Bad Vibrations: the history of the idea of music as pathology

Last year, I was asked to chair a panel on music and emotions at the Society for the Social History of Medicine’s annual conference. I knew next to nothing about the topic, but enjoyed hearing the talks. Since then, I’ve become fascinated by the social history of music, its emotional power over individuals and crowds, and the attempt by authorities to control that power. I recently contacted and interviewed one of the panelists from that session, Dr James Kennaway from Oxford University (pictured right), who’s written an excellent book called Bad Vibrations: the history of the idea of music as a cause of disease. Here’s our conversation.

JE: The idea of music as something dangerous, something that potentially undermines our rationality and rouses our passions, begins in Plato and Pythagoras. We see it re-appear somewhat through the Middle Ages. But the idea of ‘nervous music’ as a cause of pathology really begins in the 18th century, is that right?

JK: Yes, at the beginning of the 18th century, we see the appearance of the idea of music as stimulation. A discourse that had previously been philosophical or religious becomes medical. Previously, as you say, music theory had been more influenced by Pythagoras and Plato’s idea that music can connect us to cosmic harmony and the music of the spheres. During the Scientific Revolution, people started to take a more empirical approach, doing experiments with acoustics for example. Then, at the beginning of the 18th Century, when the Cult of Sensibility starts to dominate, people began thinking of music calming the nerves. By the end of the 18th Century, music gets incorporated into a medical critique of stimulation, a critique one particularly finds in the work of George Cheyne.

JE: Cheyne wrote The English Malady, claiming that modern temperaments were over-stimulated by luxurious living and stimulants like coffee.

JK: Right. He didn’t discuss music, but through other writers, music gradually came to be thought of as a nerve-stimulant, like coffee or snuff. The French Revolution increased anxiety about over-stimulation. Then, suddenly, within a generation, you find thousands of examples of people expressing anxiety about music over-stimulating people’s nerves and causing nervous exhaustion, fainting or even death.

A Regency cartoon of a dandy fainting at the opera

JE: Tell me about ‘Brunonianism’.

Ah, John Brown, one of my favourite figures – I have a framed portrait of him in my office. He was a physician, who started off in Edinburgh as assistant to William Cullen, one of the most distinguished physicians of his day. The Edinburgh Medical School was the centre of the ‘nervous stimulation’ school of medicine. Brown took this approach to an extreme, arguing that all illness was a result of either over-stimulation or under-stimulation of the nerves. He became famous for prescribing vast quantities of whisky and opium for his patients and himself. Despite calling himself the ‘Newton of medicine’, his fame was brief, but his theory of nerve-stimulation as the cause of illness – known as ‘Brunonianism’ –  influenced the idea of music causing illness by over-stimulating the nerves. For example, Richard Eastcott in his 1793 Sketches of the Origin, Progress and Effects of Music gives several examples of music causing fits. We hear of how at a premiere of Handel’s oratorio Esther, a ‘celebrated chorus singer’ became ‘violently agitated’ to such an extent that he died. Another writer, Michael Wagner, wrote in 1794 of a sick music lover who died from playing the triangle.

JE: The glass harmonica was thought to be especially dangerous to the nerves.

JK: Yes, there were many reports of people dropping dead from playing the glass harmonica, an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin in the early 1760s. It was considered particularly dangerous for women’s nerves. In 1786, for example, the musician Karl Leopold Rollig suggested the instrument could ‘make women faint; send a dog into convulsions, make a sleeping girl wake screaming through a chord of diminished seventh, and even cause the death of one very young.’ It was also associated with Mesmerism – Mesmer first introduced the instrument to Mozart. It was thought to stimulate the nerves via vibrations through the fingers, so people even invented gloves infused with chemicals to protect women as they played.

JE: You write in the book about how this new materialist theory of ‘nervous music’ replaced an older spiritual understanding of music, and you position this within a broader ‘disenchantment of the world’. There’s a nice quote from Max Weber’s Rational and Social Foundations of Music about a shift from ‘music as incantation to music as calculation’. Is it fair to say that ecstatic responses to music that may have been previously accepted became pathologised in the 18th Century?

Well, it’s complex. There are counter-currents too, in Shaftesbury for example, who helped to rehabilitate the idea of ‘enthusiasm’. But certainly, the idea of individual self-control becomes much, much more self-important in the bourgeois era, as compared to the feudalist era.  Loss of self-control becomes the central idea in the new science of psychiatry in the early 19th century. All the old questions of self-control which used to be a part of moral philosophy or theology become medicalised and classified under names like ‘kleptomania’ [first described in 1816]. That process is ongoing in the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

JE: Although one could also say that the moral and the medical have always been a bit blurred – Socrates says the philosopher is like a doctor, Cicero says philosophy is ‘a medical art for the soul’, Plato says that ethical errors lead to sicknesses of the soul. It’s always been a bit mixed up.

JK: Yes, and a lot of the medical anxieties from the 18th century on are really moral condemnations.

JE: So music gets reduced in the 18th century from Pythagoras’ cosmic conductor to a nervous stimulant like coffee or snuff.

JK: Yes. The rise of this mechanistic, medicalised model of music as pathology is a disaster for music’s status. Kant says music is like cooking or perfume, not really an art at all. Music suffers a spectacular decline in status. And yet, somehow in the early 19th century, Kant’s philosophy is taken up by German Romantic thinkers, who use it to make music more important than ever.

JE: How did that happen?

Beethoven: serious, Kantian, masculine music

JK: It happens particularly through the writings of Wilheim Heinrich Wackenroder and Ludwig Tieck, two Romantic thinkers who both emphasised the idea of music inspiring religious awe. And then Schopenhauer put forward the idea that music was the purest of all the arts. In some ways, the cult of feeling and the idea of the extreme nervous effect of music was perfect for the Romantics. ETA Hoffmann, for example, wrote about a mad musician called Johannes Kreisler, and also about a singer who dies because of her voice. On the other hand, Romantics also thought of music in very Kantian terms, as something completely removed from the body, completely removed from this world. You also find that idea in Hoffmann’s writing on Beethoven, for example. So the Romantics divide music into two categories – serious, transcendental music for men, like Beethoven, and unserious, unhealthy, mechanical music for hysterical women, typified for German Romantics by Rossini.

JK: In the Romantic era’s cult of genius, there seems to be a return to Plato’s idea of the musician / poet as someone divinely mad.

JK: Yes, the idea of the mad genius really gets going in music in the 1840s and 1850s. It receives scientific approval with the work of Jacques-Joseph Moreau. He was an eccentric psychiatrist who took a bunch of his lunatic patients to the Middle East, got them all hooked on hashish, and then came back and introduced hash to Paris and to figures like Baudelaire.

JE: Wow!

JK: He also wrote a book on genius as a neurological condition, which influenced later theorists of degeneration like Lambroso.

JE: And then the Romantic cult of the genius culminates in Wagner. Your book, which has a cartoon of Wagner attacking someone’s ear-drum on the cover, explores how Wagner came to be a focus for all these anxieties about the pathological influence of music.

Wagner attacking a listener’s ear-drums

JK: Yes, he aroused more panic than anybody before or since. That was because he was so obnoxious, and he offended so many people with his utterances and his womanizing. Particularly after he published his anti-Semitic essay on Judaism, you notice that a lot of the people who attack Wagner’s music are Jewish liberals. And there was also something inherently disturbing about the music he made. Particularly Tristan und Isolde. You’d think Die Walkure would cause the most fuss, with its on-stage incest, but Tristan really freaks people out, because the music is so self-consciously erotic. It delays the resolution of the first chord for four and a half hours.

JE: Critics worried that Wagner’s music could exhaust your nerves, or even kill you, as it is supposed to have killed some of the musicians who performed it. Mark Twain wrote of Tristan: ‘I know of some, and have heard of many, who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away.’ Some worried it could even turn listeners gay.

JK: Indeed.

JE: And it’s notable that critics condemned it for having an immoral lack of rhythm. I find that interesting considering all the 20th century condemnations of pop music precisely for being too rhythmic or repetitive.

JK: The lesson is that people identify music they don’t like, and then they find a reason to condemn it. But there is something disconcerting in the way Wagner’s music speeds up, slows down, shifts, never rests in a particular chord.

JE: The idea that Wagner is bad for our health and morality is still very much with us – the London Review of Books published a piece recently, ‘Is Wagner bad for us?’ A new production of Tannhauser was cancelled this month after audience members had to be medically treated. And Lars Von Trier used the Tristan prelude for the apocalyptic opening to his film, Melancholia.

JK: Yes. I was at Bayreuth recently, and they had ambulances waiting outside the concert hall.

JE: Your book then explores how, in the 20th century, the discourse of music as pathological became racialized.

JK: Yes, people barely mention race until the 1890s. In fact, the discourse of music as pathology is used as a defence against anti-Semitism in Wagner. Then that same discourse ends up being used by the Nazis against jazz music, which they portrayed as something degenerate and primitive.

JE: Was there a similar moral panic against jazz in the United States?

JK: There was a big moral panic against jazz in 1922. It was associated with single white women – flappers – and young black men. It was associated with sex. It was regarded as primitive, but also hyper-modern. So on the one hand it could supposedly lead to atavism, but also to modern nerve illnesses like neurasthenia. Then jazz becomes fairly mainstream in the late 1920s, partly through Jewish musicians like Gershwin, partly through white big-band leaders like Paul Whiteman, and partly through Duke Ellington making it more like classical music.

JE: Then all the same anxieties come out even stronger with rock and roll in the 1950s. I suppose by then it was more associated with the new teenage consumer class, with their radios, cars and dances – the independence of teenagers exacerbated the panic. I particularly liked, in your book, the 1960s paranoia that rock and roll might be a Communist Pavlovian plot.

JK: Ah yes, David Noebel, the gift that keeps on giving. So, after World War II, behaviourism was very influential in psychology, along with the idea that internal mental states were irrelevant and easily manipulable by outside agents. After the Korean War, when US POWs denounced America on Korean TV, there was a general panic about brainwashing and mind control, whipped up by a CIA agent and journalist called Edward Hunter, who was the first person to use the term ‘brainwashing’. This paranoia about brain-washing fitted very nicely with the culture wars in the 1960s. So in 1965, David Noebel, this cultural conservative on the Religious Right, wrote a pamphlet in 1965 called ‘Communism, Hypnotism and the Beatles’.  He thought the Beatles were a communist conspiracy invented in the basement of the Kremlin by Pavlov. It was widely quoted.

JE: Then in the 1980s, the panic about rock and roll  abruptly turns into a Satanic panic.

JK: Yes, it was amazing how quickly it shifted. Suddenly, even before the end of the Cold War, people forgot about the Communists and got very worked up about Satanic influences in pop music. The Commies in the Cold War were only filling in for Evil anyway. Satan’s the purest version of it.

JE: And people got very worried about ‘back-masking’ – the idea that if you played certain records backwards, like Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, you’d find hidden Satanic messages. One evangelist even claimed the theme tune to Mr Ed played backwards said ‘someone heard this song for Satan’.

JK: It’s interesting to look back now that all these rock stars are amiable pensioners like Ozzy Osbourne or Sir Mick Jagger, and think how much panic they caused.

JE: And yet you didn’t need to play their music backwards to find Satanic messages – a lot of rock musicians were very explicitly dabbling in the occult and the Satanic. Jimmy Page really did buy Aleister Crowley’s cottage, he also worked on the soundtrack for a film called Lucifer Rising.

JK: I think a lot of this is more about a cult of masculinity for teenage boys trying to shock their parents with the most provocative thing they can find, ie Satan.

JE: Yes, and I suppose it’s often a complete hodge-podge of ideas in heavy metal – Satan, Dionysus, Celtic myth, Lord of the Rings, whatever.

JK: The amazing thing is that some grown ups ever took it seriously.

JE: Right at the end of the book, you suggest that today these sorts of moral / medical panics are focused on technology, on the internet for example, or smart phones. I agree. I wonder if that’s a sad indictment of the state of modern pop music – it’s so bad, no one even bothers condemning it anymore.

JK: Well, in some ways they’re the same thing. New technology leads to new types of music, and new anxieties. Like the gramophone, or ‘i-dosing’ through binaural beats, which recently provoked a lot of concern. We’re in a golden age of moral panics.

Edison’s gramophone was marketed as a ‘mood machine’ capable of giving you ‘pep’ or ‘soothing the nerves’ as needed.

JE: Yes, but the panics are not really about music anymore.

JK: Well, certainly pop music is dying on its feet.

JE: OK, finally, I’d like to know your position on the power of music. Your book focuses mainly on the accounts of establishment figures (politicians, scientists, religious leaders) and their anxiety about the power of music. You suggest that their discourse on the pathology of music is ‘almost entirely nonsense’. Does that mean you don’t think music has any power over us? Because if you talk to musicians, or to fans, many of them would actually agree that music has tremendous power over us. Musicians want to stir up the audience’s emotions, to bring their audience to an almost orgasmic ecstasy, to cause uproar, to transform society. And sometimes they succeed. So is the idea that music has tremendous power over us necessarily nonsense?

JK: Well, there are some rare medical conditions which can be provoked by music, like musical epilepsy. And dancing or playing music can cause heart attacks in people with weak hearts. But in those instances it’s not the case that the music killed them.

Of course, music has enormous power over our bodies, over group dynamics. That’s why people sing in church or in armies. Where people go wrong, in the ‘music as pathology’ discourse, is they get the mechanism wrong. They suggest there is a direct neurological effect, and humans are entirely passive. That’s not the case. Music only has power over us when we go with it. Take ‘Beatlemania’. It’s not that the music has some magical power and the screaming teenage girls are passive neurological machines being worked upon. If that was the case the music would provoke the same reactions now. The girls are making a choice to go with it.

JE: You mention some of the new books on the neurology of music that have come out in the last decade. Do those books in some ways mark a return of the mechanistic nerve-vibrating theory of music?

JK: What do you mean?

JE: Well, for example, Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music explores the different frequencies of different chords, and how they make us feel. This reminds me of Pythagorean theories of musical vibrations.

JK: Although the neuroscientists are not talking about music as cosmic harmony, they’re only interested in its effect on individuals’ brains. The Kantian, transcendental model of music is in serious trouble at the moment.

JE: That’s a pity.

JK: It is. Some of my own private ideas about music are Kantian, but I wouldn’t defend them in the academic field.

I haven’t yet read the neuroscientists that James refers to, but Levitin’s work, at least, isn’t entirely mechanistic. He talks about how music causes emotions in us by establishing and then violating expectations – and how our expectations are developed from birth onwards by our culture. That really interests me, the idea of how we get pleasure from artists establishing and then violating cultural expectations.

Levitin also talks about those mysterious moments when an artist suddenly transcends mere technical mastery, when they really start to feel it, and the audience feels it too. Those moments when the spirit of ecstasy descends, unexpectedly and joyously, and the technical rote-playing comes alive – like this moment, from the Blur Hyde Park gig. The band had broken up in 2001, partly because of Graham Coxon’s alcoholism. A decade later, they reunite for two gigs in Hyde Park. They play Beetlebum as the sun sets, and at the end of the song, in Coxon’s guitar solo, the spirit descends on him, and everyone recognises it. That’s part of the joy of music: the unpredictability, not knowing if the spirit will descend or not, and the joy when suddenly it’s there, in artists where perhaps you no longer expected it.

PS Also on music and the emotions, you might enjoy this interview I did with Sister Bliss, from Faithless, about dance music as secular collective ecstasy.

2 thoughts on “Bad Vibrations: the history of the idea of music as pathology

  1. Pingback: Now We Are Two | The History of Emotions Blog

  2. Pingback: Brian Eno on surrender in art and religion | The History of Emotions Blog

Comments are closed.