Some 19th-Century Physicians Thought Music Could Infect the Brain

When it comes to music in the brain, medicine has come a long way

15th-century female musicians
These 15th-century female musicians are clearly in grave medical danger. Sotheby's London/Wikimedia Commons

Today, we associate music with emotion and artistry. It’s used in medical therapy and activates the same region of the brain as complex mathematical formulas. This largely positive image has strong roots in history, as well. But, with the opponents come the naysayers. Writing for Brain Decoder, Kate Baggaley delves into the long history of music’s complicated relationship with medicine in the United States and Europe. Baggaley points to a new paper reviewing music’s reputation as a disease by James Kennaway, a historian at Newcastle University.

Until the 1600s and 1700s, music had a pretty positive image, linked with a sort of universal harmony and health. But as scientists learned about the auditory nerves in the brain, some physicians perceived music as a threat and an over stimulant. According to a subset of medical scholars, listening to too much music could be dangerous, inducing headaches and perhaps even death.

By the time the 1800s rolled around, music was a full-blown pathogen, according to medicine, literature and etiquette books. Excessive music — whether in audience or performance — was associated by some researchers with moral degradation and depravity. When American neurologist George Beard coined “nervous exhaustion” as a mental condition called neurasthenia, he cited music as a cause of the illness.

Women, of course, were continually linked to the dangers of music. In the 17th and 18th centuries, physicians thought the fairer sex had weak nerves and were prone to fainting. They warned that excessive keyboard playing could aggravate such issues. Gynecologists thought music might be too sexy for women or that it could lead to heavy menstrual cycles. On the flop side, others linked it to infertility and reproductive problems. And women weren't the only marginalized group targeted, Baggeley reports. Victorian researchers thought that musical talent might be more prevalent among homosexuals. 

Musical pathology continued into the twentieth century. Political parties — the Third Reich in Germany and the Soviets in Russia, specifically — capitalized on the negative undertones put forth by medicine and targeted specific genres to bolster their causes. In the U.S., listening to too much jazz came with social and moral symptoms. Even today, psychologists have linked music to addition and mused on how it might affect the psyche, Baggaley notes.

Needless to say neuroscience and psychology have come a long way. Scientists now know a lot more about about how the brain processes music. While the majority of actual medical research hypothesizing that music was pathogenic amounts to quackery, Kennaway points out that the line of research isn’t utterly useless — though it might come close. Listening to music at a high volume for a long period of time can be psychologically straining as well as damaging to the eardrum. That said, it’s not the music itself that does the damage; it’s the decibel levels.

Whatever you might think about the dregs of pop music today, listening to Taylor Swift probably won’t kill you. 

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