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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.


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.


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

of sound.

"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

gayest images."

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

drunken revellers.

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.