How do we hear music?

To the educated modern man, sounds are vibrations moving through a medium like air that reaches the ear, transformed into electrical signals and perceived in the brain’s auditory cortex as sounds. Daniel Levitin, the record producer turned neurologist wrote on the hearing process: “Sound waves impinge on the ear drums and pinnae, setting off a chain of mechanical and neurochemical events, the end product of which is an internal mental image we call pitch……..Sound is a mental image created by the brain in response to vibrating molecules”. (Levitin 2008). Further down this process of hearing, Levitin explained that “if I put electrodes in your auditory cortex and play a pure tone in your ears at 440 Hz, there are neurons in your auditory cortex that will fire at precisely that frequency, causing the electrode to emit electrical activity at 440 Hz- for pitch, what goes into the ear comes out of the ear”. (Levitin 2008)

Neuroscience explains a musical note or pitch as a mental image in the brain. However, music is clearly experienced as an auditory and pleasurable sensation within and a far cry from the vibrational phenomena theorized by modern physics. How then can a phenomena like molecules vibrating in the air be transformed into a tonal and musical experience?

To bridge these 2 disparate phenomena, Albert Soesman’s explanation has to be considered: “we can say with respect to hearing that we erase the sound vibrations. We never hear a vibration, in fact, we eliminate it. We erase everything earthly, and this is possible because the organ of hearing has freed itself from its instinctive aspect; the ear has been internalized”. (Soesman 1990). Soesman explained that instinct is “something that binds us to the earth.” (Soesman 1990) For the metal in the church bell to resound beautifully or the strings of the violin to sing in its gorgeous tone, these materials first have to be freed from the earth. In the same way, the ear has to be liberated from its earthly aspect for hearing to happen. (Soesman 1990).

This can be observed in embryology:

“Bone marrow is man’s source of life, from the metabolic point of view; it is what keeps the blood alive. Now, in the petrous bone, into which hearing has withdrawn, something odd happens. At a certain moment we see in embryology how hosts of cells go to this petrous bone to ‘eat’ the bone marrow our source of life. The most ‘holy space’ is devoured and becomes a dead, cavelike space. We can recognize the same process in this. For this bone is at first quite alive, but then all this life is removed”. (Soesman 1990)

Steiner wrote something quite similar:

“Ear is the organ that in fact separates the airborne aspect from the tone itself, so that we receive the tone we experience as resonance or reflection. The ear is actually the organ that reflects back inside us the tone living in the air, but does so in a way that separates it from the element of air. The tone we hear then lives in the etheric element”. The ear “overcomes the tone resounding in the ear and to reflect the pure etheric experience of the tone into our inner being”. (Steiner 2016).  

In hearing, tone production and the formation of the ear organ, there is a similar process of liberation and separation from the earthly aspect.

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Music as a Force

Music can be experienced as a force, whether it is the vibration on the feet coming from the low notes of the cello, in the disco with the bass and drums’ sound thumping on the body or the shamanistic drumming inducing a trance-like state. Music can move the whole human being.  

It is natural and inviting to dance to the music one loves or to music with a strong beat. Music not only stirs and brings emotions into movement but it has the ability to move bodies as well. “The embodied nature of music, the indivisibility of movement and sound, the anthropologist John Blacking writes, characterizes music across cultures and across times”. (Levitin 2008)

Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks has been working with Connie Tomaino at the Beth Abraham Health Services in the Bronx, New York amongst patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The 2 have developed a very successful music therapy program to help the patients gain some level of mobility. According to Sacks and Tomaino:

“For people who have motor problems, music acts as a catalyst. Hearing a beat can be enough to carry a person from thinking to moving,” says Tomaino. Even patients who previously couldn’t walk have been able to “bound out of their chairs and start dancing as long as the music was present.” (Gaynor 2002)

Music is always in movement and changing. The soul or inner emotional world is also always moving. When the soul is heavy and stagnant, it is like depression and there is the feeling of weight and immobility. Music can stimulate inner soul movement through its effects on emotions.

The chinese character for music is 乐 (yue) which also means joy pronounced as “le”. Music is believed to have a strong connection to the joy and emotions of people since ancient times. In the pre-Qin dynasty before China was united, Confucius has been travelling the various warring states and compiled 6 ancient scrolls with writings preserved from ancient times for the royal family for their own personal education. These 6 scrolls contain wisdom for the rulers and there was 1 which was about music. Unfortunately, this music scroll has since been lost and cannot be found. However, in the scroll on “Rites”, it contains some of the ancient Chinese writings on music. It was believed that music has the power to control the hearts and minds of the populace and is used as a governance tool. Music was believed to originate from the hearts of Man due to the internal movement of emotions and is produced by imitating the harmonies within the world. The condition of society will shape the music of the times depending if the society is in peace or war. In the ancient Chinese text, it is believed that a learned and wise man is one who knows and can appreciate music. The nature of music lies in creating unity and helping people love one another. To this aspect, the ancient royal courts created music to shape and influence the hearts and minds of the populace. Interestingly, Plato also mentioned something similar: “Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited. When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them”. (Amazing Discoveries, 2010). The modes mentioned by Plato are the musical modes for example the dorian, phrygian and mixolydian.

This regular soul movement was also described by Augustine of Hippo as follows:

“The last Book of “De Musica” adopts a more philosophical and less of a descriptive approach. Written as a conclusion/ morality of the Treatise, St. Augustine analyzes the movements of the heart and the soul, those of the body, and those of the universe. He introduces the concept of a mystical ladder, escalating several levels of harmonies until it reaches the “mother of all harmonies”, the eternal and immutable harmony of God, the source of all movements; but more importantly, the source of energy taming all these movements and making harmony and peace prevail”. (Chami, 2010)

Too much emotional movement on the other hand may cause hysteria. So there needs to be a rhythmic, regular movement within the soul life to maintain the balance.

Overview of Music Therapy history

“The use of music in healing practices can be traced back as far as 20,000 years with shamanic drumming practices for healing”. (Brooke 2006) Even today, shamanic drumming is still being practised to help shamans reach an altered state of consciousness to connect with spirits and their patients in order to find a specific song to drive out illnesses. Illnesses was believed in olden times to be caused by spirits and these bad spirits needed to be driven out in order for health to return. Even in many indigenous tribes of today, for example, the Ayahuasca tribes, they believe in the communion with the spiritual world and elementals in Nature to obtain remedies for healing.

In the Sufi philosophy, it is believed that each being is singing its own personal song. One has to find it and learn to sing it properly. This is believed as the spiritual way to healing. The art of healing is to identify where the disharmony is and to balance it.

Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote, “The physical effect of sound has also a great influence upon the human body. The whole mechanism, the muscles, the blood circulation, the nerves are all moved by the power of vibration. As there is resonance for every sound, so the human body is a living resonator for sound. . . . Every pitch that is a natural pitch of the voice will be a source of a person’s own healing as well as of that of others when he sings a note of that pitch”. (Gaynor 2002) In the Sufi philosophy, illnesses are disharmony, either physical or mental in nature and one acts on the other in close connection.

The chanting of vowel sounds is practised in Sufi and other Eastern philosophies such as Tibetan overtoning because it is believed that “the true healing power of sound” comes from the chanting of harmonics”. (Gaynor 2002)

In 6th century BC, illness in ancient Greece was cured from homeostasis. Rational thinking and empirical evidence came into the study of medicine which also shaped medical thinking today. During the Greek era, healing was based on Hippocrates’s theory of 4 humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Good health was based on the equilibrium of these 4 humors. Pythagoras believed that when order and harmony are restored, health will return. Music is the element which according to Pythagoras can establish order and harmony in people. Music, according to Pythagoras, is operated by the same mathematical laws that govern the cosmos or what was known as  “music of the spheres”. The same set of mathematical laws are believed to govern the cosmos, the human being and also music.  The Greek thinking is rooted in order, harmony and balance which also strongly influenced their healing philosophy. This point in history marks a shift in healing from spiritually-centered to bodily-centered. The Ancient Greeks were not the only culture that worked with the concept of balancing in healing. The Sufis also view that illness is disharmony- either physical disharmony or mental disharmony and one acts upon the other.

Even into the Renaissance period, this Greek thinking guided musical compositions with soprano, alto, tenor and bass voicings to represent Hippocrates’s theory of 4 humors. Many theorists like Gioseffo Zarlino advocated that physicians needed to be trained as musicians so that music could be used effectively as therapy.  It was during the Renaissance period that music expanded from curative medicine to preventive medicine where people were taught to use music to guard against negative feelings. Music was believed to build resistance against diseases. Music as preventative medicine continued into the Baroque and Classical periods. With the arrival of the scientific approach to medicine and the need for empirical medicine, there was a growing disconnect between music and medicine. They finally became separated in the middle of the 17th century during the Age of Enlightenment whereas before that, music and medicine were integral to a physician’s training.   

The usage of music in therapy is also present in the Chinese culture. The Chinese used a scale which is built upon the intervals of the 5th so the notes used are: C, G, D, A, E. This scale is called the scale of the 5 elements. The notes correspond to the functions of the organs as follows:

C: spleen

G: heart

D: lungs

A: kidneys

E: liver

These musical notes are believed to enhance the functions of the organs in the body rather than the individual physical organ itself. For example, G is believed to help in the overall circulation of the body and A to help in the detoxification of the body.

In 2013,  Liao, J. and his colleagues “conducted a randomized controlled trial on the impact of this five-element music. In a well-controlled study of 170 Chinese patients with advanced cancer, one group listened to five elements music, another heard Western music regularly, and a control group who did not listen to music at all. Results indicated that those who listened to the five-element music scored significantly higher than those who heard Western music or those in the control group, on measures of quality of life and functional impairment, as well as symptoms entered in their diaries”. (Hanser 2016)

While music has been used through the millennia, it was only after WW2 that the idea of a formal music therapy program came about. Huge number of soldiers returned from the battlefield, injured and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“With many of these soldiers, it was found that their pain and misery and even, seemingly, some of their physiological responses (pulse rates, blood pressure, and so on) could be improved by music. Doctors and nurses in many veterans hospitals started to invite musicians to come and play for their patients, and musicians were only too happy to bring music to the dreadful wards of the wounded. But it was soon evident that enthusiasm and generosity were not enough- some professional training was needed as well. The first formal music therapy program was set up in 1944 at Michigan State University, and the National Association for Music Therapy was formed in 1950”. (Sacks 2008)

Since then, music therapy has been readily used for pain management, neo-natal care, to fasten healing after operation, to treat depression and asthma. In America, there is a growing branch of healthcare called “Integrative Health” where other healing systems like music therapy, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda have been incorporated to the overall care of the patients in the hospitals in addition to modern medicine.  

Holistic therapy

For a large part of human history the conception of Man as body, soul and spirit is closely held to be true. Healing practices were also closely linked to the spiritual world. The spirit was gradually separated from Man’s conception of itself.

According to cultural historian Markus Osterrider (2017), this process was a gradual one. The final blow came in the 14th century with nominalism in Western scholastics. This was the breakthrough for a purely secular view of the world. A science “without the need of God”. This scientific approach was purely empirical, experimental and material. It took over in the West in the 18th century during the Age of Enlightenment.

In today’s predominant health care systems, soul and spirit are very much separated from the view of the human being. There is an increasing breaking down into smaller and smaller separate units for research.

“Since the sixteenth century and Descartes’ compartmentalization of body and mind, this Cartesian foundation of medical science has divided the field into specialties and subspecialties, in self-contained systems that may or may not interact. Ironically, in societies that place a high premium on individual choice, such as the USA, treatment focuses on a diseased or compromised part of the body and not on the personhood of the one with the condition. In contrast, medical practices in countries that have valued the collective good, such as China, consider each personal case with its unique history and constellation of experience and view the person as a whole, inclusive of body, mind, and soul”. (Hanser 2016, p. 53)

Compartmentalisation is the main approach within mainstream healthcare giving rise to various specialities like oncology, cardiology, otorhinolaryngology and gynaecology just to name a few to this growing list. The treatment of the human body is segmented and often not based on a wholistic view of human physiology and the interconnectedness of the organ systems. For instance, a weak circulation may affect the liver’s functions which may led to emphasis and treatment being placed on the weak liver when the cause of the problem may lie somewhere else completely.

On the emotional or soul level, this is dealt with in the field of psychology and psychiatry. At the spiritual level of Man, there is a rise in what is termed as alternative or New Age medicine where higher forces are called upon and used for healing.

“The word health comes from the old English ‘hal’, a root word signifying whole and healing. Moreover, ‘heal’, in Northern Middle English, means ‘to make sound’, to become healthy again. We [also] use the word ‘sound’ – as a synonym for health and wholeness to signify basic vitality. To heal therefore means to become whole, in harmony and in balance”. (Barrow, 2017)

A therapeutic process should strive towards a well functioning physical body, an emotional life that is moving in a rhythmic flow without stagnation and a continuous striving in thoughts towards the good and the true. This idea of health as the well-being in body, soul and spirit was also echoed by Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, a medical doctor in America who has been achieving remarkable results by integrating music, vocalization, breathing and meditation techniques in his work with patients at the hospital.

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