Student Blog: The Origins and Usage of Music Therapy in Ancient Greece
By Samantha Hsu
Music is a powerful tool. It can bring people together, as they all listen to the same music. Music is an experience that can evoke emotions out of people as well. With music that has lyrics, a person might connect with what the artist is singing about. With non-lyrical music, like jazz or classical, a person can connect to the expressions of the musicians and tones within the pieces. The act of playing an instrument or singing can have a powerful effect on the musician, too. I’ve had personal experience with this as a violinist; whenever I’m on stage performing, there’s an overwhelming rush of emotions. I also feel a deep connection with the audience, conveying passion, sadness, excitement, and frustration through the music.
The connection and expression of emotions that music facilitates is part of the reason it can be used as a clinical therapy. Music therapy has been around since fifth and fourth century B.C., and it originated in ancient Greece. To fully understand the importance and persistence of music therapy in current times, it may be enlightening to explore the origins and uses in ancient Greece. Then, similar practices and themes can be identified in current applications of music therapy.
The origins of music therapy can be traced back to ancient Greece. The Greek God Apollo was known for many things, but most relevant to this topic are his associations to music and medicine. With his lyre, a harp-like stringed instrument, he was regarded as the “undisputed master of music in the Greek world” (Cartwright, 2019). He was also the god of healing (Cartwright, 2019). The ideas of music and healing remained within Greek culture and aligned with the common beliefs. The theory of the four humours goes together with music therapy: everyone’s body had four fluids that must be balanced, and thus an imbalance was the origin of disease. Music was used to restore that balance.
In addition to its therapeutic influence, music was used as “powerful moral and educational tool” (Dritsas, 2017). Plato wrote and taught music as an education and therapeutic tool. He argued that certain music can be used to teach children the difference between good and bad and can convey concepts of law the child would otherwise not understand. In his famous work Politics, Aristotle also discusses how music is used for relaxation and leisure, allowing a person to contemplate life and find purpose. This relates to an aspect of current-day music therapy which is used to calm patients and bring a sense of peace to them. Aristotle also established that music can be purifying to the soul. The rhythms and certain songs were believed to heal mania and other sicknesses.
Pythagoras wrote also about the therapeutic catharsis of music for the soul. Paeans and epodes were two types of curative choral songs used by Pythagorean philosophers. Performances of paeans “saved the Greeks from the plague inflicted by the arrows of Apollo…and credited with ridding [Sparta] of plague,” (Dritsas, 2017). Epodes were spell-like and mentioned in the Odyssey to heal wounds (Dritsas, 2017). Pythagoras also focused on the physics of music, emphasizing that the harmonic overtone ratios of music paralleled with planet positions around Earth. He used stringed instruments to reestablish harmony and balance within people. These philosophers established the foundation for music therapy in ancient Greece and for modern-day therapies. They all focused on the care for a person’s mind, body, and spirit, a holistic approach we still see today.
Music therapy was used for a variety of things in ancient Greece. There were two main instruments used during this time in Greece, the lyre (a plucked stringed instrument), and the aulos (a reed-blown pipe). The instruments, according to Plato, were used for different purposes; the lyre produced music that inspired the soul and was more orderly, while the aulos was used for a more intimate, devotional experience that had a more orgiastic effect. These effects guided their therapeutic uses.
Music therapy was used to treat both physical ailments and mental disorders. Music from a flute and harp was used to treat gout, which is pain and swelling in joints. The ancient Greek physician Asclepiades of Bythnia used music therapy to pull patients out of melancholic states. The environment surrounding the ill patient was also found to have an impact on their healing. The theater was often used to evoke catharsis. There, a person can release their own emotions and therefore be purified from whatever negativity, fear, or pain they were experiencing. While many of these therapies were just developed from observations or culture-based theories, the ideas are still rooted in modern-day music therapy.
Today, music therapy is defined as “the use of music to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals…through creating, singing, moving to, and listening to music,” (American Music Therapy Association, n.d.). Research has now proven its effectiveness in “overall physical rehabilitation and facilitating movement, increasing people’s motivation to become engaged in their treatment, providing emotional support for clients and their families, and providing an outlet for expression of feelings,” (American Music Therapy Association). These uses parallel the origins of music therapy.
The difference in today’s music therapy is that it’s all backed by scientific evidence. Diogel, a researcher from Paris, published one of the first papers proving the beneficial effects of music therapy. Diogel found that the music “lowers BP, increases cardiac output, decreases pulse rate and, in general, assists the work of the parasympathetic system,” (Meymandi, 2009). These findings provide support for the ancient Greek use of music for relaxation and healing.
If the body is in a state of stress, it is not able to heal itself as well. And if over time the stress becomes chronic, a person’s immune system can break down, leaving the person more susceptible to illness. Thus, music therapy is a very valuable tool that can be used to relax a patient and promote healing. There was even a study done in 2017 that found music therapy significantly reduced anxiety and distress in patients undergoing radiation therapy. And in 2020, researchers Tsiris and Kalliodi urged the integration of music therapy into dementia and palliative care. The field of music therapy is expanding, demonstrating its value in society.
Ultimately, the historical context of music therapy plays an important role in understanding the modern-day uses. The Greek philosophy behind the origins of music therapy can even guide current research on music therapy, such as the types of music used in therapy and what overall effects to focus on. Though some of the basis of music therapy, like the balance of the four humours, has been disproven, the ideas of harmony, balance, and connection remain at the core of music therapy. Now, the treatment is evolving with advancing scientific inquiry techniques and the differing needs of our current society.
American Music Therapy Association. (n.d.). Definitions and Quotes about Music Therapy. https://www.musictherapy.org/about/quotes/
Cartwright, M. (2019, July 25). Apollo. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/apollo/.
Dritsas, A. (2017). Music Therapy in Ancient Greece – Greece Is. http://www.greece-is.com/music-therapy-in-ancient-greece/
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Meymandi, A. (2009). Music, Medicine, Healing, and the Genome Project. Psychiatry (Edgemont), 6(9), 43–45.
Rossetti, A. et al. (2017). The Impact of Music Therapy on Anxiety in Cancer Patients Undergoing Simulation for Radiation Therapy. International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, Physics, 99(1), 103-110. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijrobp.2017.05.003
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Tsiris, G. and Kalliodi, C. (2020). Music therapy in Greece and its applications in dementia and end-of-life care. Approaches: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Music Therapy, 12(2), 233-249.