music history


Music heals.  It is widely used in therapy, it soothes the moods of people round the world, and the act of playing music generates endorphins that make a player feel better.

Music therapy has been used for many years for its multi-sensory expression.  Studies about neurological development support its use to draw out feelings and concerns of patients.  It was found to be particularly effective with traumatized children after World War II.  Therapists use many methods to work with people, including moving to music, listening, playing on instruments, body percussion, singing, and songwriting.

In the 1930s, my mother studied piano from a man named Moissaye Boguslawski, who had grand notions of what music could do to heal people.  He believed, ahead of his times, that music could cure antisocial behavior and treat memory loss.  A prominent concert pianist with various symphonies, he insisted on playing regular piano concerts at the Cook County Hospital for the Insane, a place in Chicago commonly called Dunning, which doubled as an insane asylum and a poorhouse.  Boguslawski was convinced that music had healing effects on people suffering in that institution.  He is respected for his work, including articles in leading publications on the psychological and therapeutic effects of music, but Time magazine wrote a 1936 profile of him which took a decidedly cynical and bemused view of his opinions and projects.

Times have certainly changed since then.  The healing effects of music are well accepted, and music therapy is a common health care career.

But music also heals the musician.  A study done by Oxford researchers found that active performers had an increased pain threshold after performing than before.  This included three groups of participants: churchgoers who actively sang and clapped versus those who sang politely in their pews; dancers who performed as compared to musicians who were frequently interrupted during rehearsal; and musicians in a drumming circle, versus those who sat and listened to music.

The increase of the pain threshold was used as an indication that endorphins were being generated by the performance activities.

The key researcher pointed out that “It is probably the uninhibited flow or continuity of action that is important: if the music is frequently interrupted (as in rehearsals), any effect is markedly reduced (if not obliterated).”

Practice and rehearsal might be very careful and nonflowing — but hopefully only to prepare for a performance that flows effortlessly.

There might be a lesson here for teachers, however — too much interruption, criticism, fear of mistakes, lack of continuity, can prevent a sense of flow and a sense of joy in playing music.  While some of that careful thought and practice can be necessary for developing skills, it is also essential to practice allowing continuity, rehearsing the feeling of flow, permitting enjoyment, and striving for effortlessness, even if in small segments.  You are what you practice, and if your practice is grim, halting, and fearful, the performance is unlikely to rise above the practice.

Making sure there is a goodly percentage of flow in practice sets the stage for a flowing performance, and unless the listeners are dancing along, the musicians in such a performance are likely to feel healthier and happier than their audience by the time the show is over!

Read More

The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature is a fascinating book with the premise that there are six functions of song (music) in human culture.  He backs up his ideas with scientific data, and he frequently uses tales from his own experience as a musician and record producer (in his pre-research scientist days).  He works to answer the questions “Why is there music?” and “Are we musical because our brains made us that way, or are our brains adapted to music because we are musical?”  He explores the social advantages to being a musical being and through the six categories of song, he presents a very cohesive and coherent argument.

The six categories of song, as posited by Levitin, are: Friendship, Joy, Comfort, Knowledge, Religion and Love.  Songs of Friendship are songs of camaraderie, togetherness and creating a functional large group.  The selective advantages (Levitin talks of evolutionary advantages) of being in a group that works together for a collective whole are obvious.  Society as we know it could not exist if we were unable to get along within larger collectives of people.  A big way of getting a group to work as a unit is through music.  Think of the last time you were at a baseball game and everyone sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”  The entire stadium is able to work together as a unit.  Also, “Music has historically been one of the strongest forces binding together the disenfranchised, the alienated.” (61) [···]

Read More