Charming More Than Savage Beasts: Music and Its Power to ‘Heal’


Music has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,

To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d,

And, as with Living Souls, have been inform’d,

By Magic Numbers and persuasive Sound.

— Act I, Scene 1, The Mourning Bride (1697)

William Congreve (Godfrey Kneller)

It was English playwright and poet William Congreve who wrote the line “Music has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,” not “Beast.” Nevertheless, this well-known turn of phrase – in slightly modified form, of course – has come down to us through the years as “Music charms the savage Beast,” so “Beast” it is!

Yes, that’s what it claims, all right. But what can it do for us humans? Well, surprisingly… quite a lot, as you will learn. Music can bind up our wounds – both real and imagined. It can tame the beast within; it can help heal the sick mind, give rest and comfort to a weary, tormented soul. Yes, it can do all these things – it can even save lives.

Do you remember the disco era of the mid- to late 70s? At that time, disco dancing and disco hopping were all the rage – for a short while, anyway. Then, like most such fads, it simply died out; but instead of going quietly into that golden oldies night, disco has made a “miraculous recovery,” of sorts.

Ironically, the song, “Stayin’ Alive,” by the Australian pop group The Bee Gees, has more to do with our topic than you could possibly imagine! For that matter, what do the following individuals and subjects have in common?

  • Physician, neurologist and psychiatrist Oliver Sacks
  • Classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Music therapy and music therapists
  • Rock-star and blues guitarist Eric Clapton
  • CPR, or cardiopulmonary resuscitation

That’s quite an eclectic list! What I can tell you is that they all have something, if not everything, to do with the healing power of music. This interconnectedness, such as it is, should really begin with the pioneering efforts of Dr. Oliver Sacks.

Oliver Sacks and Musicophilia

Though born in England, the renowned physician and author Oliver Sacks devoted the better part of his medical career to patients in the United States – in the Bronx, to be exact. He first witnessed the therapeutic power of music way back in 1966, when he started working at Beth Abraham Hospital.

Dr. Oliver Sacks (

In an October 2007 interview for the magazine Wired, Dr. Sacks expounded upon some of his more diverse case histories: “I saw post-encephalitics who seemed frozen, transfixed, unable to take a step. But with music to give them flow,” he pointed out, “they could sing, dance, and be active again.”

For patients with Parkinson’s disease, “The ability to perform actions in sequence is impaired.” Sacks noted that, “They need temporal structure and organization, and the rhythm of music can be crucial.”

“The brain,” he went on, “is very sensitive to music; you don’t have to attend to it to record it internally and be affected by it… For people with Alzheimer’s, music incites recall, bringing the past back like nothing else.”

Dr. Sacks gave the example of Woody Geist, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for 40 years and was profoundly disabled in almost every way. Before he had even met him, Geist’s daughter had written to Sacks, to inform him that her father had no idea what he did for a living, no idea where he was living now, or what he did ten minutes ago.

Yet Geist had been a valuable, contributing member of an a cappella group called The Grunyons. After Sacks wrote about him in his wide-ranging book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Mr. Geist started performing professionally again – and with a high degree of enthusiasm and deep, personal satisfaction an individual of his numerous deficits could rarely have achieved on his own.

Sacks poignantly describes his first encounter with the warbling Woody: “Despite the manifest ravages of Alzheimer’s – his loss of event memory and of general knowledge, his disorientation, [and] his cognitive defects – he had preserved his character, his courtesy, his thoughtfulness. His performing and musical ability, like his civility and equanimity, was completely intact.”

What accounted for this change? “Finding [and] remembering anew that he can sing [was] profoundly reassuring to Woody,” Sacks explained, “as the exercise of any skill or competence must be – and it can stimulate his feelings, his imagination, his sense of humor and creativity, and his sense of identity.

“It can enliven him, calm him, focus and engage him. It can give him back himself, and not least it can charm others, arouse their amazement and admiration – reactions more and more necessary to someone who, in his lucid moments, is painfully aware of his tragic disease and sometimes says that he feels ‘broken inside.’ ”

Can anyone benefit, then, from music’s seemingly obvious therapeutic value – even the very young? Sacks seemed to think so: “It has been said,” he wrote in Musicophilia, “that even a brief exposure to classical music can stimulate or enhance mathematical, verbal, and visuospatial abilities in children – the so-called Mozart effect. This has been disputed by [various researchers], but what is beyond dispute is the effect of intensive early musical training on the young, plastic brain.”

Could Dr. Sacks possibly have been on to something here? “One can become a creative and good human being without music lessons,” he observed. “But it does look,” Sacks goes on to say, “as if fairly intensive musical training can promote the development of various parts of the brain, which may facilitate other non-musical cognitive powers.”

Fair enough. But what is the Mozart Effect?

The Mozart Effect

Well, first off, it’s not the Da Vinci Code – that’s for sure! The Mozart Effect is a term that was first “suggested” by Alfred A. Tomatis, a French Ear, Nose and Throat specialist, who in the 1960s and 70s hypothesized that the lack of sound stimulation, or abnormal stimulation in utero and/or in early childhood can lead to, or cause, aberrant behavior and delayed or disabling communication skills — i.e., dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, autism, and such.

To circumvent this, Dr. Tomatis recommended that the unborn, or very, very young child, be exposed to the amplified sound of his or her mother’s voice as well as the music of the Austrian-born composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Furthermore, he described his methodology as the Tomatis Effect.

The idea for using Mozart’s music to expand upon or alter the mind’s native skill sets, and subsequently tagging it with a recognizable moniker, actually came about some years later, at the University of California, Irvine, to be precise, around the year 1993, with physicists Gordon Shaw and Frances Rauscher.

Their work, which involved studying the effects on a few dozen or so college students while listening to the first ten minutes of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major (K. 448), found “a temporary enhancement of spatial-temporal reasoning, as measured by the Stanford-Binet IQ test.”

There were many subsequent attempts to replicate their findings, however most were unsuccessful. One researcher wryly observed that the “very best thing that could be said of Shaw’s and Rauscher’s experiments would be that listening to bad Mozart enhances short-term IQ.”

In other words, it has been relegated more to the back pages of trendy pop psychology journals than to quantifiable scientific fact. Rauscher has since moved on to studying the effects of Mozart’s work on laboratory rats. We wish her and the rats lots of luck!

Rather than waste time listening to “bad Mozart,” one can pause and give a good old French piece a chance: Golliwogg’s Cakewalk by Claude Debussy, who, along with fellow countrymen Erik Satie and Gabriel Fauré, are considered the forerunners of today’s ambient light music.

The Mozart Effect by Don Campbell (

But really, can any of what you’ve read so far be taken seriously? One man did. Don Campbell, a noted author, musician, lecturer, consultant and educator in his own right, as well as a disciple of Tomatis’ methods, has devoted the last 20 some-odd years of his professional life to the Mozart Effect.

His website,, offered, at one time, a small sample of self-serving advertisement of his services: “When McCall’s wants advice on how to lose the blues with music, when PBS wants to interview an expert on how the voice can energize you, when IBM wants a consultant to use music to increase efficiency and harmony in the workplace, when the National Association of Cancer Survivors wants a speaker on the healing power of music, they turn to Campbell.”

Some of the more extravagant claims in his book, The Mozart Effect, which Campbell emphasizes in the chapter on “Miracle Stories of Treatment and Cure,” include (but are not limited to), the following real and perceived ills: abrasions, abuse, acute pain, aggressive and antisocial behavior, AIDS, allergies, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, arthritis, attention deficit disorder, autism, back pain, breathing difficulties, bruises, cancer, cerebral palsy, chronic fatigue syndrome, colds, depression, developmental delays, diabetes, epilepsy, grief, headaches, hypertension, insomnia, menopause, obesity, pregnancy and labor, stroke, tooth problems, trauma, and… last but not least, writer’s block.

That last point is most telling, I don’t mind telling you! It’s something that Campbell himself has yet to experience, what with 23 books to his name (at last count, anyway).

Obviously, there are elements of this that smack suspiciously of modern-day chicanery. It’s a shame, really, that the media and certain commercial interests have taken the initial modest, unsubstantiated University of California study and “conjured up a pseudo-science which continues to promote a full-blown industry.”

Notwithstanding the above opinion, one of the very real and lasting results of this scrutiny into the Mozart Effect has been the fortuitous rise of something truly beneficial: and that is, music therapy.

The Science of Healing Through Music

What is music therapy? Music therapy, as a health care profession, began, interestingly enough, during and after the Second World War. In fact, the first accredited music therapy degree program was started at Michigan State University in 1944.

Music therapy, as a form of treatment, is generally prescribed for the purpose of restoring, maintaining, and improving emotional, physical, physiological and spiritual well-being and health. Within this definition, we have certain key elements, which define the use of music therapy as a means of intervention:

Music therapists work to improve the patient’s physical and mental functioning through carefully structured activities. Examples include singing, listening, playing musical instruments, composition, moving to music, and imagery exercises.

  1. Music is administered by a trained music therapist. A therapist’s education and training is fairly extensive. They must complete an approved college music therapy curriculum, followed by a six-month internship, prior to taking a national examination offered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists.
  2. Musical interventions are developed and used by the music therapist based on his or her knowledge of the music’s affect on behavior, the patient’s strengths and weaknesses, and the therapeutic goals.
  3. These goals include, among other things, communicative, academic, motor, emotional and social skills.

Music therapists work hand-in-hand with all sorts of patients and infirmities: for instance, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, the elderly, those with differing forms and degrees of dementia, aphasia, terminal illnesses, developmental delays, traumatic brain injuries, and those with learning disabilities.

They can be found plying their trade in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, schools, treatment centers, hospices, group homes, and in private care facilities. In the area where I reside, there’s the Music Therapy Association of North Carolina and Carolina Music Therapy of Raleigh; they provide individuals and small groups with 30-minute therapeutic sessions in Wake, Johnston and surrounding counties.

All styles and types of music can be useful in affecting change in potential or existing patients. The individual’s preferences, circumstances and need for treatment, along with the patient’s and/or music therapist’s objectives or goals, contribute in determining the types of music that can be used.

For example, patients might learn to play the piano for the purpose of improving fine motor skills, or to use an instrument to improvise unspoken emotions. Even more desirable, patients along with their therapists can even learn to compose songs for the direct purpose of expression of pent-up feelings.

Musician, Heal Thyself!

The style of music called “the blues” appears to be the perfect vehicle for expressing one’s pent-up feelings and frustrations. According to Ed Kopp, author of A Brief History of the Blues,

“When you think of the blues, you think about misfortune, betrayal and regret. You lose your job, you get the blues. Your mate falls out of love with you, you get the blues. Your dog dies, you get the blues.

“While blues lyrics often deal with personal adversity, the music itself goes far beyond self-pity. The blues is also overcoming hard luck, and saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down, [or] simply having fun. The best blues is visceral, cathartic, and starkly emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion [than the blues].”

From healing the broken body to mending the broken spirit, we turn now to one of the genre’s most qualified communicators of genuine emotion: rocker, performer, songwriter, and superstar guitarist, the British-born blues man Eric Clapton.

Eric Clapton (

A founding member of several super-groups, including The Yardbirds, Blind Faith, Cream, and Derek and the Dominos; and friend to numerous rock-star personalities such as Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Steve Winwood, Phil Collins, and the late George Harrison, Clapton nonetheless suffered through 20 years of the debilitating effects of alcoholism and drug abuse.

“An over-achiever with a bad self-image,” in the words of fiction writer Stephen King, Clapton discovered at age six or seven that the people he loved most in this world – his parents – were, in reality, his grandmother and step-grandfather.

Worse than that, he honestly believed that his closest female relative was his sister, when, instead, she turned out to be his natural mother, and that little Eric had been born out of wedlock: “The truth dawned on me,” he wrote, “that when Uncle Adrian called me a little bastard, he was telling the truth.”

Such misfortunes early in one’s life tend to manifest themselves later on in peculiar ways. In Clapton’s case, he withdrew from others and literally drowned his sorrows out in alcohol and extramarital affairs. He finally hit rock bottom in the early 1980s when, after a concert in Madison, Wisconsin, he collapsed in agony and was flown to a hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was “diagnosed with five bleeding ulcers; one of which was the size of a small orange.”

It took several attempts, but Clapton started down the long road to rehabilitation with his active participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, or A.A. While still newly sober, Eric faced the most challenging and grueling episode of his (or anybody else’s) recovery when he experienced the accidental death of his four-year-old son Conor. He described the incident in his autobiography Clapton:

“On the evening of March 19, 1991, I went to the Galleria, an apartment on East 57th Street [in Manhattan] to pick up Conor and take him to the circus. It was the very first time I had taken him out on my own, and I was both nervous and excited. It was a great night out. Conor never stopped talking and was particularly excited at seeing the elephants. It made me realize for the first time what it meant to have a child and be a father. I remember telling [his mother, Italian actress Lori Del Santo], when I took him back, that from then on, when I had Conor home on visits, I wanted to look after him on my own.

“The following morning I was up early, ready to walk crosstown from my hotel on Park and 64th Street, to pick up Lori and Conor to take them to the Central Park Zoo, followed by lunch at my favorite Italian restaurant. At about 11:00 A.M. the phone rang, it was Lori. She was hysterical, screaming that Conor was dead. I thought to myself, ‘This is ridiculous. How can he be dead?’ and I asked her the silliest question, ‘Are you sure?’ and then she told me that he’d fallen out of the window. She was beside herself. Screaming. I said, ‘I’ll be right there.’

“On [the] morning [of Conor’s death] the janitor was cleaning the windows and had temporarily left them open. [Unfortunately] there were no window guards on them. Conor was racing about the apartment playing a game of hide-and-seek with his nanny and, while Lori was distracted by the janitor warning her of the danger, [Conor] simply ran into the room and straight out the window. He then fell 49 floors before landing on the roof of an adjacent four-story building.”

Who wouldn’t go back to drinking after a horrific situation such as that? Not Clapton. At one of the meetings Eric attended, he told his painful, tragic story to his fellow A.A. members; how, during his last stay at Hazelden, [the famous rehab center], he had fallen on his knees and asked for help to stay sober. A woman came up to him afterwards and claimed he had taken away her last excuse to drink. Clapton asked her what she meant. She answered, “I’ve always had this little corner of my mind which held the excuse that, if anything were to happen to my kids then I’d be justified in getting drunk. You’ve shown me that’s not true.”

About a year after his son’s premature demise, Clapton was hard at work again, composing the music for the film Rush, about an undercover narcotics cop-turned-drug addict. It was his first attempt at a film score.

His lyricist, Will Jennings, known for dozens of successful pop tunes, in particular the Celine Dion mega-hit, “My Heart Will Go On,” from the James Cameron blockbuster Titanic, recalled that, “Eric saw a place in the movie Rush for a song and he said to me, ‘I want to write a song about my boy.’ Eric had the first verse written, which, to me, is all the song. But he wanted me to write the rest of the verse lines and the release, even though I told him that it was so personal he should write everything himself. He told me he had admired the work I did with Steve Winwood and finally there was nothing else but to do as he requested, despite the sensitivity of the subject:

Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?

Would you feel the same if I saw you in heaven?

I must be strong and carry on

Cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven

Time can bring you down; time can bend your knees

Time can break your heart, have you begging please

Beyond the door there’s peace I’m sure

And I know there’ll be no more tears in heaven

“This is a song,” Jennings concluded, “so personal and so sad that it is unique in my experience of writing songs.” The tune, “Tears in Heaven,” which Clapton first performed live in August 1992 for the MTV Special Unplugged, won three Grammy Awards for Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

It fulfills the basic requirements of a classic blues number in saying what you feel; in its dealing with personal adversity and overcoming hard luck, in addition to providing a “visceral, cathartic, and starkly emotional” moment for its creator.

You could say that Eric Clapton’s life as a musician and performer, not to mention a human being, has been transformed by the restorative power of the blues. Can music go beyond even that incredible accomplishment and save people’s lives in the process? The answer is a firm and resounding YES, IT CAN!

Disco Meets CPR

We hinted at the outset that the disco song, “Stayin’ Alive,” has a lot more to do with our topic than one could imagine. “Okay, I buy that,” you’re probably saying to yourself, but what does early-John Travolta have to do with healing?

The letters “C-P-R” stand for cardiopulmonary resuscitation, a combination of rescue breathing (“mouth-to-mouth resuscitation”) and chest compressions. The American Heart Association long ago determined that CPR is most successful when administered as quickly as possible. Eighty percent of all sudden cardiac arrests happen in the home, so knowing the proper way to do CPR, then, is absolutely critical to a patient’s survival.

For CPR to be MOST effective, however, the required chest compressions must be conducted at a rate of 100 compressions per minute. According to Dr. David Matlock, a researcher from the University of Illinois College of Medicine, in Peoria, “Properly performed CPR can triple survival rates for cardiac arrest, but many people hesitate to jump in because they don’t feel confident about maintaining the proper rhythm.”

How does one acquire that confidence? A new study, concluded in October 2008 by the same University of Illinois College of Medicine, found that “Stayin’ Alive” has 103 beats per minute, which is almost exactly the ideal rate at which chest compressions should be performed.

The Bee Gees (

“Our research subjects – which included ten doctors and five medical students – felt that listening to ‘Stayin’ Alive’ improved their ability to perform chest compressions at the proper speed,” Dr. Matlock attested, “and indeed their performance even five weeks later was excellent.”

The average compression rate at that later session came to 113 beats per minute, well above the recommended number but within the range the American Heart Association found acceptable. “When it comes to trying to revive a stopped heart,” Dr. Matlock added, “a few extra compressions per minute are better than too few.”

What the study showed, too, was that it helped people who already know how to do CPR, Matlock reported. “The results were promising enough to warrant larger, more definitive studies with real patients or untrained people. If we can develop an easy way for people to remember the proper rhythm, that’s a great step towards encouraging bystanders to do CPR. A number of pop songs have the right rhythm for CPR,” Dr. Matlock continued, “but of course the meaning of ‘Stayin’ Alive’ is pretty powerful when you are trying to save someone’s life.”

How true! The American Heart Association has been using that song as a training tool for CPR instructors for the last five years. Since the University of Illinois published its findings late last year, one of the study’s younger participants, a 28-year-old medical resident named Matthew Gilbert, claimed to have revived real patients by keeping the song in his head while doing CPR.

In fact, Gilbert expressed surprised at how well the song actually worked: “I was a little worried,” he said, “because I’ve been told that I have a complete lack of rhythm.” (I’d be worried too – if I were the patient!) Besides that, Gilbert was not a big fan of disco.

He did say that he happened to like a certain Queen song with a similar beat. “I heard a rumor that ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ works also, but it didn’t seem quite as appropriate.”

On that note, let me conclude this article not with a minute of silence but with a minute of “Stayin’ Alive.” Try to count the number of beats to see if you can reach that magic number of 100, 103, 113, or whatever. As long as you can keep that rhythm going, you’re in business!

How many beats did you get? Great! We’ve gained some valuable insight here: whether it’s Mozart or the Bee Gees, the blues or Debussy, don’t underestimate the healing power of music. What’s good for the American Heart Association is good for us all. And remember this:

Music has Charms to sooth a savage Breast (or Beast),

To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

I’ve read, that things inanimate have mov’d,

And, as with Living Souls, have been inform’d,

By Magic Numbers and persuasive Sound.

Hopefully, I’ve kept you “living souls” informed with some truly “magic numbers” and hopefully “persuasive sounds.” Stay healthy and wise!

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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