The oldest musical instruments to have been found, flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory, are more than 42,000 years old; and it has been argued that, by fostering social cohesion, music—from the Greek, ‘the art of the muses’— could have helped our species outcompete the Neanderthals. Remember that next time you stand to the national anthem.
In the Bible, David played on his harp to make King Saul feel better: ‘And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him’ (1 Samuel 16:23 KJV).
The oral works ascribed to Homer would not have survived if they had not been set to music and sung. By his song, the lyric poet Thaletas brought civic harmony to Sparta, and is even credited with ending the plague in that city. The Pythagoreans recited poetry, sang hymns to Apollo (the god of music), and played on the lyre to cure illnesses of body and soul. In the Republic, Plato says that the education of the guardians should consist of gymnastic for the body and music for the soul, and that, once set, the curriculum should not be changed: ‘…when modes of music change, of the State always change with them.’ Aristotle concludes the Politics with, of all things, a discussion of music:
Since then music is a pleasure, and virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright, there is clearly nothing which we are so much concerned to acquire and to cultivate as the power of forming right judgments, and of taking delight in good dispositions and noble actions. Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections…
In the 10th century, the Islamic thinker Al-Farabi wrote a treatise, Meanings of the Intellect, in which he discussed music therapy. Modern music therapy took form in the aftermath of World War II, when staff in veteran hospitals noticed that music could benefit their patients in ways that standard treatments could not, and started hiring musicians. In 1959, American composer and pianist Paul Nordoff and British special education teacher Clive Robbins developed a form of collaborative music-making to engage vulnerable and isolated children, helping them to develop in the cognitive, behavioural, and social domains. Today, Nordoff Robbins is the largest music therapy charity in the U.K.
Modern music therapy aims, by the use of music, to improve health or functional outcomes. It typically involves regular meetings with a qualified music therapist and various combinations of music-related activities. In ‘active therapy’ the individual and therapist make music using an instrument or the voice; in ‘passive therapy’ the individual listens to music in a reflective mode. You don’t have to be musical to take part. And, of course, you don’t have to take part to engage with music.
Does music therapy work? And if so, how? There is mounting evidence that music boosts levels of dopamine, a feel-good chemical messenger in the brain. Dopamine is linked to motivation and reward, and released in response to activities such eating and making love. Many people use music to power through a workout. Beyond distracting from discomfort, music triggers the release of opioid hormones that relieve physical and psychological pain. Forget the workout, just dance to the music. Dancing is the best exercise because it involves movement in all directions and engages the mind on multiple levels. Music also boosts the immune system, notably by increasing antibodies and decreasing stress hormones, which can depress the immune system. Techno and heavy metal aside, music lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and even reduces recovery time following a heart episode or surgery.
From the psychological perspective, music therapy alleviates symptoms of anxiety and depression and improves social and occupational functioning. Aside from the biological benefits such as increased dopamine and decreased stress hormones, music can help us to recognize, express, and process complex or painful emotions. It elevates these emotions and gives them a sense of beauty and meaning. We hear a human voice and feel understood. As Taylor Swift put it, “People haven’t always been there for me but music always has.”
I don’t think that music has to sound uplifting to be uplifting, so long as it helps us to work with our feelings. In the Poetics, Aristotle compared the purifying or cleansing effects of tragedy on the mind of the spectator to the effect of a cathartic on the body, and called this purging of the emotions catharsis.
The benefit of music extends beyond depression and anxiety to psychosis, autism, and dementia. In dementia, music can help with cognitive deficits, agitation, and social functioning. It helps to encode memories, and can in turn evoke vivid memories. In acquired brain injury, it can assist with the recovery of motor skills, and, through song, lend a voice to people who have lost the faculty of speech. At the other end of life, music played during pregnancy has been linked, in the newborn, to better motor and cognitive skills, faster development of language, and so on.
I remember as a teenager, lying in the blackness of the night and listening to Beethoven on my portable CD player. It completely transformed the makeup of my mind.
10 songs for the blues
- The Verve, Bittersweet Symphony
- Soul Asylum, Runaway Train
- Disturbed, The Sound of Silence
- Abba, Chiquitita
- Rolling Stones, Paint it Black
- Royksopp, I Had This Thing
- Eurythmics, Here Comes the Rain Again
- Beethoven, Violin Concerto
- Bruce Springsteen, Human Touch
- The Verve, Lucky Man
If a song has been helpful to you, please share it in the comments section.