The broom that sweeps the cobwebs away | Daily News


The broom that sweeps the cobwebs away

Music as a therapy

It’s Mozart. Wolfgang Amadeus. I had a long talk with the lady in musical therapy, and she said Mozart’s the boy for you, Johnny. The broom that sweeps the cobwebs away. That’s what the lady said. You know, it’s wonderful how they’ve got it all taped now John. They’ve got music for melancholiacs, and music for dipsomaniacs, and music for nymphomaniacs.”

- Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, 1958

By 1958 when Barbara Bel Geddes, visiting James Stewart at a retreat, found him listening to the second movement from Mozart’s 34th Symphony trying desperately to forget the woman he’d fallen in love with, obsessed over, and then lost, music therapy had established itself as a discipline and a profession throughout the West. The first academic programme dedicated to the subject in the US had been established 14 years earlier, at the Michigan State University. This had been followed by programmes in other universities, including the Chicago Musical College and Alverno College. Coming as that did between two distinct eras (after the end of a world war, and before the onset of the cold war), the subject caught on with a population harrowed by conflict, trauma, and the existential travails of post-war recovery. While initially during the Second World War military officials had been hostile towards the idea of using music to heal soldiers, by 1942 it had been sufficiently recognised to merit and warrant, among other things, the establishment of a Music Advisory Council for the army and navy. It is telling that officials decided not to use the term “music therapy” there, for the simple reason that therapy meant research, which wasn’t the aim of the program.

Before getting to what music therapy has become today, it’s instructive to get to what it had become by 1944. Music, of course, predates the division of the world into east and west. The earliest inscriptions that come to us from Mesopotamia, Babylon, and Egypt tell us of a great many instruments which would have served a ritualistic purpose, but which could have also, to a considerable extent, fulfilled secular aims. Music as a means of medical therapy predates colonialism (Darrow, Gibbons, and Heller 1985) : it served the same purpose in India, where more than 19,400 mantras and 1,020 hymns from the Vedas are habitually invoked by those calling themselves sacred music healers or ojhas (Cook 1997), as it did in China, where in ancient times the words for music and medicine were similar (Wu 2019). In the East, music was resorted to at times of crises to restore order: this was true of China, with the rise of the cult of the Mandate of Heaven. The use of music to influence the body was first mentioned in writing in Egyptian medical papyri in 1500 BC (Benenzon, cited in Bunt 1994). The Arabs thought it to be a divine gift, and incorporated it in psychiatric wards; such wards were in use in as early as 1560 AD Constantinople (Dobrzynska et al 2006)

Its historical trajectory in the West was relatively linear, and reflected shifts and currents in philosophic and political debate. Thales of Crete believed music had an impact on the human body. Pythagoras did so too, but he brought music and mathematics together and decreed that melodies which violated the rules of harmony be prohibited. Plato later considered it to be the “medicine of the soul”, and contended that “the music of the heavenly spheres” should be harmonised; otherwise, “earthly souls” would be disturbed. Aristotle begged to differ: to him, music had cathartic effects. He was perhaps the first among the Greeks to suggest that music could resolve negative emotions, but it took a great many centuries – including those during which the Old Testament, where we come across David “pacifying” King Saul by playing the harp, was written – before the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment could produce thinkers who, following Rene Descartes, contemplated on the relationship between mind and sound; Descartes’s writings on the mind-body duality, the bedrock of music therapy now, are not mentioned in Richard Browne’s Medicina Musica, the first book in England written on the subject (1729), but they are alluded to in the unsigned “Music Physically Considered”, the first piece of writing on that subject in the US (1789).

Articles by Edwin Atlee

Some of the principles underlying music therapy, as it’s understood today, were enumerated in the latter article. Among the claims made are that mental states can affect the body, music is pleasurable and tends to excite, music can treat depression more than mania, listening to it can stimulate blood circulation, and its effect on emotions is quite difficult to measure (Heller 1987). Two articles, written by Edwin Atlee (1804) and Samuel Mathews (1806), expanded on the 1789 essay with case studies, while an early documented instance of music therapy being used in an institution in the US comes to us from 1832 at the Perkins School in Boston, Massachusetts, a region where philosophical speculation flourished during the Civil War era, in particular with the rise of Transcendentalism that taught that individuals could go beyond sensory perceptions by the aid of knowledge (among the movement’s pioneers were Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the family of Louisa May Alcott).

Nine key founding points

All these had, by the 20th Century, exerted a formative influence on the evolution of music as medicine. Abortive, short-lived attempts were made to turn the subject into a proper object of study, in 1903 (with the setting up of the National Society of Musical Therapeutics) and 1926 (with the setting up of the National Foundation of Music Therapy). Medical applications of music first appeared in collegiate training programs at Columbia University in 1919, under a British musician, Margaret Anderson (Bronson 2018), but it wasn’t until the end of World War II that serious consideration would be given to clinically assess the effects of music on the mind and body. The father of music therapy, in that respect, was the psychologist Everett T. Gaston (1901-1970); in 1958, the year Vertigo was released, Gaston, in an article, came up with nine key founding points for the use of music as therapy.

By the 1970s the field had been sufficiently recognised for practitioners to be accredited. We hear of an International Congress of Music Therapy organised for the first time in Zagreb in September 1970, while by 1976 in the US alone, there were 44 approved schools offering the subject, a number that would rise to 55 two years later (Michel 1978); it was predicted at that time that by the early 1980s, “the job market for Registered Music Therapists would begin to tighten up” (Graham 1974). The situation was no different across the Atlantic: in Britain the Association of Professional Music Therapists was initiated in 1976; in Italy a training course on the subject was started in 1981; and in France specialised music therapy departments were set up at hospitals in Nantes, Lille, Lyon, Montpellier, and Paris, among other places (Lecourt 1992). Indeed, the situation was no different in the rest of the world: in 1980 the subject was introduced to mainland China by Bangri Liu, the Tokyo Association of Music Therapists was established in 1987, and in Sri Lanka, pioneers like Anoja Weerasinghe and Soundarie David Rodrigo initiated classes in the early 2000s. It must be noted that these were neither totally private nor totally State sponsored initiatives: they were a mix of both.

Despite these milestones, problems continued to ail the development of the profession. First and foremost, the problem of definition. Bruscia (2014) observes that this is linked to another issue: is music therapy a profession or is it a discipline? He lists down more than 100 existing definitions, including six he himself formulated in 1984, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1991, and 1998. His most recent definition, naturally enough, is more comprehensive:

“A reflexive process wherein the therapist helps the client to optimise the client’s health, using various facets of music experience and the relationships formed through them as the impetus for change. As defined here, music therapy is the professional practice component of the discipline, which informs and is informed by theory and research.”

Six key points: a reflexive process, a therapist, a client, the client’s health, the involvement of music experience, and the relationships forged through them. These, he ascertains, leads us to several problems, “challenges of definition” as he calls them. Music therapy is, in the first place, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary: it belongs to the arts, the humanities, and the sciences; its diversity in clinical practice makes it almost impossible to pin down one working definition; no one size or culture fits all, so it’s determined by cultural factors; it’s determined by socioeconomic factors as well, and individual musical tastes and preferences; and perhaps most problematically, it’s still evolving. These do not, however, prevent one from coming up with a definition, nor does it stop one from engaging with various approaches to it formulated over the decades, a sketchy examination of which concludes this article.

Two contexts

Music therapy can be, as it pretty much is, used in two contexts: mental health and situations of conflict. Edwards (2016) identifies 11 approaches and models, though it’s clear that more exist, and are in practice, today. Of the 11, seven are models, the rest approaches, and of the seven models the earliest and the oldest is the Nordoff-Robbins theory, first used in early 1950s Worcestershire, England for special needs children. Since then there have been others: Carolyn Kenny’s field of play theory, developed in the mid 1970s; community music therapy, conceived from extensive research conducted across four decades in Germany, Norway, and the UK; resource-oriented therapy, developed by Randy Rolvsjord as a means of invigorating and reviving positive emotions among patients; culture-centred theory, conceived by Brynjulf Stige in tandem with cultural psychology; aesthetic theory, developed from interactions with AIDS patients by Colin Lee, and vocal psychotherapy, the result of research by Diane Austin on the effects of singing on the body. If there’s a common thread linking these together, it is the use of music, in particular vocalising, to achieve a sort of cathartic release.

In situations of wars and disasters, music therapy has been effective in allaying anxieties and fears. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks for instance, various projects were organised directed at individuals in and around New York City, among them a nine month project of 20 community programs that brought together nurses, school administrators, and counsellors. As the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) put it at the time, a “directed use of music and music therapy is highly effective in developing coping strategies.” One can assume, quite rightly, that this applicable to not only periods of unforeseeable crisis like the 9/11 attacks but also events, like natural disasters, which can be predicted and prepared for: Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Harvey being two examples from the US. On the other hand, as recent events indicate, it might also be a remedy during a widespread contagion.

While conclusive links have not yet been established between music therapy and recovery in times of pandemics (especially given that music therapy sessions can’t be conducted between clients and practitioners when everyone is in lockdown mood), the effect that music has had on people caught up in the contagion – whether affected by it or not – can be ascertained with a fair level of accuracy.

The many “Coronovirus playlists” that celebrities and fans alike have put and streamed online, the many “Coronavirus concerts” organised by big name celebrities like Rob Thomas, John Legend, and Keith Urban, indicate that music as a palliative tool can survive and thrive in even an outbreak of a disease. On the other hand, a claim in an article by Spencer Kornhaber (The Atlantic, March 19, 2020), that these musical responses to COVID-19 have been mostly songs about “whispery choruses, pillow-padded beats, pastel melodies, and medicinal lyrics” which “sound like violence”, points at people trying to channel their frustrations and fears through music. What is lacking in all these responses is a professional practitioner to harness them to resolve fears; without practitioners, music therapy may well be doomed here to lead to adverse outcomes. And without them, borrowing a metaphor from the title of this essay, the broom may well leave cobwebs hanging in our minds.

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