Healing Songs

Healing Songs

by Ted Gioia

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While the first healers were musicians who relied on rhythm and song to help cure the sick, over time Western thinkers and doctors lost touch with these traditions. In the West, for almost two millennia, the roles of the healer and the musician have been strictly separated.

Until recently, that is. Over the past few decades there has been a resurgence of


While the first healers were musicians who relied on rhythm and song to help cure the sick, over time Western thinkers and doctors lost touch with these traditions. In the West, for almost two millennia, the roles of the healer and the musician have been strictly separated.

Until recently, that is. Over the past few decades there has been a resurgence of interest in healing music. In the midst of this nascent revival, Ted Gioia, a musician, composer, and widely praised author, offers the first detailed exploration of the uses of music for curative purposes from ancient times to the present. Gioia’s inquiry into the restorative powers of sound moves effortlessly from the history of shamanism to the role of Orpheus as a mythical figure linking Eastern and Western ideas about therapeutic music, and from Native American healing ceremonies to what clinical studies can reveal about the efficacy of contemporary methods of sonic healing.

Gioia considers a broad range of therapies, providing a thoughtful, impartial guide to their histories and claims, their successes and failures. He examines a host of New Age practices, including toning, Cymatics, drumming circles, and the Tomatis method. And he explores how the medical establishment has begun to recognize and incorporate the therapeutic power of song. Acknowledging that the drumming circle will not—and should not—replace the emergency room, nor the shaman the cardiologist, Gioia suggests that the most promising path is one in which both the latest medical science and music—with its capacity to transform attitudes and bring people together—are brought to bear on the multifaceted healing process.

In Healing Songs, as in its companion volume Work Songs, Gioia moves beyond studies of music centered on specific performers, time periods, or genres to illuminate how music enters into and transforms the experiences of everyday life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Ted Gioia enriches and makes real the powerful message that music is, and has always been, an integral part of the toolkit that ordinary humans have used to navigate life. He shows that, far from being a pastime to fill idle moments or a distraction from everyday preoccupations, music addresses fundamental issues of human existence, survival, and liberation. Gioia’s work offers hope to those who fear that the corporate mass media may have suffocated the age-old impulse of ordinary people to make music their own.”—John Sloboda, author of Exploring the Musical Mind
Lee Prosser
"Healing Songs provides a penetrating look at therapeutic music. . . . Healing Songs is the type of book which will certainly have a wide reading appeal among those who enjoy jazz, music, sonic techniques, and wish to know about music as a tool for healing. It is well-written, concise, and enjoyable. It will undoubtedly find a welcome spot on your bookshelf, frequently revisited in order to savor its contents. Healing Songs takes readers on a transcendent journey. Educational and enjoyable. Highly recommended."

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Duke University Press
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Healing Songs


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3702-7

Chapter One

The Rhythm Within Every disease is a musical problem. -Novalis

Stop for a moment, and consider the rhythm within. Your heart pulsates at roughly the same tempo as Ravel's Bolero, an insistent seventy-two beats per minute, some thirty-eight million times during the course of a year. Twenty thousand times each day, you inhale and exhale, mostly oblivious to the process. Each day, your body's circadian rhythms run through a repeating cycle: the pulse rate and blood pressure rising upon wakening and temperature increasing during the day, declining at night. Even your hours of sleep are comprised of repetitive cycles of around ninety minutes' duration. Your endocrine and immune systems run through their own diurnal cycles. Cholesterol, stomach acid, blood sugar, hormones-all ebb and flow at predictable points during the day.

Your body, like a musical instrument in an orchestra, must synchronize its performance to the contrasting and complimentary rhythms surrounding it. Different parts of the body-receptors in the retina, the pineal gland in the hypothalamus, even the back of theknee-attempt to coordinate the pace of internal processes with external time. Yet the patterns are so ingrained that the organism resists change. Just as flowers continue their patterns of opening and closing even when removed from sunlight, the human body finds it difficult to adjust to changing time zones and settings. Like a piano out of tune, it cannot adapt to the other instruments, no matter how hard we pound the keys.

And the consequences can be severe if we deliberately run counter to the rhythms our body demands. Despite the best-laid plans of industrial engineers, the night shift is not a normal human cycle. The body fights back. Errors, mishaps, bad judgments, accidents all show a staggering rise during these hours of darkness. The disasters that beset the Titanic (11:40 PM), Chernobyl (1:23 AM), the Exxon Valdez (12:04 AM), Three Mile Island (4:00 AM), and Bhopal (12:40 AM) were all triggered between the hours of 11 pm and 4 am. A disproportionate number of car accidents also take place in the predawn hours. No, the late night collisions are not just a case of drunken drivers coming home after the bars close down. Even stone cold sober motorists are more susceptible to collisions and crashes at this supposedly quiet time on the roadways. Why? Our bodies simply refuse to perform at a peak level during o-peak hours. And though we may try to force them into a regimen of our choosing, biology ultimately holds the upper hand in this struggle.

The health problems of night jobs have been well documented. Women who work late shifts show a dramatic increase in the incidence of breast cancer; the danger rises both with age and the number of hours spent doing night work. We might think that over time our bodies would adjust to the demands of the "other" nine to five; in fact, the opposite is true. The more years spent doing night work the more deleterious its impact. For women who have worked more than thirty years on this schedule, their relative risk of breast cancer increases by some 36 percent. The risk of heart disease, moreover, rises 40 percent for night shift workers. A host of other disorders have been linked to graveyard duty-an ironic name given the growing body of evidence connecting it to rising mortality rates-including ulcers, obesity, digestive problems, and high cholesterol levels.

As these studies show, even our ailments are hindered or encouraged by the rhythms of our life. Osteoarthritis symptoms are at their worst late in the day, while rheumatoid arthritis inflicts its greatest pain in the morning. Hay fever sufferers are most vulnerable early in the morning, when the body's levels of cortisol and adrenaline are at their lowest point of the day. Fever, angina, asthma, high blood pressure and a host of other disorders attack according to a rhythm of their own choosing. Even heart attacks follow a predictable cycle: a disproportionate number occur in the early morning hours. Some have even speculated that cancerous cells and normal cells operate on different cycles, offering hope that certain times may be more advantageous for treatment. The new discipline of chronotherapy has emerged in response to this growing understanding that medical regimens need to conform to these cycles. With the advance in our comprehension of these body rhythms, we are learning that there is an ideal time during the day to take a pill, have a workout, eat a meal, or pursue a myriad of other tasks.

The daily cycle may be the most pervasive of all-it is what musicians call the ground rhythm, the dominating pattern that sets an overriding tempo to our life's activities. Over one hundred body functions vary on a predictable twenty-four-hour schedule. But this underlying pattern operates in rhythmic counterpoint with other cycles. Some are longer, the body observing monthly, yearly, or seasonal changes. Others are shorter, such as the rhythms of sleep mentioned above, where we find three to five recurring cycles taking place each night.

Not just physiology, but even the most calculated and apparently rational decisions show allegiance to recurring patterns. Marriages peak in June. Births are most common in late summer. Even suicide-the most individualistic of acts, one might suppose-marches to the beat of its own drummer. As the day gets longer in spring and early summer, suicide rates increase, then fall in tandem with the lessening of sunlight in the winter. Even during the day, suicide rates follow the sun, so to speak, rising around the middle of the day. This tendency is especially surprising given that depression seems to follow an opposite cycle, peaking in the winter months. Violent crimes increase during the hotter months of the year, as do riots and other social upheavals-note how many countries celebrate their independence day during late spring and summer. Even hospital admissions for schizophrenia tend to rise during warm weather. Both psychological and physiological factors seem to be at work here-each perhaps following its own rhythm. One of the great enigmas of biology is the often-hypothesized correlation between the movements of the moon and the menstruation cycle of women. Indeed, the full moon seems to have a number of odd effects on people, as the experiences of policemen, phone operators, and emergency room attendants readily attest. In our modern age, when we pride ourselves on the superiority of our technology and the power of our rational thinking, we remain the plaything of the primal rhythms, acting on us in ways we only vaguely comprehend.

Even the body rhythms most familiar to us, those most easy to control and modulate, retain their mysteries and hidden powers. The duple meter of our breathing is ever present, so much so that we take it for granted. Only when it is constrained by some internal or external impediment do we realize how fundamental, how precious it is. Yet the literature of spirituality, mysticism, and natural healing has long recognized the importance of this simplest of functions. In fact, the Old English word hal-which is the source for our word "health"-also carried with it the associated meanings of "inhaling" and "wholeness." The Sanskrit word prana is commonly translated as "breath," but also signifies "life force" or "life energy." Nothing could be simpler than the act of inhaling and exhaling, yet yoga teachers instill in their students a healthy reverence for breathing. Most people take shallow breaths, and even when they inhale deeply they consume air in awkward gulps rather than in rich, full strokes. They absorb sufficient oxygen for survival, but rarely partake of the centering, strengthening, and calming power of prana. Many body afflictions are accompanied by disturbances in respiration: we assume that the irregular breaths are merely a symptom, but perhaps they are also partly a cause of what ails us. Animals that have long life spans-the tortoise, the elephant, the snake-are noted for their slow and measured pace of respiration. The tortoise, for example, breathes less than one fourth as often as a human being, and can live twice as long. Pure coincidence? Perhaps not. Viruses and deadly bacteria thrive in low-oxygen environments, and deep breathing counters their harmful effects. Proselytizers for this simple practice-aromatherapy without the aroma, so to speak-contend that a mere 5 percent increase in our inhalations would increase the efficiency of our bodies markedly. They further insist that we should look to babies and young children to teach us how to breathe: the infant's efforts are smooth and unlabored-a skill that is lost as we get older and more distracted by our busy surroundings.

Can regulating the breath really cure disease? Leo Kofler, the most influential advocate of this practice, offers his own personal history as a case study. A professional organist and choirmaster born in Austria in 1837, Kofler found himself afflicted with tuberculosis in 1860, and he anticipated with dread his impending decline. His family, it seems, had some terrible predisposition to consumption, and he saw six of his sisters succumb to the disease. Two uncles and an aunt had also died from it-each in the prime of life. One of his uncles had a large family, but each child died at a young age from the same cause. Now Kofler recognized the symptoms in himself and wondered how long it would take for them to run their course. Yet Kofler ultimately refused to sit back and allow the illness to consume him. His lengthy training as a singer had led him to undertake a detailed study of the human breathing mechanism-he had worked his way, almost obsessively, through various esoteric works that few vocalists would deem part of their training, including Dr. Klencke's Makrobiotic, Dr. Paul Niemeyer's Die Lunge, Hermann and Huxley's Physiology, Dr. Witkowski's The Human Body, Dr. Mandl's Hygiene of the Voice, Dr. Henle's Anatomy, and various works by Lennox Browne, Emil Behnke, and others. He even convinced a doctor at the Metropolitan Throat Hospital in New York to allow him to practice laryngoscopy to further expand his knowledge of the throat and breathing apparatus. From these disparate studies Kofler began to piece together a systematic approach to physical health based on proper breathing techniques. He credited these studies, which formed the subject for his seminal 1887 book The Art of Breathing, with restoring him to health-indeed he lived for almost a half century after the first diagnosis of his life-threatening ailment. Clara Schlaffhorst and Hedwig Andersen studied with Kofler and later translated his book into German, where it has gone through over thirty printings and influenced generations of practitioners.

Kofler is not an isolated example. A host of other largely neglected writers-such as Thomas Gaines, Edward Lankow, and Richard Noble-have focused on the healing properties of the breath, taking almost literally Elizabeth Barrett Browning's admonition: "He lives most life whoever breathes most air." We resist the notion that something so simple, so ever present, as our respiratory process can have such a powerful effect. Yet when we are deprived of its benefits for even a few moments, we are forcefully reminded of the intimate link between the breath and our life force.

The linkage of breathing rhythms to heightened mental states has a long history in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. Aldous Huxley, in his book The Devils of Loudun, describes the case of Father Jean-Joseph Surin, a seventeenth-century mystic and exorcist who would alternate between periods of ecstatic joy and despairing visions of damnation-all accompanied by profound and uncontrollable changes in breathing patterns. When at a low point, the so-called "dark night of the soul," his chest and lungs would become so constrained that he could hardly move, and he needed to be carried from place to place. But then a spell of spiritual exultation would ensue, marked by such thoracic dilation that his waistcoat would need to be let out five or six inches to accommodate the expansion. Or, even earlier, St. Philip Neri underwent a chest expansion so extraordinary that, legends tell us, he broke two ribs and his heart was left in a permanently expanded state.

Breath, heartbeat, motion, waking, sleeping. This is the music of the body. But it is music unlike the radio or concert fare of the West, which is built on the notion of development and climax, whether we are dealing with a symphony by Beethoven or the latest three-minute pop song. Body rhythms are more like the traditional music of the Balinese, where continuity and flow are paramount, and the notion of building to a big finale, with cannon shots and crescendos, does not hold sway. What can be more primal than the rhythm of the human heart? The Temiar people of the Malaysian rainforest believe that a hypnotic state is evoked by sounds that move in tandem with the beat of the heart. These supposedly inspire a state of longing conducive to trance. The Temiar hear these rhythms in certain sounds of their native rainforest, in the calls of birds and sounds of insects. They try to emulate these same rhythms with their bamboo tube percussion, alternating high and low tones to create a throbbing back-and-forth pulsation. Here music finds its greatest fulfillment by returning to the comforting, organic rhythms taught to us by our own bodies.

Our first awareness of this rhythm of flow and continuity begins even before we are born, in our mother's womb. There a rich universe of sound establishes our initial contacts with the external world. Our mother's heartbeat is the primary auditory anchor of our prebirth life; but other sounds soon begin to intrude, exerting their own influence. A baby's learning from the external world begins even before birth, in the last trimester of pregnancy. Research has shown that newborns prefer a story that had been read aloud repeatedly during these final months in the womb to other, previously unheard tales. After birth, auditory experiences multiply and exert a constant influence on behavior and growth. "There is no stage of development in which the human infant can be characterized as a passive recipient of sensory input," writes researchers Jayne Standley and Clifford Madsen. "Rather, a baby only hours old seeks out sensory stimulation, attends to it selectively, and given the opportunity to control the environment, demonstrates a vigorous appetite for stimulus change." The newborn shows a marked preference for speech over other sounds, for the mother's voice over that of other females, for music over noise, and for singing over instrumental music. The maternal heartbeat continues to have a calming effect, and it is preferred, for instance, to the sound of the father's voice. Mothers may even instinctively realize this, since a majority of them tend to hold their infants on their left side, where the heartbeat can be heard.

The rhythmic life of the infant becomes richer and more varied with each passing stage of development. The fundamental tempos set by breath and heartbeat are soon supplemented by other rhythms-rocking in a chair; bouncing on a knee; shaking a rattle. The baby is walked, sometimes incessantly-the surest way of stopping the infant's crying-so much so that Bruce Chatwin has speculated that this ingrained behavior of mother and child is a reflection of the nomadic roots of human societies. "Day in, day out, a baby cannot have enough walking. And if babies instinctively demand to be walked, the mother, on the African savannah, must have been walking too." Chatwin relates the story of a London doctor who "rigged up a machine which imitated, exactly, the pace and action of a mother's walk." He found that "providing the baby was healthy, warm and well-fed, it stopped crying at once." As with all things musical, tempo is everything. An undulating motion of thirty beats per minute had little effect, but once the speed was increased above fifty the infants always grew calm and content.


Excerpted from Healing Songs by TED GIOIA Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Ted Gioia, pianist, composer, and one of the founders of Stanford University’s Jazz Studies program, is the author of Work Songs, also published by Duke University Press, as well as several celebrated books, including West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945–1960. His book The History of Jazz was selected as one of the best books of the year by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post, chosen as a notable book of the year by the New York Times, and honored with the Bay Area Book Reviewers’ award for best nonfiction work of the year. His book The Imperfect Art won the ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award and was named a Jazz Book of the Century by the Jazz Educators Journal. He has recorded several compact discs as a leader, including The End of the Open Road and Tango Cool.

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