The Healing Influence Of Music
Sources: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery
Dubito, an omnia, quae de incantamentis dicuntur
carminibusque, non sint adscribenda effectibus musicis, quia
excellebant eadem veteres medici.
HERMANN BOERHAAVE. (1668-1738.)
Preposterous ass! that never read so far
To know the cause why music was ordained.
Was it not to refresh the mind of man,
After his studies, or his usual
The Taming of the Shrew, Act III, Scene 1.
I think sometimes, could I only have music on my own terms,
could I live in a great city, and know where I could go
whenever I wished and get the ablution and inundation of
musical waves, that were a bath and medicine.
R. W. EMERSON.
Musick, when rightly order'd, cannot be prefer'd too much. For
it recreates and exalts the Mind at the same time.
It composes the Passions, affords a strong Pleasure, and
excites Nobleness of Thought. . . .
What can be more strange than that the rubbing of a little
hair and cat-gut together, should make such a mighty
Alteration in a Man that sits at a distance?
JEREMY COLLIER, Essay on Music: 1698.
"Music the fiercest grief can charm."
POPE, St. Cecilia's Day, I, 118.
From time immemorial the influence of musical sounds has been recognized
as a valuable agent in the treatment of nervous affections, and for the
relief of various mental conditions. According to one theory, the
healing quality of a musical tone is due to its regular periodic
vibrations. It acts by substituting its own state of harmony for a
condition of mental or physical discord. Noise, being inharmonious, has
no curative power. Music may be termed the health and noise the disease
"The man that hath no music in himself," says Shakespeare ("The Merchant
of Venice," Act v, Scene 1), "nor is not moved with concord of sweet
sounds, is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. The motions of his
spirit are dull as night, and his affections dark as Erebus. Let no such
man be trusted. . . ."
The ancient Egyptians were not ignorant of musico-therapy. They called
music physic for the soul, and had faith in its specific remedial
virtues. Music was an accompaniment of their banquets, and in the time
of the fourth and fifth dynasties consisted usually of the harmony of
three instruments, the harp, flute, and pipe. The Persians are
said to have cured divers ailments by the sound of the lute. They
believed that the soul was purified by music and prepared thereby for
converse with the spirits of light around the throne of Ormuzd, the
principle of truth and goodness. And the most eminent Grecian
philosophers attributed to music important medicinal properties for both
body and mind.
John Harrington Edwards, in his volume, "God and Music," remarks
that the people of antiquity had much greater faith than the moderns in
the efficacy of music as a curative agent in disease of every kind;
while the scientific mind of to-day demands a degree of evidence which
history cannot furnish, for asserted cures by this means in early times.
Impressed with the sublime nature of music, the ancients ascribed to it
a divine origin. According to one tradition, its discovery was due to
the sound produced by the wind whistling among the reeds, which grew on
the borders of the Nile.
Polybius, the Greek historian of the second century B. C., wrote that
music softened the manners of the ancient Arcadians, whose climate was
rigorous. Whereas the inhabitants of Cynaetha (the modern town of
Kalavrita) in the Peloponnesus, who neglected this art, were the most
barbarous in Greece. Baron de Montesquieu, in "The Spirit of Laws,"
remarked that as the popular exercises of wrestling and boxing had a
natural tendency to render the ancient Grecians hardy and fierce, there
was a necessity for tempering those exercises with others, with a view
to rendering the people more susceptible of humane feelings. For this
purpose, said Montesquieu, music, which influences the mind by means of
the corporeal organs, was extremely proper. It is a kind of medium
between manly exercises, which harden the body, and speculative
sciences, which are apt to render us unsociable and sour. . . . Let us
suppose, for example, a society of men so passionately devoted to
hunting as to make it their sole employment; they would doubtless
contract thereby a kind of rusticity and fierceness. But if they
happened to imbibe a taste for music, we should quickly perceive a
sensible difference in their customs and manners. In short, the
exercises used by the Greeks could raise but one kind of passions,
namely, fierceness, indignation, and cruelty. But music excites all
these, and is likewise able to inspire the soul with a sense of pity,
lenity, tenderness, and love.
In a rare work, styled "Reflexions on Antient and Modern Music, with the
application to the Cure of Diseases," we find that the custom
prevailed, among certain nations of old, of initiating their youth into
the studies of harmony and music. Whereby, it was believed, their minds
became formed to the admiration and esteem of proportion, order, and
beauty, and the cause of virtue was greatly promoted. "Music," moreover,
"extends the fancy beyond its ordinary compass, and fills it with the
Christianus Pazig, in "Magic Incantations," page 29, relates that the
wife of Picus, King of Latium, was able by her voice to soothe and
appease wild animals, and to arrest the flight of birds.
And the French traveller Villamont asserted that crocodiles were
beguiled by the songs of Egyptian fishermen to leave the Nile, and
allowed themselves to be led off and exposed for sale in the markets.
Recent experiments have confirmed the traditional theory of the soothing
effect of music upon wild animals. A graphophone, with records of Melba,
Sembrich, Caruso, and other operatic stars, made the rounds of a
menagerie. Many of the larger animals appeared to thoroughly enjoy
listening to the melodious strains, which seemed to fascinate them. The
one exception, proving the rule, was a huge, blue-faced mandrill, who
became enraged at hearing a few bars from "Pagliacci," and tried to
wreck the machine. Of all the animals, the lions were apparently the
most susceptible to musical influence, and these royal beasts showed an
interest in the sweet tones of the graphophone, akin to that of a human
There is abundant evidence of the fondness of spiders for soothing
musical tones. The insects usually approach by letting themselves down
from the ceiling of the apartment, and remain suspended above the
instrument. Professor C. Reclain, during a concert at Leipsic,
witnessed the descent of a spider from a chandelier during a violin
solo. But as soon as the orchestra began to play, the insect retreated.
Mr. C. V. Boys, who has made some interesting experiments with a view to
determining the susceptibility of spiders to the sound of a tuning-fork,
reports, in "Body and Mind," that by means of this instrument, a spider
may be made to eat what it would otherwise avoid. Male birds charm their
mates by warbling, and parrots seem to take delight in hearing the piano
played, or in listening to vocal music.
Charles Darwin, in "The Descent of Man," remarks that we can no more
explain why musical tones, in a certain order and rhythm, afford
pleasure to man and the lower animals, than we can account for the
pleasantness of certain tastes and odors. We know that sounds, more or
less melodious, are produced, during the season of courtship, by many
insects, spiders, fishes, amphibians, and birds. The vocal organs of
frogs and toads are used incessantly during the breeding season, and at
this time also male alligators are wont to roar or bellow, and even the
male tortoise makes a noise.
Music is the sworn enemy of ennui or boredom, and the demons of
melancholy. It "hath charms," wrote William Congreve (1670-1729), "to
soothe the savage breast." Orpheus with his lyre was able to
charm wild beasts, and even to control the forces of Nature; and
because of its wonderful therapeutic effects, which were well known to
the Greeks, they associated Music with Medicine as an attribute of
Apollo. Chiron the centaur, by the aid of melody, healed the
sick, and appeased the anger of Achilles. By the same means the lyric
poet Thales, who flourished in the seventh century B. C., acting by
advice of an oracle, was able to subdue a pestilence in Sparta.
Pythagoras also recognized the potency of music as a remedial force.
Tuneful strains were believed by the physicians of old to be uncongenial
to the spirits of sickness; but among medicine-men of many American
Indian tribes, harsh discordant sounds and doleful chants have long been
a favorite means of driving away these same spirits. Aulus
Gellius, the Roman writer of the second century, in his "Attic
Nights," mentioned a traditionary belief that sciatica might be
relieved by the soft notes of a flute-player, and quoted the Greek
philosopher Democritus (born about B. C. 480) as authority for the
statement that the same remedy had power to heal wounds inflicted by
venomous serpents. According to Theophrastus, a disciple of Plato and
Aristotle (B. C. 374-286), gout could be cured by playing a flute over
the affected limb; and the Latin author Martianus Capella, who
flourished about A. D. 490, asserted that music had been successfully
employed in the treatment of fevers, and in quieting the turbulence of
Among the ancient northern peoples, also, songs and runes were reckoned
powerful agents for working good or evil, and were available "to heal or
make sick, bind up wounds, stanch blood, alleviate pain, or lull to
sleep." A verse of an old Icelandic poem, called the "Havamal,"
whose authorship is accredited to Wodan, runs as follows: "I am
possessed of songs, such as neither the spouse of a king nor any son of
man can repeat. One of them is called, 'the Helper.' It will help thee
at thy need, in sickness, grief, and all adversities. I know a song
which the sons of men ought to sing, if they would become skilful
The Anglo-Saxons appreciated the healthful influence of music. At a very
early period in their history, a considerable number of persons adopted
music and singing as a profession. It was the gleemen's duty to
entertain royal personages and the members of their courts. Afterwards
these functions devolved upon the minstrels, a class of musicians who
wandered from castle to camp, entertaining the nobility and gentry with
their songs and accompaniments. The intermediate class of musicians,
whom the later minstrels succeeded, appeared in France during the eighth
century, and came, at the time of the Norman Conquest, to England, where
they were assimilated with the Anglo-Saxon gleemen. In the early
poetry of Scandinavia there is frequent reference to the magical
influence of music. Wild animals are fascinated by the sound of a harp,
and vegetation is quickened. The knight, though grave and silent, is
attracted, and even though inclined to stay away, cannot restrain his
The earliest biblical mention of music as a healing power occurs in
Samuel, XVI, 23, where David (the son of Jesse, the Bethlehemite) cured
the melancholy of King Saul by playing upon the harp. "So Saul was
refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him."
In medieval times, music was successfully employed in the treatment of
epidemic nervous disorders, a custom which probably originated from the
ancient song-remedies or incantations. The same agent was also
used as an antidote to the poison of a viper's fang, especially the
tarantula's bite, which was believed to induce tarantism, or the dancing
mania. Antonius Benivenius, a learned Italian physician of the
fifteenth century, related that an arrow was drawn from a soldier's body
by means of a song.
A notable instance of the power of vocal music in charming away
obstinate melancholy is in the case of Philip V of Spain, where the
melodious voice of the great Italian singer Farinelli proved effective
after all other remedies had failed.
Such are a few instances of the influence of song and melody as
seemingly magical agencies, and therefore not inappropriately may they
be classed under that branch of folk-lore which deals with
healing-spells and verbal medical charms.
It has been well said that music is entitled to a place in our Materia
Medica. For while there may not be much music in medicine, there is a
great deal of medicine in music. For the latter exerts a powerful
influence upon the higher cerebral centres, and thence, through the
sympathetic nervous system, upon other portions of the body. Indeed the
entire working of the human mechanism, physical and psychical, may be
aided by the beautiful art of music. With some people the digestion is
facilitated by hearing music. Voltaire said that this fact accounted for
the popularity of the opera.
In such cases the music probably acts by banishing fatigue, which
interferes with the proper assimilation of food. Hence one may derive
benefit from listening to the orchestra during meal-times at
fashionable hotels. Milton believed in the benefit to be derived from
listening to music before dinner, as a relief to the mind. And he also
recommended it as a post-prandial exercise, "to assist and cherish
Nature in her first concoctions, and to send the mind back to study, in
good tune and satisfaction." Milton practised what he preached, for it
was his custom, after the principal meal of the day, to play on the
organ and hear another sing.
The Reverend Sydney Smith once said that his idea of heaven was eating
foie gras to the sound of trumpets.
There is evidence that in ancient times the banquets, which immediately
followed sacrifices, were attended with instrumental music. For we read
in Isaiah, v, 12: "And the harp and the viol, the tabret and pipe, and
wine, are in their feasts." And in the households of wealthy Roman
citizens, instruction was given in the art of carving, to the sound of
music, with appropriate gestures, under the direction of the official
carver (carptor or scissor).
We find in the "Apocrypha" the following passage: "If thou be
made the master of a feast . . . hinder not musick. . . . A concert of
musick in a banquet of wine is as a signet of carbuncle set in gold. As
a signet of an emerald set in a work of gold, so is the melody of musick
with pleasant wine."
Chaucer, in his "Parson's Tale," speaks of the Curiositie of
Minstralcie, at the banquets of the well-to-do in his day.
The banquets of the Anglo-Saxons were enlivened by minstrels and
gleemen, whose visits were welcome breaks in the monotony of the
people's lives. They added to their musical performances mimicry and
other means of promoting mirth, as well as dancing and tumbling, with
sleights of hand, and a variety of deceptions to amuse the
company. In the intervals between the musical exercises, the
guests talked, joked, propounded and answered riddles, and boasted of
their own exploits, while disparaging those of others. Later,
when the liquor took effect, they were wont to become noisy and
quarrelsome. "Then wine wets the man's breast-passions; suddenly
rises clamour in the company, an outcry they send forth various."
In the great houses of the nobility and gentry, minstrels' music was the
usual seasoning of food. It is true, wrote Mons. J. J. Jusserand, in
"English Wayfaring Life of the Fourteenth Century," that "the voices of
the singers were at times interrupted by the crunching of the bones,
which the dogs were gnawing under the tables, or by the sharp cry of
some ill-bred falcon; for many lords kept these favorite birds on
perches behind them."
We learn from the same authority that in the great dining-halls of the
castles of the wealthy, galleries were placed for the accommodation of
the minstrels, above the door of entrance, and opposite to the dais upon
which stood the master's table.