Exploring Music's Complexities

The Many Mysteries of Music

Music’s Power to Adjust and Shift the Collective Consciousness

Lilly B. Gardner D.P.A. and Daniel Kobialka , D.M.A.

This post deals with Music’s Power and its ability to shift the collective consciousness.




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“Science needs art because it teaches us how to live with mystery.   Science needs art to frame the mystery, but art needs science so that not everything is a mystery. Neither truth alone is our solution. For our reality exists in plural.” Jonah Lehrer

Much has also been written with regard to the concept that music has the power to re-balance the human organism and “bring order to any orbit in our souls that has become unharmonized [2].” Other stories come down to us about how our ancestors recognized music to be a strong force in the prevention and treatment of illness and disease, beginning with the healing of the soul, mind and body. Native Americans have used singing and chanting as part of their healing rituals for centuries.

While there seems to be a general agreement as to the immense power of music and its ability to promote harmony and well being in our lives, its definition has long been the subject of debate. What is music? Philosophers, musicians, and various social and natural scientists continue to argue over its definition.

Because music is subjectively perceived, it is understandable that its definitions vary greatly. This, in turn, makes it difficult to determine what properties generate these feelings and more specifically, which of these properties are responsible for its therapeutic effects.

In his experiments with strings of proportional lengths, Pythagoras discovered when plucked the strings created tones of proportional frequencies. Continuing to divide the strings in half allowed him to study intervals of sound. He proposed that the most consonant interval was a unison. The other intervals were subsequently more dissonant. In this theory, the next “most consonant” interval would be the octave, followed by the fifth, the fourth, the major third, the minor third, the major second, and finally the “most dissonant” minor second. These common intervals have become the primary building blocks of musical “harmony.”

Plato embraced Pythagoras’s theory. For Plato, music was a form of medicine that brought order to our souls. Use of specific patterns of harmonics, number and sound incorporated Pythagoras’s theory that reality is mathematical in nature. Certain musical chords and melodies produce definite responses with the human organism. When played musically on an instrument these sounds could modify behavior patterns and accelerate the healing process.

Plato believed that only consonant musical pitches were conducive to rational thinking, which is when “the passions work at the direction of reason.” Therefore, dissonant notes and patterns should be silenced. Physicians prescribed music for the sick and dying by sending out lyre’s believing that music would return them back to healthy cycles. Rhythm was the most important part of life in healing. [3].

Socrates also had a profound understanding and respect for the influence that music can have. He viewed certain musical modes as being full of danger to the state.   He believed they should be prohibited because “When modes of music change the fundamental laws of the state always change with them”. [4] Aristotle’s views differed from those of Socrates, as he believed the Phrygian mode added to the Dorian mode made music too orgiastic and emotional [5].

Attempts to define music date back to the Ancients. The New World Encyclopedia states, “ music is an auditory art comprised of meaningful arrangements of sound with a relation to pitch, rhythm, and tonality. Another definition of music is “a natural and intuitive phenomenon operating in the spheres of time, pitch, and energy, and under three distinct and interrelated organization structures of rhythm, harmony, and melody.” Since music is natural, it can be produced in nature by various living things; and since it is intuitive , humans can recognize their sounds as musical. Moreover, as music is intuitive, people can virtually perform and even hear music in their mind [6].”

Over time, there have been some dramatic changes in musical composition. Between the Gregorian period (600 A.D.) in which composers used the intervals of unison, fifths and octaves almost exclusively through the 1600s we witnessed the use of the major third and avoidance of the use of fifths because they were thought to cause dissonant harmonies. Changes also included modification of the use of the fourth and fifth intervals. The works of Debussy, Ravel, Shostakovish and more contemporary composers reflect our acceptance of dissonant harmony.   Today there is an acceptance of higher overtones. What was considered extremely dissonant is now relatively consonant.

So how does one explain this shift?

Clifton describes the musical experience and the objects of the experience as “phenomena.” He states “Music is not a fact or a thing in the world, but a meaning constituted by human beings.   To talk about such experience in a meaningful way demands several things. First, we have to be willing to let the composition speak to us, to let it reveal its own order and significance. Second, we have to be willing to question our assumptions about the nature and role of musical materials. Last, and perhaps most important, we have to be ready to admit that describing a meaningful experience is itself meaningful [7].

Still others suggest music is not made up of single notes arranged in time but really begins when the separate pitches are melted into a pattern [8]. The brain’s neuronal search for a pattern is the source of music. When we listen to music we abstract on our own inputs, inventing patterns in order to keep pace with the onrush of noise.   When the brain discovers a pattern, it starts to make predictions as to what will come next.

Because of music’s ability to communicate it is sometimes described as the “universal language”. The structural elements contained in music also give rise to a system that is equal to the complexities and subtleties of “language.” [9].   The argument posed here is that while music can acquire extra-musical symbolic meaning it is not its essence.   Without its structural self-meaning, it is nothing but “unorganized sound”. It is the relationships between its elements that make music what it is. Not to hear or listen to these relations is not to hear music.   Further, even though music can acquire syntax and semantics, the personal choices of the composer will display themselves in a personal style. If there is a grammar in music it must be founded in the physics of sound, as the physiological makeup of the ear as well as psychoneural implications of sound.

We also know that the human brain has a perchance for pattern. If the pattern plays hard to get, the music will excite us. Unlike Plato’s belief that only consonant pitches are conducive to rational thinking, Lehrer suggests that music only excites us when it makes the auditory cortex struggle to uncover its order [11]. He further states that music is only feeling and that it always upsets our soul.

In his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Lehrer suggests that music is a pleasurable overflow of information. That we continually abstract on our own inputs, inventing patterns in order to keep up with the onrush of noise. Once a pattern is sensed, the brain starts to predict what will come next and it immediately starts to imagine what notes will come next. In this way we make art out of uncertainty. It is his belief that without the works of composers such as Stravinsky to torture us, music would lose its essential uncertainty and feeling would be slowly drained out of the notes and all we would have left would be a shell of easy consonance or simple boredom.

Meyer suggests it is the suspenseful tension of music that is the source of the music’s feeling. His theory differs from those proposed earlier that focused on the way a noise can refer to the real world of images and experiences. He proposes that the emotions we find in music come from the unfolding events of the music itself. He refers to this “embodied meaning” as the source of the emotions we find in music [12].   He states the uncertainty makes the feeling and that music is a form whose meaning depends upon its violation.

Using music as a healing medium dates back to ancient times. This is evident in biblical scriptures and historical writings of ancient civilizations such as Egypt, China, India, Greece and Rome. Aristotle believed in the “cathartic” role of music in a way to similar to Freud’s use of psychoanalysis, as music has the power to elicit the feeling of joy, sorrow, anger, and courage. It can help the subject relate to his own feelings and from there ventilate his feelings and find a resolution to his emotional conflicts.

Others including Abu Nasr al-Farabi (873-950), Ibn sina (980-1037), Muhammad Yusif Shirvan and Safiyaddin Urmiyyayi, prescribed music for a variety of human maladies.   Urmiyyayi was the first to develop modal scales for the positive influence of music on human health.   Arabian countries sacred sound was described as a cosmic vibration so massive and subtle and all-encompassing that everything seen and unseen is filled with it.   Spiritual masters from traditions East and West have described our own voices as built-in mechanisms for spiritual awakening. [1].

The use of music in therapy takes on numerous definitions ranging from the trivial to the lofty. It facilitates the creative process of moving toward wholeness in the physical emotional, mental and spiritual self in areas such as independence, freedom to change, adaptability, balance and integration. The interactions among the therapist, the client and the music produce the ability to restore, maintain, and improve emotional, physical, physiological, and spiritual heath and well -being. The definition of music therapy often includes the statement that its goal is to bring about a “positive change” in an individual. Lauzon states there are two extremes in the continuum of understanding concerning the nature of music. It begins with the thought that music follows the motions and emotions of the soul and is bound to no formal rules. At the other end are those who hold that music is a purely formal art, much like architecture in which motions and emotions are inevitable by-products.

According to Lauzon, this polarity has real implications for clinical practice and regardless of the position one takes each must attempt to answer the question “Why Music therapy?” He proposes there are three theory groups attempting to provide an answer.

The first of these is the Imitative Theory Group described by Aristotle.   Aristotle stated that music is able to imitate emotion and bring about a catharsis.   “But rhythms and melodies contain representations of anger and mildness, and also courage and temperance and all their opposites and the other moral qualities, that most closely correspond to the true natures of these qualities (and this is clear from the facts of what occurs—when we listen to such representations we change in our soul [14].

The second of these theory groups is the Interpersonal Theory Group that includes all current treatment theories. In this situation the client is an agent of change in a psychological way. The music may act as a bridge, as a reward, or as a home base from which the client may journey or a doorway to the subconscious mind. Regardless, the real carrying power is the therapist because of his or her training in the approach and his or her ability to determine how it will be applied.

The last of these theory groups is referred to as the “outside inwards” approach. This group places emphasis on what music therapists call the elements of music. This approach requires a careful assessment of the rhythmic, tonal, and harmonic aspects of the individual’s presenting conditions.   This rhythm is seen to bring order in a biological, emotional, cognitive, communicative, and social manner,

Regardless of the approach taken, to be truly successful, a therapist needs to recognize his or her own theoretical position and to consider the implications of his or her theoretical tendencies and the effect they will have on the protocol used in treatment.

So where does all this leave us? The appreciation of music is a deeply personal experience that expresses itself in feelings that are very difficult to express in words or in non-verbal ways. After all this time we are still at a loss to explain the deep emotional power of music to affect human behavior.

Was Plato’s definition of music correct or does music begin when order collapses [13] Is the appreciation of music the end result of a biological evolution of brain chemistry interacting with the cultural evolution of behavior? The statement made by Lehere is a profound one – “We now know enough to know that we will never know everything.


  1. Thatcher, ed., Vol II: the Greek World, pp. 364-382.
  3. Plato.  [1992] Republic. Trans GMA and CDC. Reeve Indianapolis, Hackett.
  4. Geddings, F.H., [1932] Civilization and Society: an account of the development and behavior of human society. Arranged and edited posthumously by Odum H.W. New York: H. Holt.
  5. Ibid.
  6. New World Encyclopedia, Funk and Wagnall’s, Washington, D.C., Mage Publishers, access http//www.newworldencyplodia.org/entry/music.
  7. Socrates Study Guide. Access @ http://www.commigsstudyguide.net.
  8. The Politics of Aristotle. [1900] Trans. Benjamin Jowett, New York. Colonial Press.
  9. Clifton, T., [1983]. Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Pp. 5-6.
  10. Clynes, M., Ed. [1982]. Music, mind and brain: The Neuropsychology of Music. New York: Plenum.
  11. Wallen, N.L., Merker, B., Brown, S., ed., [2000]. The Origins of Music. Chapter 3. The MIT Press pp. 44-62.
  12. L.B., Emotions and Meaning in Music. Chicago, Chicago Music Press.
  13. Leher, J., [2008] Proust was a Neuroscientist. First Mariner Book, Houghton Mifflin Copant, Boston, New York. pp.120-143.
  14. Lauzon, P., MMT, MTA. Change in Music Therapy: A Discourse. Access http://www.musictherapy.ca/docs/confpproc/2006/lauzon.pdf.

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