What the Ancients Knew About the Healing Properties of Music

The healing properties of music were well known to the peoples of the past and they made considerable use of it. Among primitive peoples songs and musical instruments such as the drum and the rattle were used not only in order to increase the effect of herbs or drugs, but also as independent means of healing. Such practices have persisted until the present among American Indians. Paul Radin, in his essay on “Music and Medicine Among Primitive Peoples,” reports that “among the Ojibwa, for example, the so-alled jessakid practitioners are supposed to function simply by sitting near the patient and singing songs to the accompaniment of their gourd rattles…

It was known by the ancient civilizations that music has healing properties, and they deliberately used it for such purpose. In Finland’s epic poem, the Kalevala, we read of a sage who succeeded, by means of his music, not only in appeasing the fury of a mob, but actually in hypnotising the people, sending them to sleep… According to the Arabs, music has a beneficent effect on animals. They say that the singing and playing of the shepherds make the flocks thrive. Among the Greeks music had a special place as a curative agent. Homer narrates that the flow of blood from the wound of Ulysses was staunched by the melodious song of Autolycus.

We have more precise information on the use which Pythagoras made of music. “Pythagoras,” writes Porphyry, “based musical education in the first place on certain melodies and rhythms which exercised a healing, purifying influence on human actions and passions, restoring the pristine harmony of the soul’s faculties. He applied the same means to the curing of diseases of both body and mind … In the evening, when his disciples were about to retire, he would set them free from all disturbances and agitations of the day, steadying their somewhat wavering minds and inducing peaceful sleep which brought with it propitious and even prophetic dreams. And when they arose in the morning he freed them from lingering sleepiness by means of special songs and melodies.” Porphyry also relates that on one occasion, after Pythagoras had striven in vain to calm and restrain a drunken man who was attempting, as an act of revenge, to set fire to a house, he succeeded in pacifying him by means of music.

Plato accorded just as much importance to music as a powerful means of psychotherapy and education, as is shown by the following statement (among many others) to be found in his “Republic”: “Rhythm and harmony sink deep into the recesses of the soul and take the strongest hold there, bringing that grace of body and mind which is only to be found in one who is brought up in the right way.”

Aristotle mentions among the various functions of music that of emotional catharsis, which shows an interesting similarity with the aim pursued by modern psychoanalysis.

We cannot deal with many other instances of the appreciation and use of music for healing purposes by the Greeks and the Romans and, later, from the Renaissance on through the eighteenth century. Those interested in the history of musical therapy can find ample information in two essays, one by Bruno Meinecke, and the other by Armen Carapetyan, contained in the book, Music and Medicine.

In the nineteenth century, owing to the prevailing materialistic trend, this method of psychotherapy has been comparatively neglected. One may even say that the tonic effect of music has been more appreciated by the military than by the medical profession. Every regiment has its own band and constant use is made of martial music, of spirited marches to raise and keep up the morale of the soldiers. Many soldiers not only like singing but have become conscious of the wholesome effect of sound. One of the songs which often resounded in the trenches during the first world war may be rendered as follows: “Sing, boys, sing To keep the wolf at bay. All listlessness and sadness With song we’ll chase away.” A few medical doctors, however, have made use of musical therapy. Among them was Hector Chomet. In his book, The Influence of Music on Health and Life, various cases of healing by means of music are mentioned. He reports the case of a woman subject to epileptic fits who one day happened to be listening to music when the symptoms of an approaching attack set in; the fit, however, did not occur. From that time on, at the first appearance of the symptoms, she arranged for music to be played, and in this way succeeded in entirely overcoming the attacks.

In the present century, and particularly in the last decades, there has been a renewed interest in musical therapy which has shown itself chiefly along three lines: as a means of soothing pain; through collective application in hospitals, especially in psychiatric clinics, with the general aim of producing calming or tonic effects on the patients; and as a means of occupational therapy (treatment by activity). A truly scientific musical therapy and particularly its individual applications ­ namely those which aim at curing specific troubles in particular cases ­ should be based on a precise knowledge of the various elements of which music is composed and of the effect which each one of them has, both on physiological functions and on psychological conditions.

Source: “Music as a Cause of Disease and as a Healing Agent,” from Psychosynthesis: A Collection of Writings, by Roberto Assagioli