On Music Therapy

Music is a passion for me, and a hobby. I play the piano most days. Music is also very therapeutic, in the sense that it stimulates and affects us in unexpected ways. Humans are unique amongst animals in our need for music. Try watching a film with the sound turned down and something which is moving or frightening becomes ridiculous. A baby in the womb has a very developed hearing long before he can see. He can hear his mother’s heartbeat and after a few months in the womb can begin to distinguish the sounds of the outside world.

Music can act as a stimulant to our memories. Often we have associations from childhood from songs which bring back a seemingly forgotten emotion. Music therapy is based on this idea. It can be used to revive fragments of memory in those suffering from illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s. It can help those who have long lost the capacity to communicate in words to make some connection with another human being.

Music can also disturb. There is a story that the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin found it difficult to listen to music as he felt it made him lapse into soft and gentle thoughts and would distract him from his single minded purpose to destroy the tsarist monarchy.

I think music can tap into our unconscious in a very primitive way beyond words. In an opera, for example, there is action on the stage, words being spoken but underneath, in the orchestral pit, there are other things going on which may comment ironically or sympathise with what the characters are saying. Wagner’s music in particular has an almost addictive quality. Maybe that is one reason Wagner provokes such strong reactions: fanatical devotion and equally strong hatred. I think that sometimes when people switch off on hearing a piece of music or say they are bored, it’s not that they are not affected by the music, they are affected too much and want to keep the emotion out.

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