What music gets you moving? Is it the theme from Rocky? Or Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries? Music is really important to me and just about everyone else on the planet. We seem to play music at every opportunity. When we are sad we play it. When we are happy we play it. Music is powerful. It can get you up and moving, send you to sleep, or it can be absolute torture to listen to. This week’s blog, then, is all about Music.
Why is music so important to us?
It wasn’t that long ago really that philosophers spoke of the music of the spheres – the concept that the movement of the sun, moon and planets produce a harmony. Quite literally the sound of Heaven. Unfortunately, they explain, we can’t hear it because the sound has always been in our ears – we’ve just got used to it. I think it’s quite sad to think that the sound of Heaven is just white noise now.
The Chinese have known for a long time the power of music. In the classic text the Neijing, the masters of Chinese medicine talk of different sounds and types of music associated with each of the five elements.
Wood – Shout – Lute
Fire – Laughter – Pipe Organ
Earth – Singing – Gong/drum
Metal – Weeping – Resonant
Water – Moaning – Stringed
A diagnosis can therefore be made not only by what a person says, but also by their tone of voice. For example, someone who is angry and shouts a lot could be soothed by the tone of the lute. Likewise, sound can also be used as part of the healing process, like Gong baths or chanting.
What is music?
Well, basically it’s just noise. It can be a sequence of noises, or it can be just one noise. The noise might be pleasing to hear, or it may not. I suppose it depends on what is trying to be communicated. Primitive man would have started beating a log to communicate or simply entertain his friends. But even that has the potential to be very sophisticated, just ask a drummer. You may not like the sequence of noises I might like, but you can’t deny it’s music. When I was younger I remember playing dance music to an elderly relative and he just covered his ears up and said it hurt his ears! You can’t please everyone I suppose, but you get my point…one man’s meat is another’s poison.
I always ask my clients if they would like music on while they relax with the needles in, and most people say yes. But some prefer silence, usually people who are in the service industries such as hairdressers and shop workers, people who have to listen to music all day and now just want a bit of peace and quiet.
Over the years I’ve experimented with playing different genres of music in the treatment room: industrial, rock, folk, indie, world, classical, sounds of nature. But like most things in life, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Some people even bring their own music in. Perhaps they are getting their own back, making me listen too. However, a client once gave me a compilation of music that is totally neutral with no singing. It goes down very well. The only down side is I think I must of listened to it 10,000 times.
The power of Musick
When I was researching for this blog, it seems the phrase ‘music to sooth the savage beast’ is in fact a misinterpretation of a poem by William Congreve (1697) in which he actually writes
Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
Which seems quite apt in terms of the five elements. Music is indeed extremely powerful, so powerful in fact that it can not only affect one’s heart, it can even break rock. How enjoyable it would be to listen to music that can wear down rock and bend wood I’m not sure, but I’m certain there is a middle aged man somewhere who has it on vinyl.
But music that can wear things down? This got me thinking (and googling). Although sound per se can’t necessarily break things, we know vibrations can. There are plenty of examples of singers shattering glass with their voice. There is even a film with Alan Bates called The Shout where his shout alone is able to kill. If you want to see someone shattering a glass with their voice, here is a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amuPoPkAlx8
Music as torture
There are plenty of examples in history of music being used as torture. The U.S. Army famously played rock music non-stop to force the Panamanian dictator Manual Noriega into submission. Similarly, in an attempt to flush out David Koresh and his followers at Waco, Texas, the FBI played rock music (with the added delightful sound of knives being sharpened and rabbits being slaughtered). At Gutanamo Bay the inmates were tortured by continuously playing the theme tune from the childrens’ tv show Barney. And during the Iraq war the building where interrogations took place became know amongst the inmates as ‘the disco’! This is an interesting article if you want to read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/jun/19/usa.guantanamo
The use of music as an interrogation method has in fact been banned by the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights. But since when has that stopped anyone. I had a massage once where the classical music was so loud the windows were rattling. Looking back I think the masseur must have been a bit deaf.
The Chinese Medicine bit
In Chinese Medicine anything that subdues Qi or moves it, is important. Exercise moves Qi, as does certain foods and even other people’s moods. Ever entered a room and straight away you feel a negative energy?
Qi needs to flow smoothly. If it is suppressed by poor diet, poor mood, or even medication, the result will eventually be ill health. And in the fast paced world we live in, we are constantly looking for ways to move our Qi, or indeed suppress it. This might be through meditation and gentle breathing exercises, or by more extreme methods such as tranquillisers or recreational drugs such as marijuana.
But there is always a yang to the yin side of the coin. Studies have also shown that listeners of extreme music such as thrash and heavy metal can positively influence the listener, inspiring calmness rather than anger.
Music as medicine
The healing effects of music, however, is not really understood and experiment results are often contradictory. For instance, one study shows that plants respond better to calming music. The plants exposed to Hayden, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert grew towards and entwined themselves around the speakers. But another plant group grew away from a speaker that played rock music. But in other studies involving music played to plants, jazz music had a beneficial effect, but country music had no effect.
Plants can’t actually hear of course, they are affected by the vibrations created by the sound waves. So maybe it’s not the genre of music that is important, but the type of plant and the frequency of sound they prefer. Perhaps cacti prefer desert blues but abhor the sound of violins. I guess more studies need to be done https://dengarden.com/gardening/the-effect-of-music-on-plant-growth
Humans, on the other hand, can communicate how they are actually feeling so results are a bit more reliable. Apart from being a powerful motivational tool and making exercise more enjoyable, music has also been shown to improve the recovery of stroke patients. There is also evidence that music can help with chronic and acute pain, end-of-life care, and depression. And much more it seems https://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/article/why-we-need-music-player-every-patient-room/2019-03
Enjoy the silence
Silence is very important of course, but is it ever possible to be in total silence? If you have ever tried to meditate you will appreciate how difficult it is to escape noise. Even if you were in some sort of isolation tank you would probably still be able to hear the beat of your heart. Music is literally within us. So rather than trying to escape sound, maybe it is better to embrace it. Go for a walk and revel in the sounds of nature. Listen to your breath. Hear the waves lapping, the birds singing, the traffic humming. Bathe in the experience of it all. Feel joy that you are able to hear it.