In the 1880s, as a struggling musician in his twenties, Edward Elgar worked five years as "composer in ordinary" at the quaintly-named Worcester City & County Pauper & Lunatic Asylum at Powick. He conducted a motley band and glee club, and composed polkas and quadrilles for the entertainment of patients.
Personally, I've often found Elgar's Enigma Variations more soul-troubling than soothingly therapeutic, as great music often can be. Conversely, the great composer's ode to childhood, The Wand of Youth, is not so great but far more soothing. Judging from the repertoire at Powick (consisting of light fare), music's calming qualities were most sought at the asylum, the superintendent of which believed in the therapeutic powers of music, though he was backed by no official medical sanction at the time.
One-hundred thirty years later, music has been codified as a therapeutic tool. Doctors at hospitals and psychiatric facilities commonly encourage patients to listen to music prior to surgery as a way of remaining calm, most especially women in labor, and as an aid in pain reduction during convalescence. Music therapy is part of the curriculum at over 70 universities in the U.S., and the 60-year old American Music Therapy Association, with national headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, has become an active and widely respected clearing house for music therapy studies and more than 5,000 music therapists.
Worcester City & County Pauper & Lunatic Asylum at Powick
Among the seemingly unceasing parade of studies validating the medicinal powers of music one comes from the State University of New York at Buffalo, as reported in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, involving forty elderly men and women undergoing surgery for cataracts or glaucoma. All of the patients reported a spike in blood pressure the morning of the surgery, due to anxiety, which especially for people in their seventies and eighties can be life-threatening. Half were given a choice of music to listen to, including classical guitar, folk music and swing era songs. The other half went musicless. Within five minutes of donning the headphones, patients with music saw their blood pressure return to normal, while the other patients remained at high risk of a stroke or heart attack. Conclusion: "The calmer you are, the better you are overall," says research scientist Dr. Karen Allen.
Any music lover knows that music soothes the savage breast (or, for that matter, also has charms to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak). All the same, it's good to have music's curative properties stamped "official." One elderly dialysis patient that I know figured it out on her own. She takes a Walkman to her three-day-a-week visits. She says listening to music helps her to pass what for many people can be a stressful four hours. Her musical choice is an orchestral compilation called Adagio. She is clearly the calmest patient at the clinic.
An AMTA spokesperson, Al Bumanis, told me that music therapy's effects are notably more dramatic in the elderly, just as all medical ups and downs tend to be more dramatic in old folks. The specific work of music seems to be less crucial than the choice to listen at all. (Still, it's unlikely, should I find myself facing a hospital stay, that I'll pack Elgar's brooding and disillusioned Cello Concerto in my overnight bag.) Rather, there is something comforting in the harmonious organization of sounds that brings tranquility to some core corner of the human brain, be it the sounds Mozart or marimba, Shetland fiddling or Uganda enanga music, centuries' old huaynos from Ecuadorian Incas or fifty-year old Charles Mingus riffs, melodic panpipe music from Romania or highly-charged rhythm music from the high Karakorams in central Asia, played to accompany polo, a frenetic game played as a way for warriors and their horses to let off steam.
Nor are we in the U.S. (or the Brits a century ago) the first to discover that music and medicine dance together nicely. Bumanis points out that Turkey in its heyday centuries ago had "a pretty standardized" use of music in medicine, and that the Chinese have used music in medicine "forever." Plato and Aristotle each pondered aloud on the subject. Both likely heard vintners' songs in praise of Apollo, god of sun and reason, plucked out on a kithara or blown on an aulos. Such soothing sounds (and perhaps a glass of wine) surely steadied the ancients' blood pressure when they faced the scalpel of Hippocrates, the great doctor who observed, "Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity." Today, doctors agree: the opportunity to hear music is a matter to ponder when it's healing time.