Medicine has come a long way from the days of bloodletting and Babylonian Skull Cures*, and the development of musical care as a form of practical therapy is becoming more and more sophisticated all the time.

When the ancient Greeks moved their gaze from heaven to earth, trying to understand the world around them as it was instead of as the gods determined,  music’s inherent power to heal has been recognized and drawn upon.  Illness might not be simply punishment from above.

“Phoebus Apollo”, God of music & healing,  Briton Rivière, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In North America, recognition of music’s healing powers was spotty and earnest, with some earnest advocates and practitioners recorded as early as the 18th century, and some genuine attempts at experimentation and codification in the 19th.  By the 20th century, the then-unnamed post-traumatic stress of WW1 soldiers began to be addressed after physicians and nurses noticed the positive effects that music had on their veteran patients.  I wonder how many musicians chose their careers thinking their work could ease “electric and insulin shock treatments, lobotomy surgery, hydrotherapy, and administration of anesthesia”, as was the case during the 1950’s, as  explained by Jenna Spencer.

More than what we can just hear with our ears and see with our eyes, the cognitive and even physical benefits of all aspects of music therapy are much better known now.  Music therapy has become a branch of the healing arts that requires exhaustive training and knowledge, along with an acute sensitivity to suffering as well as an ability to connect with others on an unspoken level through music.

Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto has a gifted music therapist on staff- Sarah Rose Black- who, with cellist Andrew Ascenzo has an informative and moving video series illustrating the different stories and aspects of music as therapy.  In one Pulse Music Media episode, Ms. Black’s moving and empathetic storytelling skills show how Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” became a meaningful thread between three patients’ experiences with music.

It was always logical to consider music a balm for trauma, or a way to alleviate symptoms, or facilitate procedures by reducing stress levels, and so on.  It has also been proven to open pathways to communication.  People suffering from speech loss have been known to access language through song, and those experiencing physical loss of control, such as those suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, can relieve actual physical symptoms through the combination of music and dance. Halifax’s Tea and Tango society brings patients together for exactly that. The dance sessions bring joy and temporary stability, alleviating suffering while they are participating. 

In a different and imaginative way, the funk band Wulfpeck harnesses the power of the audience’s reaction to their music to channel calm and to generate a positive atmosphere.  Twenty minutes into their Madison Square Gardens concert, one of the band members’ mother was brought onstage to conduct a guided meditation, and at about 20:40, she can be seen leading thousands of overcharged youths in a scene of group breathing, almost like a conductor would lead a choir.  The positive effect on the audience is visible and is an example of using the music experience to promote wellness and goodwill.

All of these months without live music have taken their toll on musicians who have been stripped of their livelihood, their direction and their purpose, at least for now.  Last week, in the Atlantic bubble, Duo Concertante performed a concert for a limited audience, the first live music for many that they had heard in over half a year.  Highlights of some audience comments were: “It has been a long year with almost no live music…I knew I missed live music, but didn’t know how much or at what a visceral level, until tonight.  It was pure joy… a wonderful reminder of how much we love and missed live concerts.” 

It’s a mutual healing process, and the balm in this case works both ways, for the musician and for the listener. 

*Babylonian Skull Cure

“In a time when illnesses were considered the work of demonic spirits, healers had more in common with priests than physicians. If you had trouble sleeping at night from grinding your teeth, the ‘doctor’ would likely recommend that you sleep next to a human skull for a week. In case this cure wasn’t entirely effective, you would also probably be recommended to kiss and lick the skull seven times each night.”