The therapeutic benefits of music are well known, but the theory that music might be harmful to our health, unless it is so obviously loud it injures our eardrums, comes as a surprise.  In this volume, historian of medicine James Kennaway traces the idea of pathological music from antiquity to the present.  The book’s introduction considers whether music really can create illness, whether it be of a physiological or a psychological nature.  We learn, for example, of arrhythmias and seizure disorders that are set off by music, not to mention the so-called Stendhal Syndrome, a psychosomatic reaction to great works of art.

The second chapter describes how, during the 18th century, disease was thought to result from excessive stimulation of the nerves, and how that created a theoretical framework for the “medical dangers of music” (p. 23) as being rooted in the nervous system. The example of the glass harmonica is given. This musical instrument, invented by Benjamin Franklin, had its status elevated when Mozart composed two pieces for it.  However, its success became its undoing, as it was feared the tones would “make women faint, send a dog into convulsions, [and] make a sleeping girl wake screaming through a chord of the diminished seventh” (p. 45). Special gloves were devised so that a performer might, by avoiding direct contact with the apparatus, spare his nerves. 

In the following chapter, Kennaway explores how Wagner dominated 19th-century discourse on pathological music in that his work’s eroticism and novel harmonies were thought to produce neurasthenia (a popular catch-all term for an array of anxiety disorders). Listeners were brought to an unhealthy state of ecstasy, and singers, being driven to the abyss, went insane. Women who had recklessly allowed themselves to become “Wagnerized” were punished with a “lack [of] children, or, in the most bearable cases, men” (p. 74).

Moving into the 20th century, the author describes how ideas about pathological music acquired a political connotation.  In Germany, the perceived threat of avant-garde Jewish composers (eg. Schoenberg) to public health culminated in the so-called Degenerate Music exhibition of 1938. And in  the United States, African American-influenced jazz was credited with the power to “change human physiology, damaging the medulla in the brain” (p. 121).

Finally, the book concludes in the present day with music for brainwashing (e.g. a consideration of whether subliminal messages hidden in rock songs could lead to suicide), and the use of painfully loud or abrasive music as sonic weapons in warfare, or for torture.  The author’s verdict is that the notion of music as bad for your health, though emerging in new forms, is more topical than ever.


This fascinating monograph provides insight into a too little known domain where medicine and the arts converge.  While there are many such books on literature, few on music come to our attention, although the neurology of music is a growing field. James Kennaway’s newest book, Music and the Nerves, 1700-1900 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), is an anthology. There is also Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia, previously annotated in these pages.

Bad Vibrations
manages to be not only well researched and well documented but also admirably well-written, readable, and entertaining.  The author, whose work has been funded by the Wellcome Trust, has an impressive breadth of knowledge across a wide range of disciplines. This allows him to make the observation, for example, that once Freud established neurosis was not a result of nerve stimulation, but was rooted in the unconscious, interest in pathological music waned within the field of psychiatry.

Those who might want to explore the other side of the coin, that is to say historical writing on music as therapy, might enjoy searching out Richard Browne’s Medicina Musica: Or a Mechanical Essay on the Effects of Singing, Musick, and Dancing, on Human Bodies and Richard Brocklesby’s Reflections on Ancient and Modern Musick, with the Application to the Cure of Diseases.  These 18th century English treatises provide early ideas about the healing properties of music, some of which now come off sounding naïve, even amusing, while others seem uncannily prescient.



Place Published




Page Count