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Music In Its Relation To Health.


Music may be regarded as an artificial product built upon a natural foundation. The elements of music are to be found in nature, but the simplest harmonic progression, our tempered musical scale, many of our sweetest intervals, not only do not spring from any known natural laws, but often seem to exist in defiance of them. The natural elements of music are, the chord formed by the harmonics or overtones, when any musical tone is produced, the steady vibrations which constitute the tone, and the regular pulsations which constitute rhythm. Naturally, all animate beings are responsive to rhythm, and when scientific research is made into the influence of music upon animals, it will be found that it is the rhythm, or the regularity of vibrations in a tone which move the lower beings (from elephants to spiders and mice), and not the beauty or ugliness of a melody or a harmonic progression.

Naturally, too, these elements exert a direct influence upon the human auditor, which is different from the esthetic exaltation produced by the content of the music, for we are all rhythmic machines and sensitive to rhythms. In the old days when the Flemish and Italian schools of composition were beginning to evolve a scientific music, they clung very closely to these natural elements, and the present writer possesses a book of that era (first half of sixteenth century) which advises that all music should be counted by the pulse-beat of a healthy man! Possibly if they wanted a presto they would go to a fever patient.

It is probably this rhythmic formation that is a great factor in the influence of music upon the stutterer and upon the sufferer from St. Vitus’ Dance; it is this element which is used by the medicine-men of savage tribes the world over, and Congreve’s famous line ought to be written over into “Rhythm hath power to move the savage breast.”

The psychological effect of music directly upon the emotions is a much more complex matter. The present writer has seen infants in arms (one the daughter of a famous New York musical critic) weep at a sorrowful minor mode and immediately change to smiles when the music was altered to a joyous strain. Here we have an effect of music upon the mind (and therefore, also, upon the health) that is much more difficult of analysis, for the same melody or composition will not produce the same effect upon two different persons even if these be equally emotional and musical. It is not too much to expect of Science that it will some day discover laws governing this matter; at present, however, we cannot even demonstrate why one tune is commonplace and another beautiful—that is, where both are written according to the laws governing musical form.

With the influence of music upon adults, we stand upon a little surer ground. Association of ideas enters largely into the matter. Napoleon was obliged to prohibit his military bands from playing the “Ranz des Vaches” (a rather feeble bit of melody) because it caused his Swiss troops to desert, and “Lochober no More” had the same effect upon the Scotch troops during the Sepoy mutiny; in both cases the music awakened acute nostalgia by recalling their home-life to the auditors. On the same basis we can explain the remark made by the Chinese mandarin to the Jesuit Father Amiot, in the last century: “Your European music,” said he, “is undoubtedly very skilful and complex, but it can never go right to the heart, as a Chinese melody does!” And this about a music which seems to us the wildest and most deafening din.

Nature has given man far more perception of music than he will ever use up. The 15,500 hair-cells in the human brain connected with audition, seem to indicate that man can perceive 15,500 degrees of pitch within the 11 octaves and a minor third which constitute the extreme limits of tone-perception, and a minuteness of pitch-perception beyond one one-hundredth of a semitone; but as a matter of fact the best tuners (and they have the most trained hearing in this matter) cannot distinguish variations of pitch closer than one-fiftieth of a semitone, the difference between a true and a tempered fifth.

That a musical taste is sometimes accentuated by an excited brain has been strangely shown in the case of Von Bülow, who became intensely musical, after a severe injury to his skull, at the age of nine. After his death an autopsy revealed that the injury had been a permanent one. There are possibly some phenomena connected with the ear of the musician that deserve investigation. The frequent deafness of great musicians (Beethoven and Franz will at once come to mind), the false hearing (hearing imaginary voices and tones) that afflicted Schumann, and the extreme narrowness of Mozart’s aural passage, are curious points in this connection, although in the case of Beethoven the malady was an inherited one.

The danger of blindness that is incurred by the great composers and conductors (Bach and Handel are the most prominent names in this unfortunate category) is chiefly incurred because of the abnormal use of the eye in reading orchestral and organ music. Let the reader of this article attempt to view the contents of six or eight lines simultaneously and he will have a faint idea of the difficulties connected with score-reading and the strain put upon the eyes of a conductor.

Having spoken so much of the dangers besetting music, it becomes a pleasure to speak of some kinds of music as leading directly toward health. There is no more perfect system of light gymnastics in existence than the practice of singing properly conducted. Nasal breathing, a great adjunct to health, is acquired, the diaphragm and other important muscles which too often lie dormant are brought into action, the throat is strengthened, and every part of the torso is benefited, for it is all vibrating in some degree with each full tone, and many otherwise unused air cells in the lungs are developed. As the singer uses up much caloric by his deeper breathing, he generally requires more heat-giving foods than the average person, and if he craves fatty foods he can indulge in them without fear. The oily cocoa is his best drink.

The pianist, using a special set of muscles only, is beset with more danger than the vocalist; pianists’ cramp, partial paralysis, may punish him if he develops metacarpal, digital, and wrist muscles only, and allows biceps and all above to languish. Yet this danger is most easily avoided.

A little daily practice with the chest weights, light Indian clubs, or dumb-bells, an occasional row with oars of moderate weight, a few long walks with the good old English habit of swinging the arms during the ”constitutional,” and the danger is past.

There ought to be more complete statistics concerning the longevity of musicians. As regards the composers it has been ascertained that the fever of composition and the privations with which they are too often beset, frequently cause them to die prematurely. The decade from thirty to forty has been particularly deadly to them, so that it has received the name of “the fatal thirties.” Within this decade died Mendelssohn (38), Mozart (35), Purcell (37), Bellini (33), Chopin (40), Schubert (31), and Pergloesi before it at the early age of 26 years.

Once this period is passed, and success in some degree attained, the composer seems to have a good chance of a long life. Among the latter group one may mention: Handel (74), Haydn (77), Palestrini (probably 70), Spohr (75), Glück (73), Cherubini (82), Meyerbeer (70),Wagner (70), Rossini (78), and Verdi who stands a good chance to become a centenarian. The list is by no means complete, but it is long enough to show that the study of music, even in its most advanced and severest forms, is not an unhealthy profession.

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