Earliest References to Music Therapy

Music has long been thought of as a way to affect behavior and health and serve as a healing influence.
Ancient Greece and Greek Philosophers
Biblical mentions
Primitive and Native American cultures
The Middle Ages
“Dancing Mania” and Tarantism
The Renaissance

Ancient Greece and Greek Philosophers

In Ancient Greece, music was believed to have a mathematical relationship with the Cosmos (Harvey, 1980). The ancient Greek philosophers thought that music could serve a therapeutic purpose. Patients in manic states were often instructed to listen to the calming music of the flute, while those suffering from depression were prescribed listening to dulcimer music (Dobrzynska, et. Al., 2006). Healing shrines in Ancient Greece housed hymn specialists as well as physicians. A plague occurred in Sparta around 600 B.C., and was said to be cured by the music of Thales (Gfeller, 2002). Interestingly, the Greeks used music as the first ever treatment for a hangover from alcohol (Harvey, 1980).


Pythagoras believed that both the body and the soul could be influenced by music through the implementation of law and order (Dobrzynska, et. Al., 2006).


Plato’s writings on the development of personality reference music as an important factor (Dobrzynska, et. Al., 2006). He considered music to be “the medicine of the soul” (Gfeller, 2002). Plato’s theory of “correspondence” stated that musica mundane corresponded with musica humana. In other words, the “heavenly harmony of the music of the spheres” could have a positive (or negative) effect on “earthly souls.” Just as music undergoes re-harmonizing, the human body and the human race undergoes re-balancing, and in this way music has therapeutic value (Ansdell, 2004). In regards to the Greek Doctrine of Ethos, Plato said, “Music is an art imbued with power to penetrate into the very depths of the soul” (Harvey, 1980).


Aristotle believed that music had cathartic effects and could provide relief from negative emotions through catharsis (Dobrzynska, et. Al., 2006). Aristotle believed that creating an ideal environment would help to achieve optimal mental and physical well-being. His theory specifically mentions that song, wine, and women, are the three necessary components to create an optimal environment for man  (Ansdell, 2004).

Biblical mentions

King Saul was treated with music in a therapeutic setting. His depressive symptoms were alleviated by David’s harp playing (Dobrzynska, et. Al., 2006).

14 Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil[a]spirit from the

David plays for King Saul

Lord tormented him.

15 Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the lyre. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better.”

17 So Saul said to his attendants, “Find someone who plays well and bring him to me.”

18 One of the servants answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the lyre. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the Lord is with him.”

19 Then Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me your son David, who is with the sheep.” 20 So Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them with his son David to Saul.

21 David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers. 22 Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, “Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.”

23 Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.

(Samuel, 16:14-23)

Primitive and Native American cultures

In many primitive cultures, music was considered an important part of everyday life. Any activity that required assistance from the gods made use of specific songs that were believed to connect the world on earth with the preternatural (Gfeller, 2002). Some cultures, including the Native American tradition, believed music had mystical powers. Music was used in healing rituals, often in the form of singing and chanting with percussive instruments. Many of these musical healing traditions continue to be a part of Native American life today (Dobrzynska, et. Al., 2006). The United States Indian Bureau contains 1,500 songs used for healing purposes by the Native Americans (Harvey, 1980).

A Shaman with his drum

Many preliterate societies had a highly regarded figure known as a “Shaman,” or medicine man. The Shaman was believed to have the ability to combine magic and music to heal the injured, cure the sick, and ward off evil. Rituals involved singing songs and using percussive instruments like drums (Gfeller, 2002).In India, Shamen believed that their medicinal herbs had no healing powers without the addition of music (Harvey, 1980).

The Middle Ages

St. Basil

During the Middle Ages, many of the ideas of Greek philosophers were dismissed, including those relating to music’s therapeutic value. However, beliefs of religious leaders helped music to retain some of its power in the mind of the public. For example, St. Basil thought of music as an important element of sacred practice, with its power to affect emotions and bring worshipers to high religious states of being. Boethius believed that music had the power to improve the morals of men. While few figures during the Middle Ages focused on the powers of music in a non-religious sense, Cassiodorus acknowledged the cathartic value of listening to music (Gfeller, 2002). In this time, most people viewed psychiatric disorders as the result of God’s punishment for sins. Arabic countries, however, had a different view of psychiatric illnesses, seeing them as more of a gift from God. The first psychiatric wards were founded in Arabic regions. In Constantinople around 1560, individuals with psychiatric disorders were hospitalized in psychiatric hospitals and were treated with music (Dobrzynska, et. Al., 2006). This was also true of mediaeval psychiatric hospitals in the Caliphate area (Ansdell, 2004).

“Dancing Mania” and Tarantism

The Dancing Plague


In 1374, a plague occurred in Germany in which sufferers danced uncontrollably until they passed out due to exhaustion. Thousands died as a result of this “dancing mania,” and subsequent outbreaks took place throughout Europe between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. The only known way of stopping the mania was to have a musician play for the afflicted dancer (Harvey, 1980).

Around the thirteenth century, the bite of a tarantula was believed to cause an illness called tarantism. It was thought that the illness could be cured only through a musical solution that helped to separate the venom from the human’s blood. This involved listening to music and dancing the tarantella (Ansdell, 2004).

Italian women dancing the tarantella

While it is likely that the sufferers of dancing mania and tarantism were merely victims of socially fabricated illnesses, it is still interesting to note that the perceived cures for these afflictions involved music.





The Renaissance

Gioseffo Zarlino

Music continued to be used to treat depression and mania during the Renaissance, but it’s uses expanded as well. Italian composer and music theorist Zarlino believed that musical harmony had healing abilities. He described many effects of music that can be seen as therapeutic or curative. Zarlnio said that music could be used to treat pain relief, depression, mania, and the plague. He also thought that music had the ability to restore hearing. (Dobrzynska, et. Al., 2006).



Ansdell, G. (2004). Book review: Music as medicine- The history of music therapy since antiquity. Psychology of Music, 32, 440-444.

Dobrztnska, E., Cesarz, H., Rymaszewska, A. K. (2006). Music therapy- history, definitions and application. Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 8 (1), 47-52.

Gfeller, K. E. (2002). Music as a therapeutic agent: Historical and sociocultural perspectives. Music therapy in the treatmet of adults with mental disorders; theoretical bases and clinical interventions, 60-67.

Harvey, A. W. (1980). The therapeutic role of music in special education; Historical perspectives. The Creative Child and Adult Quarterly, 5 (3), 196-204.


By: Claire Growney

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