36. Early Views on Music Therapy

In a previous essay the reader noticed that Pythagoras was given credit by a number of later philosophers for originating the notion of the Music of the Spheres, even though it was actually a much earlier idea. In much the same fashion, many later writers, even to the present day, point to Pythagoras as the origin of music therapy even though it was again surely already a practiced discipline by his time. The fascination of later writers for this idea led them, as the reader will see below, to carry their discussions in many directions, bringing the planets back into the discussion, crediting melody, crediting modes , improvisation and of course introducing the role of dance. Common sense would suggest that the association of music and dance must be very ancient. This is certainly documented in some of the caves which contain the paintings by early man and in which can be found also musical instruments left behind as well as the footprints of dancers.

In any case, the association of music and medicine was an idea which has never died. One notices that the ancient Greek god, Apollo, was the god of both music and medicine. This association perhaps bears some relationship to the fact that when Antonio Lido, a 14th century professor of medicine at the University of Padua died, his epitaph began, Musicus Artista … And one has to say that the most interesting research in the field of music today is being done in the field of medicine.

Although not understood by ancient philosophers, it is vibration which is the fundamental element of music, and also, subsequently the fundamental element in any notion of Music of the Spheres. So in the association of music, movement and medicine, vibration may once again be the little recognized fundamental element. This is conclusively proven in the contemporary work by Dr Hans Jenny of Switzerland, and his fellow physicists, in their work in the association of vibrations and consequent pitch in the various body organs and the possible role of vibrations and pitch in improving the health of those organs.

We would therefore venture to guess that if there is any truth in the many tales by early writers about the role of music and dance in curing spider bites, that some credit for those cures may belong to vibration. We sense this, for example, in an account by Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529), in his famous book, The Courtier (Il Cortigiano), where in describing the subsequent cure caused by the music and dance, he speaks of the agitation caused the patient by the music and that the patient was shaken back into good health.

They say in Apulia when someone is bitten by a tarantula many musical instruments are played and various tunes are tried until the humor which is causing the sickness all of a sudden responds to the sound with which it has a certain affinity and so agitates the sick man that he is shaken back into good health.

This reminds us that the great composer Arthur Honegger once recalled the report of an interview with a Dr J. Niemack, one of the doctors who treated Beethoven for his deafness. Dr Niemack found that the Cavatina of the String Quartet, Op. 130, in which the first violin, in a strangely broken rhythm, gives voice to a melodic line marked by Beethoven as “Beklemmt” (anguished). Dr Niemack continues,

Ask a cardiologist to listen to this passage and ask him if he recognizes this rhythm. “Naturally,” he will answer, “It is the heart-beat of an arteriosclerotic,” whose heart is affected by a compensatory insufficiency.”1

Athanasius Kircher (1601–1680), a German born scholar who spent most of his adult life in Rome, was the author of the Musurgia Universalis (Rome, 1650), a virtual encyclopedia of music. In Book Nine of this massive work, “The Magic of Consonance and Dissonance,” Kircher discusses the effects of music on the mind and the use of music therapy, including the use of music to cure the bite of the Tarantula spider. Kircher cites several histories of this phenomenon, including a girl who was bitten and was cured by the music of only a drum. In another case, however, he reports a volunteer allowed himself to be bitten by two Tarantulas, of different colors. As the bite of one responded to music and dance, but the bite of the other was made worse, the patient died. Kircher’s technical medical explanation reads,

The poison is sharp, gnawing, and bilious and is received and incorporated into the medullary substances of the fibers. The music has the power to rarefy the air to a certain harmonic pitch; the air thus rarefied, penetrating the pores of the patient’s body, affects the muscles, arteries, and minute fibers, and incites him to dance, which begets a perspiration, in which the poison evaporates.

To conclude the discussion of the use of music to cure a Tarantula bite, it is interesting that the great German commentator on Baroque performance practice, Johann Mattheson, cites a publication, Quintessence des Novelles, 1727, Nr. 18, which contains the music of a Rondo recommended for use as a cure for the bite of the Tarantula spider.2

Most people today probably think that the great value of Music is to express the emotions. But among some earlier writers still under the shadow of the Roman Church’s long condemnation of the emotions, there was a concern that music promoted madness. An important early reference in this regard is found in the most important book on music of the 5th century, the allegorical description of The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, by Martianus Capella. The book was written at a time when Christianity had not yet won its final battle against the “pagans” (Plato, Aristotle, etc) and might well be thought of as an attempt to fight back against the efforts of the new Church to shut down traditional education and knowledge. This book represents one of the efforts which helped keep the liberal arts alive during the “Dark Ages.” Regarding madness, in this book the allegorical character, Music, speaks,

I have frequently recited chants that have had a therapeutic effect upon deranged minds and ailing bodies; I have restored the mad to health through consonance, a treatment which the physician Asclepiades learned from me.3

The 13th century philosopher, Bartholomew Anglicus, also mentions the use of music in writing of the treatment of madness. Those suffering from madness must be tied up, so they will not hurt themselves or others, and then,

be refreshed, and comforted, and withdrawn from cause and matter of dread and busy thoughts. And they must be gladded with instruments of music, and some what be occupied.4

During the Renaissance we begin to find a new emphasis on this subject, now that Music causes madness! The great Renaissance philosopher, Erasmus (1466–1536), attributed the discovery that music could cure madness to the famous ancient Greek philosopher, Pythagoras.

Pythagoras, by playing spondees in the Phrygian mode, transformed a young man mad with love and restored his sanity. A similar story is told of Empedocles, who is said by the use of some particular musical modes to have recalled to his proper wits a young man already beside himself with rage and hell-bent on murder.5

The 16th century Church philosopher, Jean Bodin, following the official Church view, arrives at a startling conclusion, that it is improvisation in music which drives men mad!

Harmony weakened and overdone by excessive elaboration exerts an influence, for while one both simple and natural is wont to cure serious illness of the mind, on the contrary one contrived from a medley of sounds and rapid rhythms usually drives a mind insane. This happens to men too anxious to please their ears, who dislike the Doric mode and dignified measures. They affect the Ionian, so that it ought not to seem remarkable if many become insane.6

And in Shakespeare as well, in the last of these following references to Music and the ill we find he also suggests that Music can cause madness.

“my feeble key of untuned cares”

The Comedy of Errors, V, i, 315

“Do you speak in the sick tune?”

Much Ado About Nothing, II, iv, 35

“O what a noble mind is here overthrown!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vows
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh.”

Hamlet, III, i, 155ff.

This music mads me. Let it sound no more,
For though it have helped mad men to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad…

Richard II, V, v

By the 17th century, however, most writers are pointing to music’s ability to alleviate various forms of “madness.” One of the earliest books of the Baroque, The City of the Sun (1602), by Tommaso Campanella, describes a fictional, utopian society in which music therapy is used for the cure of “burning fevers.”7

Robert Burton (1577–1640), in his famous book, The Anatomy of Melancholy, has an extended discussion regarding the use of music for the cure of madness. Here, however, like the cure of the spider bite, it is the combination of dance with music which he advocates. When he lists what he considers the basic diseases of the mind, among Dotage, Phrenzy, Madness, Hydrophobia, and Llycanthropia, we are surprised to find “St Vitus’ Dance.” His discussion of this condition is rather interesting.

S. Vitus’ Dance; the lascivious dance, Paracelsus calls it, because they that are taken with it, can do nothing but dance till they be dead, or cured. It is so called, for that the parties so troubled were wont to go to S. Vitus for help, & after they had danced there a while, they were certainly freed. It is strange to hear how long they will dance, & in what manner, over stools, forms, tables; even great-bellied women sometimes (and yet never hurt their children) will dance so long that they can stir neither hand nor foot, but seem to be quite dead. Only in red clothes they cannot abide. Musick above all things they love, & therefore Magistrates in Germany will hire Musicians to play to them, and some lusty sturdy companions to dance with them. This disease hath been very common in Germany, as appears by those relations of Sckenkius, and Paracelsus in his book of Madness, who brags how many several persons he hath cured of it. Felix Platerus reports of a woman in Basle whom he saw, that danced a whole month together.8

His English contemporary, Abraham Cowley’s explanation for this cure reads like something which might have been written by the ancient Greek philosophers,

That Musick moves the spirits to act upon the soul, as medicines do to operate upon the body, and that it cures the body by the soul, as medicine does the soul by the body.9

It was also in this vein that Cassiodorus (480–573 AD), in a famous letter to Boethius, describes the process by which music heals. He then points to the effect of music on a host of mental illnesses, beginning with melancholy.

The artist changes men’s hearts as they listen; and, when this artful pleasure issues from the secret place of nature as the queen of the senses, in all the glory of its tones, our remaining thoughts take to flight, and it expels all else, that it may delight itself simply in being heard. Harmful melancholy he turns to pleasure; he weakens swelling rage; he makes bloodthirsty cruelty kindly, arouses sleepy sloth from its torpor, restores to the sleepless their wholesome rest, recalls lust-corrupted chastity to its moral resolve, and heals boredom of spirit which is always the enemy of good thoughts. Dangerous hatreds he turns to helpful goodwill, and, in a blessed kind of healing, drives out the passions of the heart by means of sweetest pleasures.10

Beginning with the late Renaissance one finds, in both the literature and in music of England, a surprising focus on melancholy. Actually what this represents is a harbinger of the Baroque Period’s strong fascination with the role of music and the emotions. Given the frequent reference in literature to the fact that the English have difficult expressing their emotions, perhaps it is not too far off the mark to say that these English writers, now becoming more aware of strong emotions, gave “melancholy” as a synonym for strong emotions in general.

Henry Peacham (1576–1643), in his book, The Complete Gentleman, declares that music is “the best physic for many melancholy diseases.”

Robert Burton (1577–1640,) in The Anatomy of Melancholy, devotes a brief chapter to music. There have been many means by which philosophers and physicians have attempted to “exhilarate a sorrowful heart,” he notes, but for him there is nothing so powerful as “a cup of strong drink, mirth, musick, and merry company.” After citing some high recommendations of music by ancient writers, Burton observes,

Musick is a tonic to the saddened soul, a [powerful cannon] against melancholy, to rear and revive the languishing soul, affecting not only the ears, but the very arteries, the vital and animal spirits; it erects the mind, and makes it nimble. This it will effect in the most dull, severe, and sorrowful souls, expel grief with mirth, and if there be any clouds, dust, or dregs of cares yet lurking in our thoughts, most powerfully it wipes them all away, and that which is more, it will perform all this in an instant: cheer up the countenance, expel austerity, bring in hilarity, inform our manners, mitigate anger … Our divine Musick, not only to expel the greatest griefs, but it doth extenuate fears and furies, appeases cruelty, abates heaviness, and to such as are watchful it causes quiet rest; it takes away spleen and hatred, be it instrumental, vocal, with strings, or wind; it leads us by the spirit, it cures all irksomeness and heaviness of the soul.

Music accomplishes this, he maintains, because,

In a word, it is so powerful a thing that it ravishes the soul, the Queen of the senses, by sweet pleasure (which is a happy cure) and corporal tunes, pacifies our incorporeal soul, and rules it without words, and carries it beyond itself, helps, elevates, extends it.

But now he warns there are some men made melancholic by music and in these cases more music can make their condition worse, escalating it from melancholy to madness! He concludes this passage by pointing out, on the other hand, that there is such a thing as “pleasing melancholy,” which he seems not to consider dangerous.

And what young man is not [pleased with music]? As it is acceptable and conducing to most, so especially to a melancholy man; provided always, his disease proceed not originally from it, that he be not some light Inamorato, some idle phantastick, who capers in conceit all the day long, and thinks of nothing else but how to make Jigs, Sonnets, Madrigals, in commendation of his mistress. In such cases Musick is most pernicious, as a spur to a free horse will make him run himself blind, or break his wind; for Musick enchants, as Menander holds, it will make such melancholy persons mad, and the sound of those Jigs and Horn-pipes will not be removed out of the ears a week after … Many men are melancholy by hearing Musick, but it is a pleasing melancholy that it causes, and therefore to such as are discontent, in woe, fear, sorrow, or dejected, it is a most present remedy; it expels cares, alters their grieved minds, and eases in an instant.

In another reference to melancholy among the Jacobean plays, but in this case, in Thomas Dekker’s (b. 1570) The Wonder of a Kingdom,11 a nurse rejects the idea of music therapy.

The Duke of Florence. Call for the Musicke.
Angelo. Makea no noise, but bring in de Fidlers, and play sweet–
Nurse. Oh out upon this Doctor; hang him, does he think to cure dejected Ladies with Fidlers.

Johann Mattheson not only reviews many of the anecdotes of the healing powers of music found in ancient literature, but he also provides some contemporary examples.12 He says he received a letter from the queen of Spain in 1737 in which she testifies that her husband was completely cured of “black melancholy” by her having organized a concert every evening before dinner. So impressed was the king, that he began to study music himself. He also cites the Leipziger Zeitungen von gelehrten Sachen (1733),13 in which discusses his own father being cured of melancholy by music, all other remedies having been in vain.

Aside from the more conspicuous madness and melancholy, the early philosophers write of music’s ability to help with a wide variety of other mental illnesses. Iamblichus (c. 250–325 AD) records the techniques of Pythagoras in using music to alleviate a number of primarily emotional disorders. It is no doubt this passage which has caused some more recent scholars to regard Pythagoras as “the Father of Music Therapy.”14

Pythagoras conceived the first attention that should be given to men should be addressed to the senses, as when one perceives beautiful figures and forms, or hears beautiful rhythms and melodies. Consequently, he laid down that the first erudition was that which subsists through music’s melodies and rhythms, and from these he obtained remedies of human manners and passions, and restored the pristine harmony of the faculties of the soul. Moreover, he devised medicines calculated to repress and cure the diseases of both bodies and souls. Here is also by Zeus, something which deserves to be mentioned above all: namely, that for his disciples he arranged and adjusted what might be called “preparations” and “touchings,” divinely contriving mingling of certain diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic melodies, through which he easily switched and circulated the passions of the soul in a contrary direction, whenever they had accumulated recently, irrationally, or clandestinely — such as sorrow, rage, pity, over-emulation, fear, manifold desires, angers, appetites, pride, collapse or spasms. Each of these he corrected by the rule of virtue, attempering them through appropriate melodies, as through some salutary medicine.

Capella (5th century), whom we have mentioned above, points to examples of using music to work with mentally disturbed and insane patients, not to mention an extraordinarily diverse list of other kinds of patients.

Have not I myself brought healing to diseased bodies by prolonged therapy? The ancients were able to cure fever and wounds by incantation. Asclepiades healed with the trumpet patients who were stone deaf, and Theophrastus used the flute with mentally disturbed patients. Is anyone unaware that gout in the hip is removed by the sweet tones of the aulos? Xenocrates cured insane patients by playing on musical instruments. Thales of Crete is known to have dispelled diseases and pestilence by the sweetness of his cithara playing. Herophilus checked the pulse of his patients by comparing rhythms.15

The rather extraordinary claim that music can cure the deaf was also argued by the very important English philosopher, Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln (1170–1253). Indeed, he regarded healing as being music’s highest purpose. McEvoy summarizes Grosseteste’s explanation for the process by which music heals.

The soul follows the body in the latter’s affections, and the body follows the soul’s actions. When, therefore, the body is affected by sounding numbers, the soul draws out of itself numbers which are of the same proportion, and the spirits adjust the proportions of the numbers to agreement. The wise doctor must therefore have a knowledge of the due proportion of the body as impressed on it by the stars, and must be acquainted with the proportions which induce concord among the elements and the humid parts of the principal spirits, and between the soul and the body. When these proportions are expressed in terms of musical sound, upon the numbers’ reaching the soul everything in man returns to a proportioned state. The doctor must also have studied the behavior of the spirits prevailing in different emotional states, such as in joy, when they dilate, and sadness, when they contract; for the states of the soul too can be affected by the knowledgeable employment of musical sound.16

Johann Mattheson cites the Observations de Medecine sur la maladie, appellee convulsions par un Medecine de la Faculte de Paris,17 which contains “examples of music helping sick people to health.”18

There is a rather unusual poem by Abraham Cowley (1618–1667) in which he describes the “music of the spheres” and goes on to make the case that everything on earth is impacted by this celestial music, including his own poetry. This relationship, which he also compares to the sympathetic vibration of the strings on a lyre, he gives as a metaphor for how music cures the patient.19

Though no man heard it, though no man rehearse,
Yet will there still be musick in my verse.
In this great world so much of it we see;
The lesser, man, is all over harmony.
Storehouse of all proportions! single Choir!
Which first God’s breath did tunefully to blow!
From hence blessed musick’s heavenly charms arise,
From sympathy which them and to man allies.
Thus they our souls, thus they our bodies win.
Not by their force, but party that’s within.
Thus the strange cure on our split blood applied,
Sympathy to the distant wound does guide.
Thus when two brethren strings are set alike,
To move them both, but one of them we strike.
Thus David’s lyre did Saul’s wild rage control,
And tuned the harsh disorders of his soul.

There is a nice passage in the most famous play by the English Jacobean playwrights, Beaumont and Fletcher, The Knight of the Burning Pestle,20 in which music’s cure is of a distinctly psychological one. Here an old merchant predicts that one who laughs and sings will be protected from a wide variety of illnesses.

Let each man keep his heart at ease
No man dies of that disease,
He that would his body keep
From diseases, must not weep,
But whoever laughs and sings,
Never his body brings
Into Fevers, Gouts, or Rhumes,
Or lingeringly his Lungs consumes:
Or meets with aches in the bone,
Or Catarrhs, or griping Stone.

Another example of the result of music’s cure being of a psychological nature is found in John Dryden’s (1631–1700) The Indian Queen,21 when Ismeron calls for music for the purpose of helping Zempoalla.

You Spirits that inhabit in the Air,
With all your powerful Charms of Musick try
To bring her Soul back to its harmony.

A rare negative reference to music’s affect on the body is found in a Restoration poem by William Wycherley (1641–1715),

Your verse, like your prescriptions, is so mean,
That, like bad Musick, it provokes the Spleen.22

This reference to such a specific organ as the spleen, calls to mind Theophrastus of Eresus (372–287 BC), a disciple of Aristotle, who wrote that a person suffering from sciatica would always be free from attacks if one played the aulos in the Phrygian mode over the part of the body affected?23 And in the passage quoted above by Abraham Cowley, he adds that “the Sciatique nerve is helped by playing on a musical instrument made of Poplar, because of the virtue of the Oil of that tree to mitigate those kinds of pains.”

Finally, the sympathetic vibrations between strings on a harp, the playing on one string causing an untouched adjacent string to vibrate, was something observed with great fascination by early writers. For the ancient philosophers this was a metaphor for the body and soul and by treating the soul through music you could treat the body. The Italian philosopher who founded the academy at the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 15th century Florence, worked as a healer using certain musical proportions based on the lyre.24 Similarly, Bartolomeo Ramos de Pareja, inspired by Arabic texts in Spain, was convinced that certain musical scales had to power to affect sluggishness and various emotions. “Music works miracles,” he asserted.25

Today we are more likely to speak of the “spirit,” rather than the soul. But, while “spirit” may have meaning for musicians, it only makes doctors nervous. Medical doctors today do not deal with “the spirit,” they deal with body parts. Because we do not speak their language is one reason why medical doctors give only polite respect to music therapy.

But healing through music does occur. We know, first-hand, of some medical conditions in which a music therapist accomplished what a medical doctor could not. The field of music therapy itself must be much more active in the basic research which explains scientifically how music cures. Music therapists must not only continue beating doctors at their own game, that is affecting healing where the medical profession cannot, but these cases must be vigorously reported and the practitioners honored. Music therapy must argue its own case, for only in this way will music therapy ever become fully recognized by the medical profession. After all, the other branches of medicine also had, at some earlier time, to make their own case. If the discipline of surgery had not done this, for example, then surgery would still be conducted by barbers.


  1. Honegger, I am a Composer, 67 ↩︎
  2. Der vollkommene Capellmeister (1739), I, iii, 43 ↩︎
  3. Marianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts, trans. Stahl and Johnson, 358 ↩︎
  4. Medieval Medicine, in Medieval Love, trans. Steele, 58 ↩︎
  5. Works of Erasmus, Toronto, IX, 145ff ↩︎
  6. Method for the Easy Comprehension of History, trans. Reynolds, 31 ↩︎
  7. La Citta del Sole, trans. Donno, 41 ↩︎
  8. Burton, ed. Dell, 124 ↩︎
  9. Ibid., 67 ↩︎
  10. in Variae, trans., Hodgkin, II, xl ↩︎
  11. III, ii ↩︎
  12. Der vollkommene Capellmeister (1739), I, iii, 43 ↩︎
  13. p. 626 ↩︎
  14. Guthrie, The Pythagorean Sourcebook ↩︎
  15. Martianus Capella, op. cit., 358 ↩︎
  16. Mcvoy, The Philosophy of Robert Grosseteste, 257ff ↩︎
  17. Paris, 1732, xii, 32 ↩︎
  18. Der vollkommene Capellmeister, I, iii, 43 ↩︎
  19. Complete Works of Cowley, ed. Grosart, I, 49 ↩︎
  20. II, i ↩︎
  21. III, ii ↩︎
  22. To a Doctor of Physick, in Complete Works of William Wycherley, IV ↩︎
  23. “On Inspiration,” quoted in Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, XIV, 624 ↩︎
  24. Isacoff, Temperament, 112 ↩︎
  25. Ibid. ↩︎