Oil painting of a group of mesmerised French patients

I feel fine

Music has a long history in the healing arts

In ancient Greece, Apollo was the god of both healing and music. Music was seen to have a powerful influence over people. It was divided into three forms:

  • Phrygian: stirring, martial music
  • Dorian: solemn and slow, noble and pious
  • Ionian: jolly and joyful.

The meaning of these terms has changed somewhat since then.

Internal balance of the four bodily humours (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood) was seen as particularly important, an idea that survived until modern times. Music could exert its influence by acting on the humours.

Music was thought to be detected in the ear by animal spirits, which transmitted reverberations through the body in the bloodstream. The 17th-century German physician Athanasius Kircher illustrated the concept by showing how music affected vessels filled with different kinds of fluid, representing the different humours.

As more mechanistic views of nature developed (in which explanations of phenomena were linked to their physical causes), the German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz linked the physics of sounds and the anatomy of human hearing. He proposed reasons for perceptions of consonance and dissonance and later showed how several physiological factors were affected by various aspects of music (pitch, loudness, etc.).

Music therapy has often been applied in mental health. In the 18th century, the singing of the castrato Farinelli reputedly brought King Philip V of Spain out of depression, and a daily dose of singing kept him well until his death ten years later. As treatments of mentally ill people became more humane in the late 19th century, music sometimes formed part of their therapy – either in the form of listening or music making.

Lead image:

Franz Mesmer (from whom we get the word mesmerise and, indirectly, hypnosis) developed a form of therapy that aimed to improve the flow of ‘life forces’ ( ‘magnétisme animal’ ) through the body, often using a glass harmonica in his therapies. The French King Louis XVI ordered a high-level enquiry – which included Antoine Lavoisier, Ignac Guillotin and Benjamin Franklin – into Mesmer’s claims. They found no evidence for Mesmer’s supposed new fluid.

Wellcome Library, London CC BY


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Psychology, Neuroscience, Health, infection and disease, Medicine
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development