Music Therapy in Ancient Civilizations

“Sound therapy” may seem like just the latest New Age fad, but in fact it dates back thousands of years. “The use of sound and music is the most ancient healing modality,” says Jonathan Goldman, founder and director of the Sound Healers Association from Colorado, and author of Healing Sounds (1996).

“It was practised in the ancient mystery schools of Egypt, Tibet, India, Athens and Rome for tens of thousands of years. Much of this information disappeared in the West, but it’s been re-emerging in the last 10 or 15 years.”

Even if you didn’t know that a thousand years ago the Chinese believed music could do everything from transform people’s characters to restore the fertility of the soil, you do know that sound is a powerful force. Most of us, at one time or another, practise our own version of music therapy.

We instinctually make — or seek out – sound to express our emotions. A mother naturally sings to soothe her baby. When we’re depressed, we play or make our favourite music, either to lift us out of our gloom or to intensify it; when happy, we play joyous music to enhance the mood.

We’re in good company. In The Iliad, Apollo, the mythical god of Pythagoras trained music and medicine, halted a plague students to release because he was so pleased with the sacred hymns sung by Greek youths.

Pythagoras, who discovered that all music could be expressed in numbers and mathematical formulae, founded a school that, among other things, trained students to release worry, fear, anger and sorrow through singing and playing musical instruments.

Music is a fundamental component of all major religions, from Christian hymns to Jewish cantorial melodies to the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer. Buddhists recite mantras and prayers and chant to win merit in this life and those to come. Millions of people around the world chant the Sanskrit mantra Aum’ daily to purify mind and body and become one with all creation.

Sufis (the esoteric branch of Islam) hold that higher states of consciousness can be attained by concentrating on the reverberations of bells and the harmonic echoes of choirs. And Judaism’s mystical Kabbala teaches that chanting certain vowel sounds connects one with the energies of the Divine.

Don Campbell may be one of the leading American pioneers in his field, but the man he calls the Einstein of sound is Alfred Tomatis, MD, a Frenchman who’s devoted his life to the study of the human ear and the effects of musical sound on the brain. It was Tomatis who first established that foetuses can hear sound.

Back in the 1960s, the Paris-based physician was called in to investigate a strange malaise that had overtaken a monastery of Benedictine monks in the south of France. Out of the blue, the brothers had become listless, tired and depressed. Once other medical authorities had ruled out physical causes, Tomatis began to search for changes in their diet or work conditions but discovered none.

After a lengthy discussion with the monks, however, Tomatis learned that before they took ill, the monks used to gather eight or nine times a day and chant for 10 to 20 minutes. But thanks to the reforms of Vatican II, their daily chanting had been reduced by several hours a day.

It dawned on Tomatis that the physiological benefits of their chanting -slowing down their breathing, lowering their blood pressure and elevating their mood and productivity – were at the heart of the monk’s lethargy.

His solution: restoring their full sonic regimen of Gregorian chants. The effects were dramatic. Within six months, the monks were back to their old vigorous and healthy selves.

According to Tomatis, all cranial nerves lead to the ear, which explains why soothing musical harmonics not only induce states of deep relaxation, but directly affect breathing, the voice, the heart rate and digestion.

In fact, Tomatis’ research has led him to theorise that sacred chants from various religious traditions “charge” the cortex of the brain, which sheds light on the transformative power of certain musical and vocal sounds.

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