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Therapeutic Music: An Overview

Updated on March 26, 2012
Music Can Lighten The Dark
Music Can Lighten The Dark

Recently I have received a book in the post that I did not order. It was something the book club did when one of its clients failed to deliver prohibition before a certain date, and I failed to instruct the club not to send the volume, largely because I suffer from great anxiety about my pecuniary situation.

I cut my losses and began to read the book, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, by Ms. Martha Beck, and the first chapter intrigued me--it was about a "wordless" frame of mind, and how it is superior to language, how it promotes calm and intuitive peace while the constant use of words promotes stress and anxiety and, in short prohibits one's way toward peace and solutions to one's difficulties.

I suffer, as I mentioned, from acute anxiety, but once I felt rather the way Ms. Beck promises one would feel by reading her book and practicing the exercises therein. In those days, I was compelled to rise early from bed and begin a thirty-mile commute by five-thirty in the morning, a commute I actually enjoyed because of the music I played in the car. It was a wonderful time to live, but the point is I also practiced music therapy during those commutes, clearing away all my negative feelings well before reaching my destination and largely replacing them with a sense of confidence I have seldom known either before or since. I have only just rediscovered the knowledge in a way that can be transmitted to paper (metaphorically, of course).

Lady With A Harp, Painted 1818
Lady With A Harp, Painted 1818

Music Hath Charms To Soothe The Savage Beast

So announces the poet, and quite rightly when one takes into account the fact that sound and music has an effect upon the hearer. However, not all music is created equal for our purpose. The first step to treating any emotional distress with music is careful selection. Typically, this careful selection involves keeping largely to classical, preferably of the ohne worte, or "without words" variety, namely instrumental music. It has the most beneficent influence on the mind, mainly because, through focused listening, it liberates the intellect from its dependence on words and sets one's consciousness into that peaceful wordless state.

Orpheus, The Great Bard
Orpheus, The Great Bard | Source

Allopathic Or Homeopathic Music?

The first major decision in choosing one's therapeutic music is deciding whether to use pieces that express the opposite to one's mood, or pieces that express a similar mood. Typically, in Western society, we tend to promote anything that opposes how we actually feel; we strive to stifle and replace our moods. When one is anxious or angry, one is advised to play soft, soothing melodies. When one is depressed or melancholy, one is encouraged to play upbeat numbers from a musical or some rousing marches. One is generally discouraged from listening to melancholy songs, with or without words.

Then there is the homeopathic school that included such luminaries as the philosopher Aristotle, who considered the role of tragedy to induce katharsis, or the purging of emotions. Katharsis is typically attained by simply allowing oneself to feel a less than desirable feeling until it simply dissipates. In this school, there is room for melancholy tunes, excepting for "Gloomy Sunday." But that one has words, and English words as well.

Are Words Always Undesirable?

Words only have no place in therapeutic music if the language is English. This is simply because the English-speaking peoples have no real musical tradition. There was a Renaissance and Baroque musical life in Britain up until 1700, then, following the death of England's main composer of the day, Henry Purcell, serious music mostly died with him, and almost all of England's music was from then until the coming of Edward Elgar imported. Almost everything Britain produced in those years, and most of what it still produces is more of the popular variety, dependent on catchy tunes and the lyrics. There is actually nothing of therapeutic value there.

America has taken the Gilbert and Sullivan model of Britain and dumbed it down extensively, excising the wit and subtlety and rendering the result very shallow. In American popular music, typically one receives exactly what one sees, and when an American songwriter makes an attempt to be subtle, the result is that whopping, headache factory commonly known as rock and roll or "MacArthur Park."

In short, words are fine, so long as they are not in the English language. And if one does not understand German or Russian? All the more reason to pay attention and listen. For our purpose, though, one ought to choose songs in a language one does not understand, for then one can concentrate more fully on the music itself rather than on the words.

What Sort Of Tune?

In music therapy, one would want to avoid especially catchy, tuneful numbers. These things often transform into earworms that dominate one's attention and prevent one from slipping into that state of mind where one does not think so much as simply be.

The ideal piece in this regard would be slow and peaceful if one is anxious or angry and keen to relax, or upbeat and colorful if one is down. Then there are the various shades of anger, trepidation, and melancholy that can be employed in giving voice to those emotions through listening to the music. The quest here is to concentrate on the music itself and the feeling expressed in it, so often tunes, though sometimes unavoidable, are best not sought after.

In the end, one would want something that paints a picture based on one's purpose. Suppose one is angry, one can play music that is soft and descriptive of a peaceful seaside scene, or one can play something more dramatically violent. Also, one can play something absolute, but calm.

A Sacred Wood, Perhaps?
A Sacred Wood, Perhaps?
War For Treating Anger
War For Treating Anger


In the end, one's choice of music for therapeutic purposes is entirely one's own decision. It is desirable, however, to experiment with different composers and genres, always keeping to the task at hand, which is to better one's own mental and emotional health. In this case, music is not mere entertainment as it usually it, but a medicine, and sometimes the best medicines taste rather bitter at first. For a pop fan, who is accustomed to meaning being thrust in his face, subtlety may appear boring at first, but if one persists in listening and feeling, one shall develop the taste for one's musical medicine. In music, it is possible.


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    • AlanDoughtyXIII profile image

      AlanDoughtyXIII 6 years ago

      Please feel free to comment on matters like style.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 6 years ago from California

      What a great hub! And welcome to the Hub!