Essay: Exploring Music as a Healing Medium

Music has been extensively interwoven with human culture throughout the world and throughout recorded history. From the simplest form of a mother humming a lullaby to induce her baby to sleep, to an ancient shaman using drumming as a means to obtain transcendence to a non-ordinary state of reality, music seems intrinsically associated with power. Its affects seem to be able to dramatically influence our beings on multi-dimensional levels—even to the point of inducing radically altered states of consciousness. Does the power of music lie in some innate neurological response that is evident in the human species as a whole? Is there in fact a universal sound or sounds that will affect all who listen? Or are our reactions to music more socially conditioned responses? The vast musical diversity evident throughout the world would seem to point to the latter as being the case. Insomuch as we are social animals, however, much of structured musical therapeutic methods focus on what the individual patient finds to be of a pleasurable or consonant sound quality. Even if music is an effective healing medium in itself, it is hard to deny that everyone is unique; and therefore, individual musical interpretations may be a key element to consider with regards to enlisting music as a therapeutic medium. Research has shown that music affects the physiological, psychological, and cognitive levels of our beings and does so simultaneously. Some cultures also correlate music with spiritual transformation. Personally, I find varying musical genres to have beneficial, and even therapeutic properties that differ with regards to situations and intended purposes involved. I regard music to be, in fact, an enriching part of my health maintenance in a variety of ways.

      Ever since Ancient Greek times (at least that far back), there have been assumptions made that music or sound is interwoven with the cosmos. And in more recent times, some have proclaimed that music has implications at microscopic or cellular levels. Pythagoras, the revered mathematician who lived during Greece’s Golden Age, inferred that there was a relationship between musical intervals [spacing] and the distance between the planets. Guy Murchie, author of Music of the Spheres writes: “…according to Hippolytos (c. 400 B.C.), Pythagoras maintained that the universe sings and is constructed in accordance with harmony; and he was the first to reduce the motions of the seven [known at that time] heavenly bodies to rhythm and song” (Murchie 67). The Pythagoreans went on to discover that there existed a connection between musical ratios and the nature of their pleasing or consonance attributes. Thomas Stanley (Stanley 11) describes this Ancient Greek discovery:

Quoting Aristotle again… “[The Pythagoreans] saw that the…ratios of musical scales were expressible in numbers [and that]…all things seemed to be modeled on numbers, and numbers seemed to be the first things in the whole of nature, they supposed the elements of number to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number.”


The “whole of nature” would imply that the musical quality of the cosmos, or “Music of the Spheres” in Pythagorean terms could also be prescribed at a microscopic or cellular level, one that could not have been empirically observed by the Ancients.

     Some additionally suggest that musical harmonies are evident from within each individual—right down to the atomic level. This notion is implied in Kay Gardner’s Sounding the Inner Landscape: Music as Medicine: “Sound reaches down to the cellular level. It is most likely that sound patterns are really the dance of molecules and atoms”—Vickie Dodd, “Sound as a Tool for Transformation” (Gardner 37). This seems like an intuitively sound notion (no pun intended). Nor is it difficult to imagine how the microscopic word of these tiny particles may seek out harmonious equilibrium within their immediate environment. “…[if] it is considered that each molecule of which an organ or a tissue is compared has its own individual sound pattern and emits a vibration peculiar to this pattern, a healthy organ will have its molecules working together in harmonious relationship with each other”—Peter Guy Manners, M.D., “What is Cymatics” (Gardner 125).

     Shamanism is an ancient tradition that employs the use of drumming as a tool to aid the shaman in his or her descent into an altered state of consciousness. Michael Harner is an anthropologist who has studied and even practiced himself, this ancient tradition. He goes on to describe the role that drumming plays in shamanic’ practices.

The repetitive sound of the drum is usually fundamental to undertaking shamanic tasks in the SSC [shamanic state of consciousness]. With good reason, Siberian and other shamans sometimes refer to their drums as the “horse” or “canoe” that transports them into the Lower world or Upper world [spiritual worlds that the shaman travels to while in the SSC]. The steady, monotonous beat of the drum acts like a carrier wave, first to help the shaman enter the SSC, and then to sustain him on his journey (Harner 51).


Although there are other methods used to induce the shamanic trance, drumming seems to be the most prominent and effective method observed in shamanism as a whole. How does drumming affect physiological functioning?  “Laboratory research by Neher has demonstrated that drumming produces changes in the central nervous system. The rhythmic stimulation affects the electrical activity in many sensory and motor areas of the brain, not ordinarily affected, through their connections with the sensory area being stimulated” (Harner 51). While not everyone may be able to reach an altered state with drumming, there seems to be a substantial amount of merit to this. I had a personal experience that viably demonstrated the tremendous transformational powers of drumming.

     About a year and a half ago, I attended a concert by San Jose Taiko, a Japanese-style drumming ensemble. In traditional Japanese culture, the taiko (style of drum) was used for many different purposes. For examples, “priests used taiko to dispel evil spirits and insects from the rice fields; Samurai used taiko to instill fear in the enemy and courage in themselves; and peasants used taiko in their prayers for rain, in festivals, and in thanksgiving for bountiful harvests” (HSU:  Center for the Arts: 1999-2000 Season). In several instances during the show, I felt a wave of transformation sweep over me. I became engulfed in a light hypnotic state that was induced by the intense, repetitive drumbeats. Furthermore, I could feel the heightened collective sense of exhilaration in the audience—the type that is difficult to give an adequate description through words alone. If drumming can have such a profound impact on a casual observer, I can only imagine how influential it might be when it becomes specifically formulated for use as a therapeutic medium. So how can the medium of drumming be used in constructive healing practices—other than for those willing to venture into the shamanic practices?

     Reinhard Flatischler, along with his partner Cornelia Flatischler, have developed a practice known as TA KE TI NA. This is a process that employs drumming, among other things, as a natural, intuitive method for presenting concepts of rhythm. The Flatischers believe that what hinders us in life, hinders us also in rhythm. They infer that when people fall into a certain pulse they can become released from pain. Cornelia Flatischler states: “Logical thinking is not the only world. We need to know that there is a deeper current carrying us, that we need guidance into the world of rhythm… Rhythm is the basic structure of life—everything is structured around rhythm. Rhythm is the unity of action and space” (New Dimensions: Radio interview with Cornelia Flatischler). The International Society of Music & Medicine is an organization that employs the Flatischlers to use their technique of TA KE TI NA in a clinical setting—where they have obtained some admirable results. Case-in-point: People with various chronic medical ailments used the TA KE TI NA method as a supplement to their pain medications, and after progressing through the TA KE TI NA therapy, some were able to reduce their medications by as much as 45%  (New Dimensions: Radio interview with Reinhard Flatischler). 

     Margaret Heal and Tony Wigram (Heal & Wigram 7) describe the up-and-coming practice of musical therapy:

Music therapy is a varied, enormous, and at this time, far from fully explored field. It is only through a diversity of approaches that clinical practice, research and theory can evolve to investigate this great field of human endeavor throughout its breadth, width and depth. Diversity is inevitable: different nationalities preserve different social values and needs, and distinct lifestyles.


Much of the focus of musical therapy, just as is evident in shamanic drumming, centers upon the concept of repetition. Gardner (59) elaborates: “Repetition’s function in healing music is to bring familiarity and thus comfort to the listener. When you are comfortable, you are much more receptive to healing work than when you are under tension or stress.”

      Repetition is additionally evident in the multicultural occurrence of chants or mantras. Joel Levey illustrates this with the following ethnographic example:

In the Tibetan tradition, the repetition of the mantras: OM MANI PEDME HUNG; AH HUNG VAJRA GURU PEDME SIDDHI HUNG; and OM TARE TUTARI TURE SVAHA are commonly recited one hundred thousand to one hundred million times in the course of one’s life. The subtle psychological repetition of such mantric practice provides one with a coherent internal resonance that pervades one’s mind/body as well as a continual sense of direct connection with the source of spiritual blessings, power and inspiration (Levey 172-173).


I actually have a recording of the latter mentioned mantra. Although I consider it to be aesthetically appealing, it didn’t appear to provide me with any kind of extraordinary affects when I partook in the chant, nor did the more simplified OM chant. But then again, I am not a person with a lot of patience—I want results now!

      Possessing a certain amount of patience is probably a good trait to possess as a prerequisite for mantic chanting. Other factors are also influential. Levy (174) states: “Though there is power in the actual vibration and sound of traditional mantras, the mental intention in its use determines the power and magnitude of its benefit.” According to Gardner, mental intention in music therapy is important at both the creator and receiver’s ends. She elaborates: “Intent is all-important when using or choosing live or recorded music to accompany therapeutic and medical procedures. Intent begins and ends the circle of musical healing” (Gardner 8).

     Other than right intention, personal familiarity should also be taken under consideration when employing music as a therapeutic medium. Common sense dictates that music that presents itself in an unfamiliar format may hamper the intended function. Heal & Wigram (157) reiterate this notion: “Several research studies have emphasized the importance of using music that is familiar to the patient in music listening procedures. It is speculated that unfamiliar music may cause an ‘orienting response’ due to its novelty that may undermine the desired therapeutic goals, particularly if the goal is relaxation.”

     Myra Staum and Melissa Brotons, meanwhile, comment on the degree of variation in peoples’ auditory functions:

Individuals vary enormously in their reactions and perception to stimulation. Differential preference for types of auditory stimulation is among the sources that reveal substantial variability. It is thought that individuals come into this world with stronger or weaker nervous systems requiring different intensity levels and duration of stimulation, and these needs are outwardly reflected in their preferences (Staum & Brotons 1).


Notwithstanding, a dissonant sound to a particular individual may be beneficial if it is used as a prelude to draw the patient out of a particular emotional state. Lyn Freeman describes this process: “Music selection may be most beneficial when initially ‘entrained’ to current mood state, but then designed to move the individual from the current mental state of mind into one more conducive to including relaxation, producing endorphins, promoting alertness, or some other intended outcome (Freeman 22). Furthermore, sometimes playing music that correlates to a certain emotional state, even if is a depressing one, will help facilitate getting it out of one’s system. For example, I believe playing Blues music when I am feeling down might actually be beneficial, as denying such emotions is not really conducive to positive mental health. When feelings are amplified through the use of music, they tend, in my case anyway, to dissipate more readily, thereby allowing me to gravitate back to a more positive emotional state.

     It only seems natural then, that music with an intended purpose of health promotion as its goal, should be formulated with individual preferences taken under due consideration. Leslie Bunt related the following as a primary purpose of musical therapy: “…the purpose is to help individuals attain and maintain their maximum levels of functioning” (Bunt 7-8). However, studies have had contradicting opinions as to whether it is the musical style itself, or the individual’s musical preference that holds the greater degree of influence over the level of therapeutic benefits achieved. It appears that more research is needed in this area to make definitive statements in this regard. Notwithstanding, there seems to be a considerable amount of support that music does enable individual transformation on a number of levels. The following is an abbreviated list of what Heal & Wigram (158-160) observed to be the principles behind the music/medicine connection:

        [1] Music elicits physiological responses...

        [2] Music elicits psychological responses...

        [3] Music evokes imagery and associations...

        [4] Music elicits cognitive responses...

        [5] Music may cause physiological and or psychological entrainment (process in

              physics whereby two objects vibrating at similar frequencies will tend to cause

              mutual sympathetic resonance...

        [6] Physiological, psychological, and cognitive responses to music are unique for

              each individual…             

        [7] Music elicits psychological, cognitive, and physiological responses


        [8] Elements of music (rhythm, tempo, texture, harmony, tension, timbre and so

              forth) as well as the music gestalt, must be taken into consideration…

        [9] Music may have an enhancing effect when combined with other methods of 



In a nutshell then, it appears as if music influences our beings at a multi-dimensional level, and that its influences upon one level of existence are not isolated, but are mutually inclusive of others, and that music can function simultaneously and interdependently with other therapeutic healing techniques. Walt Schaffer sums up nicely the immense versatility of music, as well as the variant levels with regards to musical interpretations:

Music can have a variety of effects: arousal, warmth, sexuality, and playfulness. Music can create a sense of structure; it can rekindle nostalgic memories. It can stir you to action, add to your fear, make you angry or mournful, stimulate religious sentimentality, lower tensions, slow you down, and keep you awake… People differ widely in musical tastes, and each person varies from time to time (Schaefer 408).                


     Another nice thing about music—is that one does not have to engage in formal music therapy in order to derive benefits from it. In a recent “Stress Management” course I enrolled in, I learned that sound health maintenance should include not only regular exercise, adequate sleep, and proper nutrition, but also taking the time to engage in healthy pleasures (Starr: Lecture in “Stress Management”). Since listening to music is one of my favorite pastimes, it is both a natural and convenient way for me to incorporate it into my routine as a health-enhancing measure. For instance, some mellow New Age or instrumental music will help me to wind down at night after a hectic day. On the other hand, Classic Rock, some hard-edged Blues or some up-tempo Celtic tunes will help motivate me when I am exercising. Additionally, I find music an ideal way for me to reduce the level of monotony when doing schoolwork or chores around the house.

       I have also found that my musical tastes are continuously evolving. In order to take advantage of the therapeutic benefits that music has to offer, I try to expose myself to a wide range of musical genres, as variety is “the spice of life.” I find music a natural, intuitive way to obtain pleasure and enjoy life more fully. Bunt (187-188) writes:

Music and music-making can be a focus of real beauty and transformation, helping us to define our humanity and all that is vibrant in living to our creative potential. Music can contribute to making life possible and livable. According to the great Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Kahn, “The whole of life in all its aspects is one single music; and the real spiritual attainment is to tune oneself to the harmony of this perfect music.”


     It is fascinating to note how the power of music has been referenced for such a long, long time. Delving back into Classical times, the following mythological tale is recited in Murcie’s (360) book:

…the harmonic nature of the world is known to have been sensed as far back as the days of Pythagoras, when the great star Vega, according to legend, first shone upon the harp of Orpheus in the little constellation now known as Lyra. In popular belief Vega’s celestial harp strings had been tuned to the Sun himself with the result that Orpheus’s music was so enchanting to the trees that they bent to listen, while the most savage of beasts were soothed into gentleness by the bewitching strains and even rivers ceased to flow lest they miss a single note.


This correlation of harmonic sounds with profound happenings is not an isolated instance of fable telling either. John Blofeld notes: “There are in the writings of the ancients many curious passages attributing stupendous or even supreme creative power to the divine energy of sound” (Blofeld 84).

      Throughout the known history of the world, music has been deeply intertwined with society, and has been attributed as being enveloped throughout the cosmos at a macroscopic level; and more recently, music has also been inferred as existing within each of us—down to the cellular level. Music has been inferred to impact our beings on physical, psychological, cognitive and spiritual levels, but at differing degrees for different folks, and differing degrees to the same folks at differing times. Therefore, it only seems logical that individual musical interpretations should be taken under due consideration when using musical therapy as a healing medium, as everyone has unique musical preferences and auditory-sensory systems. Moreover, there may even be ways in which music enhances the healing processes that we have yet to discover. The nearly universal way in which music is referenced, and has been referenced throughout the history of humanity should be a testimony in itself—of the tremendous impact, and hence, value, that music has on the humanoid condition. Personally, I find the medium of music highly beneficial. For instances, music helps me cope better when I am stressed; it motivates me to flex my limbs; and it also makes life more enjoyable and less monotonous. Some people may go on to derive additional value from structured music therapy or repetitive mantric chanting, or from another repetitive means—that of drumming. While others, meanwhile, may be prompted to use music in their normal, everyday activities as a method to experience life more viably. Music therefore, by whatever means employed, can be an instrumental partner in the dance of life, being as it is one powerful medium—one capable of inducing impressive levels of transformation.

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Comment by Aaron Smiatacz on December 26, 2013 at 8:53am

Imagine several notes playing by hundreds perhaps thousands, would shift the biosphere.

Comment by Wayne Perry on December 21, 2013 at 1:16pm

Hey Paul. Thanks for your critique. I'll have to look into that

Comment by W Paul Blakey on December 21, 2013 at 12:59pm

The development of binaural beat technology by the Monroe Institute (hemi-sync) might also be included. I once created a garage band version of all of the cycles related to the 13 moon calendar which was an interesting experiment, something that could be developed by a real musician perhaps.

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