Music does a mind — and body — good

By: Leon Smith - Contributing columnist

Late in his reign, King Saul of Israel became so filled with distress and anger that he tried to spear the members of his court when he mistook one or another of them for a mortal enemy. To avoid being killed, Saul’s courtiers learned to watch the king’s face, and to get out of the room when they saw his eyes roll back.

Seeking a remedy, one of the courtiers remembered that harp music could soothe such a troubled mind. So, they convinced the king to invite David to play the lyre for him. We don’t know which songs David sang, but surely they were tunes which King Saul knew and loved.

And as David played and sang, the king’s irises reappeared and his body relaxed. It seemed as if the gentle music of the harp reaching Saul’s ears caused a calming of his mind and his body. So David played the lyre for Saul whenever he was upset, calming him —until, in a fit of anger, the king ordered him away for good. There is no record of anyone else playing music for Saul, nor any record of his making such music himself. His attacks continued.

Although other ancient cultures noted that music could calm the mind, no one seems to have really studied music as a healing force until the 18th century. In February 1789, an unsigned article — “Music physically considered” — appeared in Philadelphia’s Columbian Magazine. The author, perhaps Dr. Benjamin Rush, notes the connection between mind and body: that whatever powerfully affects the mind, creates a similar effect in the body. The author also believed that the mind has two extreme positions — grief on the one hand, and joy on the other — and was surely aware how well Saul’s case fit his theory. In his article, the author gives a case from his own practice, on which the following story is based.

Shortly after he diagnosed a dance teacher with “nervous fever, and extreme debility,” his patient lost all ability to speak. Unable to communicate with his students, Frederic turned his studio over to another teacher, went home, and remained there. He took his beloved violin from the case, and left it exposed as it hung on the wall. After that, he did not get out of bed again. He communicated with his nurse by writing notes to her until he lost all desire to write, and finally, all desire to take any action whatever. The physician-writer told Frederic’s nurse that he expected his patient to get progressively worse, because it seemed Frederic had no desire to get better. The problem was with his mind, his will.

When she saw Frederic’s former accompanist at the market, the nurse mentioned Frederic’s condition. Will stopped by to visit the next day.

As he spoke about the world outside Fred’s room, Will noticed that his pale friend kept turning his head on the pillow, apparently trying to peer at something over Will’s shoulder. Will looked around but could not determine what Fred was looking for.

“What is it, Fred?” he asked. “Write it out for me.”

Fred tried, but could not grasp the pen. Will looked toward the wall again … and decided Fred must have been looking at the violin hanging there.

Fred’s eyes followed as Will walked over and took down the instrument. Will found the missing bridge and tailpiece on the floor, then attached the strings to the tailpiece, set the bridge, and tightened all four strings to pitch. But he could not find the bow.

Fred raised a finger toward a table across the room, on which Will found a bow inside the violin case. He rosined the bow, placed the violin under his chin, and began to play. As Will played every joyful song he could remember, Fred watched, but without expression. At least some of the songs had lyrics. A few verses later, Will noted some color returning to Fred’s face, then the slightest hint of a smile. A few minutes after that, Fred began to hum along with the music.

After another half-hour, Fred raised himself in bed.

“Thank you … my dear friend,” he spoke softly, in the first words he had uttered in months. “Thank you.” Will ran for the nurse. When Frederic’s doctor saw his patient, he was amazed that he could indeed speak again, and that he was generally stronger. When Frederic told him what had happened, the author wrote his article on the effect of music on the mind and on the body.

Although “Music physically considered” does not say so, I hope Frederic began to treat himself, taking up his violin again and playing the same familiar and joyful songs Will had played the day his healing began. That the more his mind was soothed, the more strength his body gained … as he journeyed from grief toward joy … and through joy to a normal life.

As far as I can tell, there was no more serious study of music’s ability to promote healing until after World War I, when nurses in U.S. military hospitals observed that music calmed the minds and helped heal the bodies of their patients. Scientific study of the healing power of music led to the founding of a college program in music therapy at Michigan State University in 1944. Many such programs exist today, with music therapy studied as a science.

But some time ago, while playing behind a group singing at a nursing home, I saw the healing effects of music from a layman’s viewpoint. Near the front of the chapel sat a lady in a wheel chair who was unable to speak at all. Unlike Frederic’s, her problem came from a stroke. She seemed to be asleep throughout the program of old hymns until the last song — “Amazing Grace.”

Then, she stirred, her lips began to move, and she began to sing softly, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound …“ and continued singing. The other members of the band noticed the change in her too. Someone told us that had been her favorite song.

Later I spoke to a nurse about the lady’s singing. “Someone told me she couldn’t talk,” I said.

“She can’t speak….”

“But I heard her singing ‘Amazing Grace.’”

“But she can sing,” she said. “One hemisphere of the brain controls speech,” the nurse explained, “while the other hemisphere controls singing. She only has damage in the side that controls speech.”

“So that means someone who cannot say the words “Please pass the salt” could sing them?”


So although “Amazing Grace” could not stimulate the lady’s speech center, it could stimulate the singing center on the other side of her brain. Although I am not sure of this, I hope she began to sing for herself. But I do know we sang “Amazing Grace” every time we saw her.

As early as the 1960s, psychiatrist John Diamond began studying the songs used in music therapy. Although he was aware of the Frederic story, Diamond chose love and hate as emotional extremes — perhaps because these terms were more direct opposites than love and grief. Then he tried to find songs which moved one closer to love. Diamond limited himself to popular songs — all of which had lyrics — and chose gentle ones, in some way or another about love, which do not depress — or take away from the life force.

Diamond believes hearing or singing this kind of song brings back some of the life force which bad emotions had taken away. Regarding the lady who sang “Amazing Grace” with us, Diamond’s theory would say that her mind’s response to the joy in the music encouraged her to sing and her body followed suit, and that she and anyone else will be healthier and more likely to avoid further illness if they regularly sang happy songs.

A few days ago I treated myself with a song Diamond recommended. Tired, and trying to find my way around a store teeming with people, I found myself whistling “My Blue Heaven.” As I formed the notes of this song, I felt less crowded and less tense, and by the time I got to “Just mama and me, and baby makes three, we’re happy in my blue heaven,” I felt happy too.

Test these ideas out for yourself, the next time you feel tense or unhappy. Try whistling, humming, or singing a tune — with words — such as “Amazing Grace” or “My Blue Heaven.”

If you want the words, you can find them, with chords by visiting or

Such music does a mind and body good.

Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.

Leon Smith

Contributing columnist