“Philosophy,” said Plato, “is the highest music.” He also said with equal accuracy that music is the highest philosophy. How else can we explain the deep feeling that Plato’s teacher, the redoubtable Socrates, had for music: the wisest of Greeks, he took to practising the music of Dionysius while he lay in prison, to ease his mind.
The cultures of antiquity always believed that music could bring about a renewal of the divine balance that ideally characterises human life; that it could restore the harmony of the human psyche in times of disquiet and distress. Indeed, the ancients regarded all forms of sickness — mental, or physical — as being ultimately musical problems.
A sick man, it was thought, had lost their inner strength: their harmony of being was said to have slipped from synchrony with the laws of the cosmos — which was precisely the reason why music was used to bring about the patient’s realignment with the cosmos… in [its] form of universal sound.
More than medicinal herbs, our ancients placed their faith in the healing powers of music to cure illness. Music was used as a key healing method by the ancient Hindus, Chinese, Persians, Egyptians, and Greeks; indeed, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey celebrate the moments when the spread of a plague is halted by sacred hymns, and Odysseus’ wounded knee is healed by the “chanting of lays.”
It goes without saying, that, music was also used to heal emotional disorders by our forebears. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, often took his mental patients to the Temple of Asclepius, to make them listen to healing music. For Pythagoras, good music was consonant with the rhythm of life. That’s not all. Paracelsus used the metaphor of ‘musical medicine’ to indicate a form of therapeutic music composed to deal with specific anomalies: this prefigured, in several ways, the idea of mediaeval minstrels playing music for patients in convalescence and fostering their recovery.
Why, not too long ago — in the 19th century — music was as much used in a curative capacity, at an institution for the mentally ill near Naples, giving credence to William Congreve’s famous epigram: “Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast.”
Music, according to scientific thought, has a tranquillising effect on patients — especially when they are tense, anxious and high-strung. And, it is completely safe, without the deleterious side-effects of drugs now in vogue. But, how can one beat the ‘pill’ industry, with its influence over the healing profession? Yet, modern music therapists have not lost hope. They are a small band, yes — but, they have brought about a paradigm change. They are pioneers in a materialistic world, being convinced about the potential capability of music to ‘effecting’ a wide variety of cures, in conjunction with, or apart from, conventional medical treatment.
As a universal curative agent, music has the power to affect the human organism at the deepest levels; it can heal the cause underlying the illness, or disease, rather than merely suppressing the visible symptoms as is often the case with most forms of modern medical treatment. Well, even in our age of high-technology-driven miracles, this gift of antiquity can more than hold its own: it has been found to be efficacious in alleviating the pain of a host of illnesses ranging from asthma, tuberculosis, cancer, brain damage due to headaches, heart disease, hypertension, depression, anxiety, and mania. Some behavioural psychologists have also reported how the mentally disturbed have spent quiet nights, without sleeping pills, under the influence of recorded music.
If music can bring about such seemingly miraculous effects at the outer level, it can also move minds in more subtle ways: played in certain modes, it can instigate violence and exploit the motives and weaknesses of its listeners, whipping them into states of frenzy and hatred. But, it can be equally soothing to the senses, invigorating its listeners with a notion of the good, filling them with the purposes of the noble and the sacred. It can also help to create a harmonious atmosphere conducive to philosophical reflection.
It can serve as a path into the spirit too; by healing and calming the outer surface of the personality, it can propel you into the discovery of your own self. In so doing, it can act towards a gentle, but nonetheless, complete reorganisation of the self. As Claudio Monteverdi, the first great composer of operatic music, articulated through his timeless maxim: “The end of all good music is to affect the soul.”