First, a Stevie Wonder story. In the mid-1970s, Stevie was pretty much a fixture at the historic Record Plant recording studios at 8456 West Third Street in Hollywood. That’s where he recorded the albums Innervision, Talking Book and Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Wonder swept Grammies for years but one of his most remarkable performances was on the air hockey table in the Record Plant’s Studio C hallway at his 1975 birthday party.
Stevie would challenge newly arrived partiers to a game of air hockey. Since they had just got there, they had not yet witnessed his skill … or his unique strategy. To “level the playing field,” Stevie asked his opponent to don a blindfold. Of course, it was only fair. Or so they thought. What the opponents didn’t know and couldn’t see was that Stevie’s game strategy was simple: He leaned forward and blocked his goal slot with his left forearm while flailing away with the hockey paddle in his right hand. Sooner or later, he’d score and the opponent didn’t have a chance since Stevie’s goal slot was blocked. No one caught on and Stevie claimed it was his ESP. Naturally, the “victim” earned their way into the joke when they joined the crowd of observers when the next newbie arrived. Stevie went undefeated for the day.
Wonder’s records during that time often wove mystical and spiritual themes into the music, aware of higher ground. Decades later, the pulsing rhythms and uplifting vocals still resonate.
Ancient roots of healing. We know the power of music, the power of sound. Sound affects the body, as all energies do. Coherent, aligned tones in a pattern that can be discerned by the intellect are often called music. Random, unpredictable square waves are often called noise. Music is usually considered to have a pleasing effect and noise to have an annoying effect.
Music is just part of a bigger picture called sound. Sound is everywhere. Sound can be palpable. Military experiments using low frequencies at high amplitude have been used to kill test animals. Sub-sonics can turn internal organs to mush. (Judging by cars pulling up to stoplights with subwoofers blaring, the first organ to go is the brain.)
The message of music and health was written long ago. Gandharva veda is an ancient form of Indian raga music recognizing patterns of energy flow we experience based on the time of day and year. There are morning, afternoon and evening ragas. These forms are described in Vedic texts dating to 3000 B.C.
Around 600 B.C., Greek academician Pythagoras taught more than geometry. He explored the time and space of music. Searing for personal harmony, he taught that music and diet were the key ingredients for maintaining a healthy and long life.
“Music hath charm to soothe the savage breast.” — William Congreve: Modern research of music and its positive effects include the work of French physician Alfred Tomatis of the French Academy of Science and Medicine. His research and that of others demonstrated the obvious: Music can relax you. It can lower blood pressure. It can decrease heart rate. It can help with insomnia. Some music has been shown to increase IQ. Author Don Campbell has written The Mozart Effect, a book highlighting some of the effects of the sound we call music.
Researchers found that listening to Mozart prior to exams improved test scores significantly, and that Baroque music is preferable for enhancing intelligence. Baroque was popularized in the 17th and 18th centuries. The best way to associate with it is to think of Johann Sebastian Bach. As composers go, he is considered the primary force behind the form. Others are Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn. To pick a popular classical composer one could choose Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart’s music was often the most effective.
A famous application of music as medicine is documented in the Goldberg Variations composed by J.S. Bach in the 1700s. The luckier artists and scientists of the middle centuries were funded by the aristocracy or wealthy patrons like the Catholic Church, much as corporate giants and pharmaceutical companies sponsor creative research today. The good side of that arrangement was that artists and scientists were paid to go about their work. The down side was that artists and researchers become beholden to benefactors. Like today, if a job was requested, the results must satisfy the client or funding is lost.
Biographers of Bach describe how the Goldberg Variations came about. Russian Count Kayserling, ambassador to Dresden, had recurrent insomnia. He commissioned Bach to compose a series of variations to soothe and lift his mood during such nocturnal bouts. Bach composed them and Kayserling enlisted his house harpsichordist, a virtuoso named Goldberg, to perform them from an adjoining room. Bach admitted he wasn’t happy writing variations, but funding is funding. Thus, one of history’s most enduring tales of the application of musical medicine was born.
Centuries later, an infamous insomniac also sought musical relief. Adolf Hitler played recordings of classical music late into the night. He commissioned engineers to develop high quality tape recorders using a new technique. The tape recorders became spoils of war, were shipped to post-war California and spawned the modern recording industry with machines that displayed technical lineage traceable to Hitler’s engineers.
Years later, Stevie Wonder became well known for the characteristic clickety-clack sound of the wah-wah pedal-modified Hohner D-6 clavinet on his classic hits recorded on the same type of analog tape recorder. He was less well known, though just as successful, with his clickety-clack performances on the air hockey table.
Heartland Healing examines various alternative forms of healing. It is provided as a source of information, not as medical advice, and it is not an endorsement of any particular therapy, either by the writer or The Reader. Access past columns at heartlandhealing.com.