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Healing Power of Music


Richard Brockelsby MD – 1722-1797


Music therapy in the United States of America began in the late 18th century. However, using music as a healing medium dates back to ancient times. This is evident in biblical scriptures and historical writings of ancient civilizations such as Egypt, China, India, Greece and Rome.


Music has been used as a healing force for centuries. Apollo is god of music and of medicine. Aesculapius was said to cure diseases of the mind by using song and music, and music therapy was used in Egyptian temples. Plato said that music affected the emotions and could influence the character of an individual. Aristotle taught that music affects the soul and described music as a force that purified the emotions. Aulus Cornelius Celsus advocated the sound of cymbals and running water for the treatment of mental disorders. Music therapy goes back to biblical times, when David played the harp to rid King Saul of a bad spirit. As early as 400 BCE, Hippocrates, played music for his mental patients. In the 13th century, Arab hospitals contained music-rooms for the benefit of the patients. In the US, Native American medicine men often employed chants and dances as a method of healing patients. The Turco-Persian psychologist and music theorist al-Farabi (872–950), known as “Alpharabius” in Europe, dealt with music therapy in his treatise Meanings of the Intellect, where he discussed the therapeutic effects of music on the soul. Robert Burton wrote in the 17th century in his classic work, The Anatomy of Melancholy, that music and dance were critical in treating mental illness, especially melancholia.


The writings of 18th century physicians are pivotal in the development of music therapy, for it was these individuals who first began to depend greatly upon scientific experimentation and observation to formulate their procedures. Representative of this stage in the history of music therapy are the findings of the renowned London physician Richard Brockelsby, the only doctor to write a treatise on music therapy in eighteenth-century England. The subjects treated by Brocklesby in his Reflections on the Power of Music (1749) include his musical remedies for the excesses of various emotions-particularly fear, excessive joy, and excessive sadness. He also discusses his musical remedies for diseases of the mind recognized in the eighteenth century-delirium, frenzy, melancholia, and maniacal cases. He considers music as well an aid to the elderly and to pregnant women.


In short, Brocklesby provides a lively account of the curative powers of music as viewed in the mid-18th century by an excellent medical mind. The eighteenth century was a major turning point in the relationship of music to medicine because physicians for the first time began to rely heavily upon experimentation and observation in drawing their conclusions. The first music historian to document this eighteenth-century inclination was Charles Burney in his famous telling of Farinelli’s** performances curing the “total dejection of spirits” suffered by Philip V, King of Spain. Burney uses the very word “experimentation” in relating the story. The Queen, who had in vain tried every common expedient that was likely to contribute to his recovery, determined that an experiment should be made of the effects of music upon the King her husband, who was extremely sensible to its charms. The singing of the great Farinelli, cured the King of whatever ailed him.


This new stage in the history of music therapy is captured in the single book known to be written on this subject in 18th century England, Richard Brocklesby’s Reflections on Ancient and Modern Music with the Application to the Cure of Disease. Brocklesby (1722-1797), one of the outstanding physicians of late eighteenth- century London, published his 82 page treatise in London in 1749. It was also given the title Reflections on the Power of Music.


Brocklesby himself was very knowledgeable throughout his life about current medical theories and practices. He started his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh in 1741 and transferred to the University of Leyden in 1743. Both universities had excellent reputations in the early eighteenth century for the study of medicine. He graduated from Leyden in 1745 and was elected to the Royal Society in 1747. He was nominated for membership by Richard Mead, then the most famous physician in London.


Brocklesby was characterized in the minutes taken at his induction as “a gentleman well versed in natural, mathematical and medical knowledge”. In 1754 he received a medical degree from Dublin and the Cambridge M.D. Brocklesby was especially well known for his generosity. He always took charity cases and even supported them financially. He was a friend of both Samuel Johnson and the statesman Edmund Burke. In addition to his Reflections on the Power of Music, Brocklesby made one other significant contribution to medicine and public health through his writings. From I758 to 1763, he served as Physician to the English Army during the Seven Years’ War.


Brocklesby begins his Reflections on the Power of Music with his chief thesis: the further and more frequent application of music will cure or mitigate various disorders. He adds that the Ancients (the early Greeks in particular) have recounted many instances of the curative powers of music, but examples are also available in his time. At the end of Chapter I, Brocklesby discusses how the mind is affected by music. He believes that “the mind has a faculty, or disposition, to be pleased, or displeased with certain airs, or systems of sounds”. The cause, he holds, seems to depend upon the mind’s liking of the greatest quantity of uniformity amidst the greatest degree of variety. Therefore, he concludes that the “most generally affecting compositions in music,” are made up of consonant chords or, as Brocklesby puts it, “divers notes, whose vibrations regularly coincide with each other”.


The degree of pleasure upon hearing notes varies from person to person. One other source of pleasure from musical compositions, Brocklesby adds, is their ability to imitate the sounds of nature. These sounds speak to everyone. The bulk of Brocklesby’s treatise is devoted to the passions/emotions and the diseases of the mind and how these can be affected by music. He begins these discussions with his prescription for health that reads: To preserve perfect health of body, and a sound state of the animal nature in us, it is necessary that the superintending faculties of the mind be for the most part well-balanced, without an undue bias from any particular affection, which being too far strained, diminishes proportionally the vigor and constitution of the whole; for every turbulent passion of the mind is indicated by a peculiar alteration in some parts of the animal frame at that time. Generally, passions, he says, increase and become habitual. Brocklesby further explains that “the most violent passions of the mind produce the most apparent alterations on the body”.


According to Brocklesby, the violent passions that have been known to be allayed by music are fear, anger, grief, excessive joy, and enthusiasm in religion or love. He then discusses cases from both ancient and his own times in which music has been known to allay these passions. Throughout this book, Brocklesby shows himself to be very knowledgeable about the writings of the early Greeks and Romans concerning the healing powers of music. He, in fact, relates dozens of examples from these writings. More interesting here, however, are the cases that he cites from his own era. These show the Age of Enlightenment’s new emphasis on experimentation and observation in the study of music’s effects upon the human mind and body.


Music, according to Brocklesby, put in proper order the irregular motion of the animal spirits. Delirium, Brocklesby states, is the condition in which the mind is only attentive to the creatures of its own fancy. The best remedy for delirium is music, he says, “as it awakes the attention in the most agreeable manner, and relieves the anxious mind; by substituting a more agreeable series of images” Frenzy, Brocklesby explains, is a disorder having all the symptoms of a delirium plus an acute fever. Music works well here also as a cure. To substantiate this, he tells of a case found in the records of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris in 1708. A dancing master, after too much fatigue, fell ill of a fever, that in five days was accompanied with comatose symptoms, which afterwards changed into a mute frenzy, in which he continually strove to get out of bed, and threatened with his head and stern countenance all who opposed him, and in a sullen mood obstinately refused all remedies. In these circumstances Mr. de Mandajor proposed to try the power of music; and by his advice an acquaintance played such airs in audience of the patient, as he knew formerly were most agreeable; when the patient heard the music, he raised himself with an agreeable surprise, and attempted to keep time with his hands, which being prevented by force, he continued nodding his head in expression of pleasure; and after a quarter of an hour he fell into a deep sleep, and had, during his nap, a happy crisis.


Brocklesby quotes Areteus, an ancient Greek, to emphasize the point that music is likely to work especially well on patients who had enjoyed music before their illnesses. Melancholia is a disorder characterized by moping. Brocklesby attributes it to atmospheric conditions and the alterations they affect on the vessels of the brain. “This,” says Brocklesby, “everyone experiences in himself from the difference discovered in his own temper and mind, between foul and fair weather, a hot or cold day”. Brocklesby had learned from a gentleman who had visited Gallipoli that its cure is music. Brocklesby states: It is remarkable that different tunes affect different persons, but generally the briskest airs do most service to this melancholy people; and such is the power of music at the time, that they often fall a dancing upon hearing it, though before they could scarce speak, or be supposed capable of any degree of motion; and in this ecstatic way they continue until their former health of body and mind is restored. Maniacal cases, cases of institutionalized madness, says Brocklesby, are accompanied by, if not caused by, violent excesses or defects of the passions. In particular, music calms the wildly agitated affections and quiets the wanderings of the fancy so that the medicines administered will work more effectively.


Towards the end of Reflections on the Power of Music, Brocklesby addresses two other groups: the elderly and pregnant women. He believes that one of the chief duties of a physician is to prolong life, and he advocates the use of music to retard the aging process. Aging, he says, is caused by the dissipation of the animal spirits. The aim, therefore, should be to conserve the store of animal spirits, which is depleted by immoderate passions, pain, excessive evacuations, and the like. He advises all “to recreate their spirits every day with a piece of good music”. In closing, he quotes Shakespeare: “Sweet recreation barr’d, what doth ensue But moody, moping, and dull melancholy Akin to grim and comfortless despair And at her heels a huge infectious troop Of pale dis temperatures and foes to life.”


Brocklesby also recommends music for lifting the spirits and aiding in other ills of pregnant women and thereby helping much the unborn baby. In his sixth and final chapter, Brocklesby compares ancient Greek music and the music of his day, recommending as modern examples George Frideric Handel’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso and Acis and Galatea. He believes that the healing power of Greek music derived from its simplicity. Brocklesby thinks that simple music appeals to the senses and does not overwhelm the mind by requiring it to make connections among a composition’s parts. One who has a keen understanding of music would prefer, however, the complex and ornamented music of the 18th century. Sorting out the connections between a composition’s parts appeals to the initiated’s facility of reasoning and the mind’s liking for the greatest unity amidst the greatest variety. Of course, modern medical science views differently many of the elements that Brocklesby discusses concerning disorders and physiology. However, many of Brocklesby’s ideas on music’s curative powers, whether derived from his own observations or those of other eighteenth-century physicians or musicians, remain sound to this day. We still believe-that music can alter emotions, and we still advocate music’s use among the elderly and pregnant women. Music does awaken attention, relieve the anxious mind, substitute more agreeable series of images, and aid medicine to work more effectively. Simple music often works best in treatment, but patients educated in music often respond better to more complex music, and particularly that known to them before their illnesses.


The accuracy of Brocklesby’s medical advice results in large part from the 18th century’s new reliance upon experimentation and observation in drawing conclusions, the same method used today.


Music therapy as we know it began in the aftermath of World Wars I and II. Musicians would travel to hospitals, particularly in the United Kingdom, and play music for soldiers suffering from war-related emotional and physical trauma. The profession of music therapy in the United States began to develop during W.W.I and W.W. II, when music was used in Veterans Administration Hospitals as an intervention to address traumatic war injuries. cognitive, and emotional state. Since then, colleges and universities developed programs to train musicians how to use music for therapeutic purposes. In 1950 a professional organization was formed by a collaboration of music therapists that worked with veterans, mentally retarded, hearing/visually impaired, and psychiatric populations This was the birth of the National Association for Music Therapy (NAMT). In 1998, NAMT joined forces with another music therapy organization to become what is now known as the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA).


**Farinelli  (1705 – 1782), was the stage name of Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, celebrated Italian castrato singer of the 18th century and one of the greatest singers in the history of opera.


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