Hippocrates meets Mozart: Sound medicine Mental notes

May 18, 1993|By Marilyn B. Bowden | Marilyn B. Bowden,Contributing Writer New York Times Special Features

Why do people instinctively turn to a favorite piece of music to help them unwind at the end of a difficult day? Because, say therapists, music is nature's tranquilizer.

Though musical perception itself remains imperfectly understood, the beneficial effect of certain rhythms and melodies is too obvious to be disputed.

But what kind of music works best to help people relax?

Until recently, this has been a debate with adherents in several camps, including soft classical music; music concocted of chirping crickets, babbling brooks and other sounds found in the wild; or just any music that suits the listener's taste.

Now a number of contemporary composers are standing the concept of therapeutic music on its ear.

Matching considerable creative skills with laboratory studies they're composing music scientifically designed to relieve stress, reduce mental fatigue and encourage relaxation.

Far from languishing on the back pages of health magazines, their compositions are selling to an increasingly mainstream audience. The result may be a new direction for entertainment as well as medicine: designer music.

A desire to change his own behavior led composer Steven Halpern, the founder and president of Sound RX in San Anselmo, Calif., to experiment with new methods of composition.

"Being a Type-A person already starting to burn out at an early age, I wanted something that was legal and non-addictive, and that I could do myself to help keep my own health and sanity," he says.

He began composing pieces without a strong central beat, wavelike music that depended very little on melody. When he had something he felt truly helped him unwind, he took his new works to the laboratory.

"That very first experimental day changed my life because I knew this wasn't just a figment of my imagination," Mr. Halpern says. "It was really something quite different in the field of music."

The play of music on the human spirit is an old story. King Davi resorted to his harp to cure Saul of "evil spirits." Sirens lured unwary Greek sailors to their doom with the sweetness of their singing. Both the Greek Orpheus and the Scandinavian Odin could move inanimate objects with the beauty of their music.

Pythagoras, the philosopher and mathematician from the sixth century B.C., is often credited with founding the practice of musictherapy.

The contemporary discipline has its roots in Veterans Administration hospitals during the 1940s, when volunteer musicians performed for wounded soldiers to such positive effect that the VA promptly instituted music-therapy programs.

Today, more than 5,000 registered music therapists nationwide use music to soothe and heal many psychological and physiological problems.

Besides its therapeutic value in working with patients with head injuries, chronic pain and poor motor control, and in communicating with autistic children and others with emotional disorders, music is also an effective tool in developmental programs. It can, for example, boost learning ability and aid in the exploration of the nature of consciousness in healthy people.

"There's a lot more to music therapy than just listening to music to relieve stress," says Nancy Ditmer, an associate professor of music and coordinator of the music-therapy program at the College of Wooster in Ohio.

Students enrolled in this program pursue a four-year course including credits in psychotherapy, administration and musical theory, and a six-month internship before becoming eligible for a license.

"In many cases, it's being actively involved in either creating music or performing it -- not in the sense that a band or an orchestra performs for an audience, but playing on rhythm instruments or singing," Ms. Ditmer says. "It's the use of music to change behaviors."

Soothing patterns

Mr. Halpern, who has a degree in the psychology of music studied many cultures to find rhythms and musical forms in harmony with his body.

Monitors testing brain waves and electrical resistance on the surface of the skin indicated that his music immediately transported the listener's brain into the alpha wave, a state of true relaxation.

Since then he has produced a number of therapeutic selections. "Comfort Zone," "Higher Ground" and "Spectrum Suite" are among the more popular.

Don G. Campbell, the founder and director of the Institute of Music, Health and Education in Boulder, Colo., was trained as a classical musician.

For several years he worked in Haiti and Tokyo and observed the use of music to achieve altered states of consciousness in both cultures.

A bout of illness and depression led Mr. Campbell, like Mr. Halpern, to blend science and aesthetics in pursuit of music that would be both therapeutic and beautiful.

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