“Musick,” wrote William Congreve in The Mourning Bride, “has Charms to sooth a savage Breast, to soften Rocks or bend a knotted Oak.”
Congreve’s words are far truer than he may have suspected back in 1697. Music’s healing effects have been well documented in contemporary clinical studies, although Congreve’s reference to rocks and trees may be taken as poetic hyperbole.
Nonetheless, music’s basic charms and healing potentialities have been recognized throughout history. Pythagoras called music medicine. For Plato, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” In the Middle Ages, the study of music was a mandatory part of a physician’s education.
One of the most dramatic accounts of the healing power of music is reported by William Styron. In his autobiography, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, the celebrated novelist describes how music saved him from suicide. On listening to Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody on the soundtrack of The Bostonians, he sensed that it brought back “all the joys the house had known. … All this I realized was more than I could ever abandon. ... And just as powerfully I realized I could not commit this desecration on myself.”
Existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel claims that the music of Bach helped lead him into the Catholic Church. There are now more than 5,000 certified music therapists in the United States. More than 70 American colleges and universities offer music-therapy programs, treating a variety of conditions from post-traumatic stress disorder to Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and pain.
The world of music offers its own example of the healing power of music and how good can triumph over evil. In Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, the distant ringing of the village church bell, the emergence of monks to pray matins, a beautiful and plaintive melody, together with the rising of the sun, all conspire to send the evil spirits back to the underworld. The effect is like holding up a crucifix to the face of Dracula.
Mussorgsky’s masterpiece holds the key to how goodness can disperse evil, a tactic that is now being discussed by the trustees of Toronto’s Catholic schools. The board staff is presently considering the feasibility of piping Bach, Beethoven and Mozart into school trouble zones. The tactic has worked in a number of cities where classical music is broadcast through public-address systems in subways, malls and train stations as a loitering deterrent and to disperse gangs.
According to one report, “Whether it’s Handel piped into New York’s Port Authority or Tchaikovsky at a public library in London, the sound of classical music is apparently so repellent to teenagers that it sends them scurrying away like frightened mice.”
Private institutions such as McDonald’s and 7-Eleven, as well as countless shopping malls throughout the world, have found the tactic to be a useful way of dispersing potentially troublesome youths
If music has charms to soothe, what can be said for those who flee from the sound of the very best of music? It is a sad commentary on our present culture that a fine art such as classical music can be employed as a kind of insect spray.
Education, as Plato said long ago, should help people to love what is good and disdain what is bad. Something is seriously amiss when so many young people find classical music repellent and heavy rock addictive. What other inversions of the moral order does this phenomenon suggest?
“Back to Bach” also suggests we should go back to the basics. We have a natural appetite for what is good. That is the appetite that should be cultivated, not the appetite for thrills, power and instant gratification. And back to basics means back to who we are as human beings and how our natural inclination to what is good is at the core of our being.
Fleeing from the sound of classical music, then, is akin to fleeing from one’s self. We also find this problem in the area of religion and philosophy, which, through opportunities for education, become occasions for evacuation. A proper education in philosophy and religion, similar to a proper education in music, should be experienced as an opportunity to discover the truth about what it means to be human.
Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International
and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.