The World’s First Music Therapist

An account from over two thousand years ago

Posted Apr 27, 2017

As a musician and someone who studies the psychology of music, a topic of great interest to me is the historical origins of music therapy. When was music first used as a method of healing, and who was the first to do it? As it turns out, the origins of music therapy trace back much further than is commonly thought.

Music therapy as it is recognized today, is still a relatively young field when compared to other disciplines. In fact, the American Music Therapy Association (the largest music therapy organization in the world) cites the earliest reference of music therapy to a 1789 article in Columbian Magazine titled “Musically Physically Considered” (http://www.musictherapy.org/about/history/). It took over a hundred years after that for the first educational and training program and national association in music therapy to be established in the 1940’s and 50’s.  

However, music has actually been used as a therapy for thousands of years. I had initially thought that the earliest account of music therapy was from the Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BC), who would prescribe different musical scales and modes to cure different physical and psychological ailments. But there’s an even earlier account and it came from a source that I did not initially anticipate.

One morning this past December I received a call from my friend and teacher Yitzhak Buxbaum. Yitzhak is a 73-year-old Jewish author and maggid (spiritual teacher) who has written 11 books including Jewish Spiritual Practices (https://www.amazon.com/Jewish-Spiritual-Practices-Yitzhak-Buxbaum/dp/156...).

Unknowing that the day on which he called was actually my birthday, Yitzhak said, “I have a great gift for you”. He told me to look up I Samuel Chapter 16 in Prophets. He said, “This will give you the answer you are looking for”. Since I had never read the book of Prophets before, I rushed to the nearest book store and bought my first complete Jewish bible. I quickly scurried through the pages to find the verses Yitzhak told me to look up.

The verses told the story of King Saul who had become tormented by a feeling of melancholy. Saul’s servants suggested that they find a musician who could play for him to soothe his psyche. One of the servants suggested a young man named David who he heard was a skilled musician. Saul was in agreement and so the servants went to find the young David and brought him to King Saul. It then says the following: “And it happened that whenever the spirit of melancholy from God was upon Saul, David would take the lyre (harp) and play it. Saul would then feel relieved and the spirit of melancholy would depart from him” (I Samuel, 16:23).

Here before my very eyes, was one of the first accounts of music therapy. David was able to cure King Saul’s depression through music. About a week later I saw Yitzhak in-person—he waved at me with a smirk and paper in his hand. The paper was a passage from a book by the highly regarded scholar Robert Alter called The David Story: A translation with commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. In the commentary, Alter writes in reference to the servants suggestion of a musician to King Saul: “what they have in mind is a kind of music therapist”.

Thus, before David became a great warrior and King, he was first a music therapist. But, there remain many questions:  How did King Saul’s servants know to suggest a musician? Who taught David how to play music? And what kind of music did David actually play to heal Saul?

In reference to the last question, though the harp/lyre can be played upbeat and rhythmically, we might assume that the music David played was soft and gentle, which is suitable for the harp/lyre. Indeed, when the scene is depicted visually in several movies—including “King David” (1985) starring Richard Gere—David is depicted playing a song that matches King Saul’s mood: slow in tempo with a feeling of longing, sadness and emotional depth.

There is even scientific evidence from the past several years to show how sad music can be consoling and soothing. My team published a study in 2015 (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0131151) showing how preferences for music with emotional depth and sadness is linked to empathy levels—Dr. Jonna Vuoskoski at Oxford has found similar results. And Dr. David Huron at Ohio State University provides a compelling neurobiological hypothesis on why sad music is soothing. He suggests that for some, when listening to sad music, the hormone prolactin is secreted. Prolactin produces feelings of tranquility and calmness, and emits a consoling and soothing effect.  It is released in ‘psychic’ tears of both happiness and sadness, it is released during nursing, after sexual intercourse, and when we feel empathy for someone who is sad. Huron says that the acoustic features of sad music “emulate” the features of sad speech, and that these musical cues may evoke feelings of tenderness or sadness which sends a signal for prolactin to be released.

The healing powers of music are vast, and we see evidence dating back thousands of years of how music has been used therapeutically. Indeed, there are accounts of music therapy in Judaism and other traditions including Sufism and Hinduism that may even predate King David (for example, the account of the 7-year-old Serach Bat Asher who took Jacob out of a 22-year depression by playing a melody repeatedly while he was praying). Regardless of whether you (the reader) believes or not if the events in religious texts are historically accurate, there is little to argue that at the time in which they were written, music was thought of as a therapeutic modality. In the thousands of years since then, music has co-evolved with the human brain, and people have been intuitively using music as a self-therapy and therapy for others. Thus, our brains are hardwired to experience music as a therapeutic agent, and it should be the mission of today’s musicians, music therapists and psychologists to continue to master the use of this healing modality, that began thousands of years ago.