Sep. 29, 2017

Music the Healer

The first thing out of our Professor’s mouth in lecture this week was that we should write down our dreams. I have tried to do this in the past, as I’ve found them to be complicated, inexplicable, bizarre. I have just now awakened from a nap, squeezed in at the end of my third full week at school… and I awoke after recognizing an REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) in which I realized that I was seeing music floating past my eyes. I saw perfectly written clefs and notes, sharps and flats.... and the pieces were moving both forward and backward, almost as if they were dancing for me. Sitting up, I also realized with shock, that this is the second time this week that I have had this exact ‘dream’. Now, I’ve looked over a lot of music in my life, but these last three weeks have been an onslaught of seeing it, tapping it out, filling in the blanks, writing painstakingly perfectly on the staff, (my mother, once a music copyist and always a brilliant musician, taught me well without me even knowing it ~ somehow the perfectionism gene has been passed down), and singing beautiful master works with our Baroque choir. The dream must have meant that I needed to get up and do some more homework.

Building more on the theme of the Big Picture, this week’s discussion tread first in the direction of following the ‘bard’ through its evolutionary path, beginning with Shamanism. A Shaman is a powerful community leader that the people would go to with their ailments ~ a healer. They had the ability to enter an otherworldly state, or become entranced, either through intense meditation or perhaps with the use of hallucinogenic drugs, and also with the help of music. A steady drum beat, a humming or chanting would work them into an altered state of consciousness. It was in these trances that they would be enabled to have a vision and somehow derive the answer to a needy person’s question, or find the cure to their condition and then pass it along. Often, before finding a cure, the Shaman him/herself would have to experience all of the symptoms of the illness. The experience can be equated to an almost religious ecstasy. They are not Mythological, but very human, professing to be able to disassociate themselves with the here and now, and even to be able to ‘become’ another creature, by being called by their dreams, into action.

Eventually, Shamanism saw a decline, when Priests became leaders of more communities, and the larger socio-economic needs of these communities demanded better organization and leadership; the belief systems were continually shifting. Many Shamans found themselves without a job…and took to the only thing they knew best, the role of the bard. Storytelling and music making was still a great skill that they had, and that still served to connect the community. Much of their music began with imitating the sounds of nature, another part of our discussion later in the class. Shamanism still exists today, and in many ways it is practised in an effort to reconnect with the earth and our surroundings in a natural way, and to find a spiritual peace in an ever-changing, frantic world. A return to the mystic can bring us to a different place in our minds and spirit.

The Bardic tradition obviously evolved further, and we are more familiar with the traveling minstrel, a circus act, a joker or a jester, a poet or a playwright. Who is the most famous bard? Why, Shakespeare, of course.

Going back to the tendency to imitate nature to create human sounds, our class discussion turned toward birdsong and we listened to several examples of thrushes singing. How intriguing, to slow the sounds down and hear them on a different frequency! How delightful, to hear a gibbon monkey ‘singing’! They sure can nail those whistle tones that every soprano dreams of achieving. The sound of a crane can be duplicated very closely with a Shakuhachi flute. It is said that the sound of a dove’s song heard by Pope Gregory inspired the first Gregorian Chants.

The music of nature has purpose on many levels ~ to contact another for mating or courting, sound an alarm, mark territory, and also for the sake of chatter and song. It only makes sense that the communication of nature inspired humans to do the same, but we don’t know how music and language really started and when they became separated into different sounds.

Where is all of this heading? The connection between mind and music is an astonishing one, and we are constantly uncovering more and more information about this. What makes a composer want to write down their music? Where is it, that they must have traveled in their minds, to come up with chords and progressions that all work together to bring us a symphonic masterpiece? Why and how does music have the ability to transport us, to heal us, to give us goosebumps?

Music is now teaching us a lot more about how our brains work, our neurology or ‘wiring’. We are integrating music into therapy in many areas, such as guided imagery which can help certain muscles to relax, active improvisation, motor skill improvement. In listening to certain frequencies or vibrations, we can heal or soothe our minds, even repair our DNA, or kill parasites.   The photo above, illustrating which note or frequency relates to which area of the body, can be found at the website Altered States.

In more recent exploration of the use of music as therapy, the science of Thanatology has been augmented by uniting music and medicine in ‘end of life’ care. This prescriptive music can lower a heart rate, take the fear away and bring calmness, and help to release our tormented souls and allow us to leave this earth without a struggle. I for one would love to be led toward the light while hearing the ethereal sounds of the harp.  Here is a short video to give you an idea of what this 'musical passage' can do.

In 2015, Dr. Linda Ippolito, a Family Lawyer and Concert Pianist, presented her dissertation on music therapy for conflict resolution, entitled, “Changing our Tune: A Music-Based Approach to Teaching, Learning, and Resolving Conflict”, in which she states that “sound and music would seem to be particularly potent in the field of dispute resolution if music offers a way to realign with a sense of inherent harmony”. Perhaps if we cannot find the words to explain how we feel to our estranged spouse, music could open this door.

Dr. Ippolito’s dissertation can be found here.

The area of Music Therapy that I find most fascinating though, is how music can have a profound effect on people who are suffering from Alzheimers disease. The way in which a familiar song can bring the light of recognition back into their eyes is incredible. While music is being used in this type of Therapy more often now, I still marvel at how in many Seniors’ homes today, the piped in music of choice is still the current top 20 pop songs; rather than a mix of songs that would ‘speak’ to the patients, it seems the music is chosen to cater to the staff who work there instead. If I could influence this area, I would certainly recommend trying to do something more along the lines of a playlist that includes songs from the era of their youth ~ more classical music, big band, 1940’s war tunes, 1950’s show tunes. I recall singing in many a Seniors’ home when the Irving Berlin pieces brought tears, maybe some sadness, maybe some joy, but definitely a recollection of another time and place.

To delve deeper into the area of how music affects our minds, I have chosen a book to read and to write a mini report on, entitled “Music, Mind and Brain”, edited by Manfred Clynes. I believe I may have found my Research Paper topic now.