A question I often ask new music and health students is ‘how would you describe music to an extra-terrestrial landing on earth for the first time demanding to know more about this strange phenomenon?’ Their answers vary greatly but often cluster somewhere around the notion that music has something to do with our emotions. A simple definition that I myself have settled upon is that music is a language of perception. The great Bobby McFerrin very adeptly demonstrates in his lectures that humans have the inherent propensity to perceive music – to understand and predict even complex intervals in the absence of musical training and often the presence of self diagnosed tone deafness! The late Oliver Sacks describes this ability to perceive as our innate propensity for music. He asserts that our brains, auditory systems and nervous systems are ‘exquisitely tuned for music’. Scholar Ellen Dissanayake goes so far as to say that, as a species, music has directly contributed to our survival and reproductive success. Were it simply ‘auditory cheescake’ as suggested somewhat infamously by cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, and not in some way biologically adaptive or beneficial, it would long ago have ceased to exist.
Music is everywhere.
If there isn’t music coming from a speaker somewhere near you right now, music can be found within you — your heartbeat. At the very core of each and every one of us there is the steady beat of a gentle drum. From the moment we come into existence, we are surrounded by the rhythmic pounding of our mother’s heart – life is rhythm and, without sounding too Sweet Charity, rhythm is life!
We all know intuitively that music is important, that we respond to it in physical and psychological ways that are inexplicable and often profound. Tears roll, shivers shoot up your spine, laughter fills a theatre, intense emotional suspense grips tightly, feet automatically tap, fingers click, bodies sway and tense or relax. But what is it about music that makes us feel and behave this way? Is it the music structure itself, or a higher cognitive function that independently creates a feeling or sensation, and why is it even worth considering?
In a society that desperately needs to begin again in terms of valuing commodities that connect, heal, repair and remind us to be human – music is worth considering as a precious tool in resourcing ourselves into wellbeing. We undoubtedly already use music in our everyday lives to regulate, celebrate, express, form and maintain relationships, relax, derive pleasure – as a backdrop to our experiences, a soundtrack if you will. We need music in our lives – it supports and sustains us in our experience of being alive. We are fine tuned for music and adept in our instinctive use of it to improve the quality of our existence. Its very ubiquitousness might in fact blind us to the scope of its deep significance and functionality. Scientifically, it is one of only a handful of phenomena that result in the whole brain lighting and ‘firing’ up. This extreme biological reaction and the fact that music can calm us, organise us, synchronize us, comfort us, excite us – allows it to be harnessed and used strategically in addressing a vast array of clinical and therapeutic needs.
But the use of music in healing is not a recent phenomenon. It has existed since prehistoric times and is deeply rooted as a healing tool in ancient cultures and civilizations. Indigenous cultures used vocal sounds and music for centuries as an integral part of healing practices. Music as an agent of health promotion and healing is at least as old as the writings of Aristotle and Plato. Plato believed that music could resolve the inherent dichotomy of the soul by ‘imparting grace’ whilst Aristotle believed in its mystic qualities to ‘heal and purify’. The oldest example of the contextual use of music for healing may be the depiction of harp-playing priests and musicians in frescos from 4000 BCE. In later centuries, the first specific application of music as therapy developed in ancient Greece, with Aesculapius recommending the use of music to conquer passion! In 6th and 5th centuries BCE, an interest developed in trying to understand the effects of music on human beings. Early Christians used Gregorian chants and special melodies and harmonies in preparing for and accessing a heightened sense of divinity during the 9th and 10th Centuries. During the Middle Ages – such was the necessity of music for compounding and sustaining wellness that the law mandated aspiring medical students to also appreciate music – the belief being that healing the psyche through music also healed the body. Although the relationship between music and medicine fell into oblivion somewhat during the Renaissance with the separation of scientific subjects into natural sciences and humanities, questions about the role of music in human behaviour returned with the development of neurology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis towards the end of the 18th Century. By the end of the 19th century, research undertaken by German Physician Herman von Helmholtz fostered the application of music in defined clinical settings. By the early 20th Century, music was being used in the context of surgery with research establishing that patients almost universally tolerated anesthetic induction better and benefitted from reduced anxiety before undergoing surgery.
The relationship between music and medicine had been rekindled.
Music Therapy as a formalised clinical intervention was conceptualised towards the end of World War II. Huge numbers of injured soldiers returned to their countries with 130,000 being released for ‘neuropsychiatric conditions’. Music Therapy found its first definition as the ‘carefully prescribed dosage of music, given under a psychiatrists supervision and closely watched and controlled’ (Esther Goetz Gilliland, 1945). During this turbulent time, music was used not just in the hospitals but also in the streets and workplaces to restore harmony within the social body.
Today, music therapy as an allied health profession, is widespread in its application. The strategic application of music and all of its facets – physical, emotional, mental, social, aesthetic and spiritual – by a trained professional to address treatment goals within a therapeutic relationship has a wide qualitative and quantitative research literature base. In mental health, music therapy can address a multitutde of needs very effectively. Music is uniquely functional, relational and meaningful – if we think about health as not merely the absence of illness or disease and rather as being about well being, quality of life, our ability to self actualise and realise our goals – all within the context of our own culture and the society we live in – it simply makes sense to include it as something we apply intentionally to support us in the journey back to mental well being.
There are many determinants of health and I believe music to be a fundamental one. We sometimes underestimate the importance of music in the world but without it, we would inhabit a very different place. Nietzsche purported that ‘without music life would be a mistake’. Without it, we might just feel alone in the experience of being alive – for music captures something that is common to us all. Billy Joel calls it ‘the explosive expression of humanity’; you might call it something different. What I do know is that music is something we all know, share, feel, love and need. Bob Marley said that ‘when music hits you, you feel no pain’ – and what a glorious thing to be hit with! This World Music Day take a moment to celebrate your own soundtrack – the music that forms the backdrop to your experience, the music that supports and sustains you in your wellbeing. Find somewhere to showcase your unique musical prowess (perhaps the car on your way home this evening) and sing it loud, sing it clear, for the whole wide world to hear!!
Happy Fête de la Musique!