a melody suggesting a home-picture.
Will the trained nurse of the future have to include voice culture in
her training before she is declared competent to minister to the wants
of the sick?
This question is raised by Dr. George M. Stratton, professor of
experimental psychology in Johns Hopkins University. In an address on
"The Nature and Training of the Emotions," delivered before more than a
hundred nurses of the hospitals of Baltimore, he made the broad
statement that music would be a vital factor in treating the sick in the
Dr. Stratton did not insist that every nurse of the future must be a
Patti, a Melba, or a Nordica; but he held that in the future a young
woman who devotes her life to nursing the sick should be able to sing to
the patient under her care.
The mental effect of music is generally recognized as beneficial, in
that it lifts the entire being into a higher state. That this effect is
communicated to the body, is admitted, but the extent of physical
benefit has not been sufficiently investigated either by musicians or by
scientists. In the application of music for the treatment of disease, it
should be remembered that the seat of many disorders is primarily in the
mind, and that therefore the mental condition must be radically changed
before a cure is possible. "In listening to music, the mind absorbs
those tones which have become silenced in itself, and in the body as a
necessary consequence; just as the stomach assimilates those
food-elements which are required to repair the waste of the system. Thus
our music-food is selected and distributed where it is most needed, and
this natural selection of musical vibrations acts specifically upon
those parts of the body which are out of harmony. A concert programme is
a menu for the multitude. We hear all the music printed on it, but
digest very little of it. Some kinds of music thus heard, must
inevitably be wasted on the listener, or cause a musical
The English clergyman and writer, Hugh Reginald Haweis, extols music as
a healthy outlet for emotion, and as especially adapted for young
ladies. Joy flows naturally into ringing harmonies, says he, while music
has the subtle power to soften melancholy, by presenting it with its
fine emotional counterpart.
A good play on the piano has not unfrequently taken the place of a good
cry upstairs, and a cloud of ill-temper has often been dispersed by a
timely practice. One of Schubert's friends used to say that, although
very cross before sitting down to his piano, a long scramble-duet
through a symphony or through one of his own delicious and erratic
pianoforte duets, always restored him to good humor.
For many years the subject of musico-therapy has been discussed
editorially in the columns of the "London Lancet." We give some
statements emanating from this authority.
Music influences both brain and heart through the spinal cord, probably
on account of its vibratory or wave motion, which stimulates the
nerve-centres. . . .
It acts as a refreshing mental stimulant and restorative. Therefore it
braces depressed nervous tone and indirectly through the nervous
system reaches the tissues. It is of most use in depressed mental
conditions. . . . The value of music as a therapeutic agent cannot yet
be precisely stated, but it is no quack's nostrum. It is an intangible,
but effective aid of medicine.
It seems strange that the healing influence of music has not been more
thoroughly studied from a psychological standpoint, and utilized, when
one is mindful of the great store of evidence, gathered for centuries,
of the marked power of this agent upon the lower animals, and of its
worth as a mental, and therefore as a physical tonic and stimulant, for
human beings. A chief reason for this neglect has been ascribed to the
materialistic views which have prevailed in therapeutics.
It was formerly believed quite generally, in Italy and elsewhere, that
music was the only efficient cure for the effects of the bite of the
tarantula, a species of large spider, so called from the city of
Taranto. These effects consisted of a feigned or imaginary disease known
as tarantism, which was prevalent in Apulia and other portions of
southern Italy during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Tarantism
was an epidemic nervous affection characterized by involuntary dancing,
gesticulations, contortions and cries. In spite, however, of all that
has been written on this subject by physicians and historians, it
appears to be a fact that the bite of the tarantula is not more venomous
than that of other large spiders. Indeed, Dr. H. Chomet, who diligently
investigated the matter, never succeeded in finding a case of tarantism,
nor was he able even to obtain a glimpse of one of these insects.
It is certain, however, that tarantism was very prevalent in earlier
times. J. F. C. Hecker, M.D., in his "Epidemics of the Middle Ages,"
stated that the music of the flute, cithern or other instrument alone
afforded relief to patients affected with this disease. So common was
it, that the cities and villages of Apulia resounded with the beneficent
strains of fifes, clarinets and drums. And the superstition was general
that by means of music and dancing, the poison of the tarantula was
distributed over the whole body, and was then eliminated through the
pores of the skin.
The bite of the star-lizard, Stellio vulgaris, of Southern Europe, was
also popularly believed to be poisonous.
According to Perotti (1430-1480), persons who had been bitten by this
reptile fell into a state of melancholia and stupefaction. While in this
condition they were very susceptible to the influence of music. At the
very first tone of a favorite melody, they sprang up, shouting for joy,
and danced without intermission until they sank to the ground,
Frequent allusions to the remarkable therapeutic power of music, and
especially to its specific anti-toxic virtues, are to be found in the
works of many writers. Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), in "Arcadia," book
1, said: "This word did not less pierce poor Pyrocles, than the right
tune of music toucheth him that is sick of the tarantula." And Jonathan
Swift (1667-1745), in "The Tale of a Tub," has this passage: "He was
troubled with a disease, reversed to that called the stinging of the
tarantula, and would run dog-mad at the noise of music, especially a
pair of bag-pipes." Again: "This Malady has been removed, like the
Biting of a Tarantula, with the sound of a musical instrument."
Many physicians and historians have written on this subject, and with
singular unanimity have endorsed music as a curative agent for
Notable among these were Alexander ab Alexandro, a prominent Neapolitan
civilian, who flourished toward the close of the fifteenth century, and
Athanasius Kircher, a famous German Jesuit, in a treatise entitled "Ars
Magnetica de Tarantismo" (Rome, 1654). Dr. Richard Mead, in an essay on
the tarantula, published in 1702, wrote that this insect was wont to
creep about in the Italian corn-fields during the summer months, and at
that season its bite was especially venomous. Music was the sole remedy
employed, and none other was needed. Among other authorities may be
mentioned: Dr. Pierre Jean Burette (1665-1747), "Dialogue sur la
musique"; Dr. Giorgio Baglivi, "De Anatomia, Morsu et Effectibus
Tarantulae Dissertatio" (1695); and Dr. Theodore Craanen, a Dutch
physician, "Tractatus physico-medicus De Tarantula" (Naples, 1722).
Worthy of note also is an elaborate dissertation, "System einer
Medizinischen Musik" (Bonn, 1835), by Dr. Peter Joseph Schneider,
wherein the author devotes several pages to this interesting theme.
Dr. Mead, above mentioned, gave a curious description of the symptoms
of tarantism. "While the patients are dancing," said he, "they lose in a
manner the use of all their senses, like so many drunkards, and indulge
in many ridiculous and foolish antics. They talk and act rudely, and
take great pleasure in playing with vine-leaves, naked swords, red
cloths, and the like. They have a particular aversion for anything of a
black color, so that if a bystander happens to appear in apparel of that
hue, he must immediately withdraw; otherwise the patients relapse into
their symptoms with as much violence as ever."