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.  

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