Monday, April 26, 2010

About the Healing Power of Music--Part 1 (of 3)

What kinds of music are healing, what kinds of music are uplifting, or pleasing in various (sometimes subtle) ways. This is a topic of some interest, not only to me, but to many people in the field of, for example, “music therapy”. It is of immediate and pressing interest to me at the present time, being involved as I am in playing music for patients in hospitals and sometimes even for hospice patients. I want to be assured that the music I play (on classical guitar) helps them, and above all, is not hurtful to them in any way.

Of course, the issue of the effects of music on people is of practical monetary interest to such groups as the advertising agencies, since usually music accompanies an ad, and they want it too be effective---and this certainly means, at the very least, not annoying to the potentially buying public. Also, restaurant owners would seem to have an interest in the issue, since most restaurants today use “background music” (in some, such as the typical “TGIF” watering hole, it is not even background, but often “in your face”, making it difficult to converse). But I will not be concerned with such commercial issues, only more or less with the therapeutic aspect.

I believe that the simple truth is that we in the western world hear too much music today. What with iPod’s, MP3 players, iTunes, Pandora, XM radio, Youtube, plus the usual fm & am radio and the easy availability of music CD’s, it is almost impossible to find a public place where some kind of music is not being played.

So what is “too much music”? I would suggest it is analogous to what a life of constant nibbling on snacks does to the enjoyment of good food---it tends to minimize its effect, reduces its enjoyment, and most people actually tend to “tune it out”. A shame really, as this means that too many people today are losing the ability to really get a big bang out of music.

Contrast this with what surely must have been the situation throughout most of human history, certainly prior to the advent of electronic recording media, where music was necessarily restricted to live performances. For example, somewhere I read classical guitarist/composer Andrew York’s poignant speculation about a rural person in the 1500’s making a trip into a city, and happening to pass by the outside of a cathedral from whence the practicing of a choir could be heard. York imagined that the person had never heard such music in his/her life, stood transfixed for a few moments, and for the rest of his/her life would savor and never forgot that experience. A poignant image, although hard to imagine ourselves in that situation today.

Of course, the music we hear now is a mixture of music we choose---such as that we might listen to in our car’s CD player or on our ipod—and music we do not choose, such as what is played in airport lounges, restaurants, gyms, etc. In the latter case, the music is quite often, and dubiously in my opinion, functioning as “background music”, and is not always intended to be listened to that way one would be expected to listed to a symphonic or jazz concert. Exceptions here are cases where the music is at such a strong volume that it is not easily possible to tune it out, and in fact can be difficult to converse with associates over the music. And rock concerts, in my experience e, far exceed even that level, and may require the use of ear plugs to reduce the sound level to non-painful levels. (I admit to be completely contemptuous of this latter phenomenon, which seems the height of irrationality---seeking out and paying for experiencing music at levels that can permanently damage or degrade ones capability for fully hearing music in the future).

Is there ever a place for background music, we might wonder? Actually, maybe---for me, certain forms of jazz can be effective. But since we all differ in what we consider acceptable and unacceptable forms of jazz, even that would seem to restrict its use to situation involving persons of like tastes (such as might happen at a private party).

Some forms of music can be relatively controversial, such as rap or hip-hop (I know some will immediately say that “that is not music”, but rather a form of rhythmic chanting---I disagree, and do recognize it as qualifying as music in the general sense of the word).

Musical forms exist today in an amazing variety. One cannot even sensibly speak of classical, jazz, rock, and folk, as there are dozens or even hundreds of sub genres and nuances within each of these broad labels. I am always amused, and privately very skeptical when people give the common reply, when asked what kind of music they like, “I like all kinds of music”. In the first place, I am pretty sure they do not, and in the second place it is unlikely that they have any idea what exactly “all kinds of music” involves. I am sure I do not.

The Onion has spoofed this “I like all kinds of music” response . And by the way, a google search on “I like all kinds of music’ will bring up a great number of interesting blogs and discussion forums, most of them seemingly poking fun at the people that make this statement. I am not the only one that is skeptical about that oh-so-common claim.

But surely most everyone today has heard, whether they explicitly realize it or not, a great many kinds of music. Maybe some of it was in the background, and was largely unheard consciously.

I want to suggest that most people really like some small set of musical types, perhaps 4 or 5 genres that they might actively seek out. How do I think this is plausible? Well, partly based on my perusal of friends and acquaintances “shared iTunes libraries”, where I usually see a mixture of folk and rock with a bit of light classics thrown in. Admittedly, this is based on very limited “statistics”, so I am indeed going out on a limb here. But this is really not my main pointy that I want to make—rather I want to say that it is probably rare to find two people with exactly the same palette of musical genres that they actively collect and listen too by choice. And I suspect that in general, persons A and B chosen at random would probably find that some of the genres in each others palette are mutually agreeable, while some are neutral, and quite a few positively annoying.

If I am right about this, it raises some doubts about the general efficacy of “music therapy”. Are there, let me ask, forms of music that virtually everyone would fine agreeable, let alone profoundly uplifting and “healing”. Maybe there are, but I am not sure.
(to be continued in Part 2)

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