A Brief History of Music Therapies

The therapeutic power of music has been recognized and interpreted in different ways through out history. Music has most consistently been credited with contributing to emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being, but it was also more broadly associated with the fields of medicine and healing in general.

Ancient Greek mythology and philosophy linked the domains of music and medicine. Apollo was god of both music and medicine, and the legendary physician and demi-god, Aesculapius, was said to use music and song. Hippocrates, whose writings and disciples influenced Western medicine for millennia, played music to sooth patients suffering from mental conditions. Aristotle and Plato both said that music affected the emotions and the soul. According to Plato, music could even impact an individual’s character. Following Hippocrates, the Roman encyclopaedist, Aulus Cornelius Celsus, also suggested using music and sound to treat mental patients. He in particular suggested cymbals and running water.

Music was also used to treat melancholics and other emotionally and mentally distressed patients in the Middle Ages. The healing power of music was attested to by the Biblical story of David ridding King Saul of an evil spirit by playing the harp. One of the methods used in an attempt to relieve St Vitus’ Dance, or the mysterious “dancing plague” which periodically struck through out Europe during the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, causing people to compulsively dance themselves into exhaustion or even death, was to have a musician play to the afflicted. Thirteenth century hospitals in the Arab world included music rooms for the patients, and Persian psychologist and music theorist al-Farabi discussed the therapeutic effects of music on the soul in his treatise Meanings of the Intellect.

While earlier works on music’s therapeutic powers tended to suggest that music worked to bring the soul and body into harmony congruent with the principles of musical harmony, the eighteenth century brought a new understanding of mind-body connection based on nerves, and with it a new interpretation of music therapy. The power of music over the nerves, and thus the physical body as well as the mind and soul, was articulated in works such as Reflections of Antient and Modern Musick by Richard Brocklesby, and The Connection of Music to Medicine by Ernst Anton Nicolai, and by the French Academy of Sciences. In the nineteenth century, some scholars went so far as to argue that musical stimulation of the nerves could actively improve physical health. Peter Lichtenthal, who was a musician, composer, and physician, wrote a book entitled The Musical Doctor and advocated for taking a “dose of music”.

Musical therapy in its modern form originates in the aftermath of World War I and II, when musicians would play at hospitals for soldiers suffering from emotional and physical trauma. The United States Department of War, the United States Army, and the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre, along with the US Surgeon General were instrumental in assessing the viability and value of music therapy, and endorsing its development and use. One of the earliest assessments of a music therapy program was carried out after World War II with the goal of determining whether “music presented according to a specific plan” effectively contributed to service member’s recovery from mental and emotional disorders.

Music therapy is now used in a wide variety of forms to treat and ameliorate many conditions ranging from emotional trauma and mental health issues to developmental delays and speech and language impairments, to brain injuries and chronic pain. It is a particularly effective when used to treat individuals with complex or ongoing conditions that can benefit from therapies geared towards treating the whole person.