Bad Vibrations: The History of the Idea of Music as a Cause of Disease

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By | The Researcher’s View

Dr James Kennaway is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease at Durham University. Here he describes the development of fears that music can make listeners ill.

Dandies at the opera. Wellcome Images No. L0027315.

Dandies at the opera. Wellcome Images No. L0027315.

Everyone has songs they can’t stand, and some of us are even tone deaf, but most people think of music as a very positive and healthy part of their lives. In the context of music therapy, it is even supposed to have medical benefits. However, my own research has revealed a darker side of music. For the last two hundred years many doctors, critics and writers have suggested that certain kinds of music have the power to cause neurosis, madness, hysteria and even death. My new book Bad Vibrations: The History of the Idea of Music as a Cause of Disease outlines the development of theories that music can be seriously bad for your health, drawing on many happy hours spent looking at the books and archives held at the Wellcome Library.

By the eighteenth century, music was increasingly regarded less as an expression of cosmic harmony and more as a form of nervous stimulation. And like other dangerous modern stimulants such as novels or coffee, music, it was believed, could be the root of a whole range of illnesses. The glass harmonica, which works on the same principle as rubbing a finger around a glass of water, and makes a similarly eerie sound, was regarded as especially dangerous. Its popularity was such that Mozart composed for the instrument, but the idea that the instrument caused dangerous tension in the nerves was commonplace. In 1786 the German composer and harmonica player Karl Leopold Röllig suggested it could ‘make women faint; send a dog into convulsions, make a sleeping girl wake screaming through a chord of the diminished seventh, and even cause the death of one very young’. There are accounts of the instrument being banned by physicians who cited possible ill effects including prolonged shaking of the nerves, tremors in the muscles, fainting, cramps, swelling, paralysis of the limbs’ and seeing ghosts.

The first serious medical panic about a specific composer’s work related to Richard Wagner. His patron King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who would later succumb to a peculiarly Wagnerian form of madness, drowning with his psychiatrist in mysterious circumstances, reportedly passed out during a performance. Even more dramatically, the first singer to perform the role of Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, died in a Tristan delirium at the age of 29. Von Carolsfeld was not the only person to apparently ‘die’ of Tristan. Aloys Ander, who had played Tristan in the abortive Vienna production, died insane in 1865. Such was the atmosphere of elicit eroticism surrounding Wagner’s work that the French writer Léon Bloy suggested that Wagner’s innovative idea of turning off the lights in the theatre was in order to allow secret groping in the audience. The American psychologist Aldred Warthin at the University of Michigan claimed that he had been informed by colleagues of quasi-hypnotised listeners being brought to orgasm by the composer’s music, but reported that he could not replicate this result in his experiments. He did however suggest that such Wagnerian trances ‘may be attended by danger’. ‘The symptoms of collapse developed at times’, he wrote, and ‘the accompanying emotional shock, might be increased beyond the point of safety’.

Other observers suggested that the sexual power of Wagner’s music could be related to what was seen as the medical condition of homosexuality. The famous sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, whose papers are held at the Wellcome Library, interviewed several men who said that listening to Wagner had made them homosexual. And in his 1907 book The Intersexes Xavier Mayne included a questionnaire in order for the reader to discover if he was ‘at all Uranian?’, a euphemism for homosexuality. Along with more obvious questions such as, ‘Do you feel at ease in the dress of the opposite sex?’, it asked, ‘Are you particularly fond of Wagner?’ Since it was widely believed that homosexuals, despite their innate musicality, were unable to whistle, it also asked, ‘Do you whistle well, and naturally like to do so?’

In general, however, the warnings about the effect of sexual excitement were generally aimed at women. As I learned from the Wellcome Library’s collection of old psychiatric and gynaecological textbooks, physicians argued that even piano lessons could have disastrous consequences for female health. In 1900 the doctor J. Herbert Dixon wrote that it could lead to ‘pronounced neurasthenia’ with symptoms such as ‘headaches, neuralgia, nervous twitchings, hysteria, melancholia and madness’. The consequences of modern musical over-stimulation for female fertility were a common topic of debate during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Some gynaecologists argued that musical stimulation could over-excite the female reproductive system, causing premature puberty and excessive menstruation. The Argentine psychiatrist José Ingegnerios described a case in 1907 that demonstrated, he believed, that female ‘morbid musical feeling’ peaked when the women concerned were menstruating. He also reported the case of a ‘melo-sexual’ young woman who achieved ‘complete sexual satisfaction’ from playing the piano, which had led to her ‘sexual neurasthenia’.

In the poisonous atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, anti-Semitism came to play an increasing role in attacks on ‘sick’ music. The Nazi takeover of power in 1933 was regarded by many critics of ‘degenerate music’ as the basis for a restoration of musical ‘health’ and liberation from the ‘bacillus of putrefaction’ of bad music. To this end, all foreign music sold in Germany had to be approved by the Reich Ministry for Propaganda. The combination of racism, reaction and misused psychiatry in music that had developed through the Weimar Republic and into the Nazi era reached a peak with the Degenerate Music exhibition in Düsseldorf in 1938. Musical ‘hygiene’ had become state policy, leading to thousands being silenced, exiled or murdered.

Race has played a major role in most medical panics about music since ragtime. Already in 1904, an American critic commented on the popularity of the argument that the ‘peculiar accent and syncopated time’ of ragtime could have a ‘disintegrating effect on nerve tissue and a similar result upon moral integrity’. The association of ragtime with nervousness was such that a whole sub-genre came into being, the ‘nervous rag’, including examples like Paul J. Know’s ‘Every Darkey has a Nervous Spell’ (a song about stealing chickens). When jazz hit the mainstream after the First World War there was a wave of anxiety about its effects on the body, sometimes involving the authorities on public health grounds. The Health Commissioner of Milwaukee, Dr George C. Ruhland opined that jazz excited ‘the nervous system until a veritable hysterical frenzy is reached. It is easy to see that such a frenzy is damaging to the nervous system and will undermine the health in no time’. The orchestra leader at Napa asylum near San Francisco stated that, ‘from my own knowledge that about fifty percent of our young boys and girls from the age 16 to 25 that land in the insane asylum theses days are jazz-crazy dope fiends and public dance hall patrons’.


After the Second World War, the influence of Pavlov’s concept of the conditioned reflex combined with an atmosphere of Cold War paranoia, led to a panic about the supposed ability of music to ‘brainwash’ listeners, causing mental illness and political trouble. The term “brainwashing” emerged during the Korean War, when it was feared that Communists had developed powerful forms of mind control. The CIA then promoted the term to explain the behaviour of American POWs and began its own research into such techniques, some of which used music. The prominent English psychiatrist William Sargant, whose papers are kept in the Wellcome Library, advanced a Pavlovian account of musical manipulations in his book Battle for the Mind, which portrayed rock ‘n’ roll as a dangerous threat to the mind. As I discovered from Sargant’s own copy of the magazine held at the Wellcome Library, he later argued in an interview in Newsweek that Patty Hearst had been turned from an heiress kidnap victim into a politically motivated armed robber by loud rock music.

In America right-wing evangelical Christians have used the idea of rock music as a sinister form of brainwashing to argue that it was literally a Communist plot. Author David Noebel argued that, ‘The Communist scientists and psycho-politicians have devised a method of combining music, hypnotism and Pavlovianism to nerve-jam the children of our nation without our leaders, teachers or parents being aware of its shocking implications’. ‘If [such] scientific programmes [were] not exposed,’ he warned, ‘degenerated Americans will indeed raise the Communist flag over their own nation’. He provided ingenious if paradoxical reasoning to explain why Communist states themselves banned rock music although it was their own sinister invention – it just showed that they know how dangerous it really was! Along with well-worn themes relating to sex and drugs, Noebel also brought to light a less common aspect of music’s dangers – the threat posed to plants. He reported an experiment conducted by Mrs Dorothy Retallack of Denver that demonstrated, he claimed, that avant-garde classical music made plants wilt and Led Zeppelin made them die.

The American anxiety about musical brainwashing that developed in the context of the Cold War in the 1950s was in part shifted onto another supposed worldwide conspiracy during the Reagan era – Satanism. During the 1980s and 1990s a full-scale moral panic swept the country, linking the pseudo-science of brainwashing, the literal belief in a supernatural satanic threat and the musical genre of heavy metal. A wide range of books with titles like The Devil’s Disciples, and (my personal favourite) Hit Rock’s Bottom accused certain bands of brainwashing innocent American teenagers with subliminal messages which turned them towards devil worship, sexual immorality, murder and suicide.

One apparent element of this diabolical plot was the use of so-called ‘Backmasking’, hidden messages in the music that only made sense to the conscious mind when played forwards, which, it was argued, could influence listeners subliminally and thus damaging their mental health. Bands like The Beatles popularised backmasking techniques pioneered by 1950s’ musique concrète composers, sparking conspiracy theories relating to what the messages really said. Self-proclaimed experts often disagreed about what dangerous message was hidden in the music, and exposed themselves to ridicule with their analysis of backmasking tracks. One well-known preacher in Ohio publicly burned a recording of the theme tune to the TV series Mr. Ed (which featured a talking horse) because he said it had ‘Someone sing this song for Satan’ backwards.

Just as the novel became more respectable as the cinema became the bugbear in the early twentieth century, and the cinema was replaced by the ‘video nasty’ in the 1980s only to be replaced in turn by the Internet, so each new musical medium has been viewed by many as especially ‘modern’, immoral and bad for the health. In the last couple of years a new medical/moral panic about the danger of sound has taken the place of backmasking in the public imagination: ‘i-dosing’. The Daily Mail was among the first to hype this potential new moral panic, with an article describing ‘the world of “i-Dosing”, the new craze sweeping the internet in which teenagers used so-called ‘digital drugs’ to change their brains in the same way as real-life narcotics’. I-dosing involves so-called binaural beats, a tone of slightly varying frequencies is played to each ear and the listener can perceive an extra low beat.

More real – and much more worrying – is the deployment of music and sound in warfare. Like waterboarding, the use of music to ‘break’ a prisoner leaves no visible scars that might cause an outrage if they were shown in the media. As early as May 2003 the BBC was reporting that the US army had played Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ and Barney the Dinosaur’s ‘I Love You’ to ‘uncooperative’ detainees at high volume in shipping containers.  It seems that although almost all the panic about music’s effect on health over the past couple of centuries has been disproved, this more modern application of music may be seriously bad for the health after all.

This post is based on a radio programme (available online) based on Dr Kennaway’s research.  For more on recurring fears about musical hypnosis and brainwashing, see James Kennaway, ‘Musical Hypnosis: Sound and Selfhood from Mesmerism to Brainwashing’, Social History of Medicine, (2012) 25(2): 271-289.   (PDF available through open access). Bad Vibrations: The History of the Idea of Music as a Cause of Disease is available now.

– Dandies at the opera, one of them swooning, overcome with emotion. Coloured etching by I.R. Cruikshank, 1818 (Wellcome Library no. 12030i)
– Richard von Krafft-Ebing. Photogravure. (Wellcome Library no. 13018i)
– William Walters Sargant, identity card, 1947 (PP/WWS/A.19)
– Pierre Schaeffer, early exponent of musique concrète (photograph in Wikimedia Commons)

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