Take a Musical Bath

“Take a music bath once or twice a week for a few seasons, and you will find that it is to the soul what the water­bath is to the body.”
­Oliver Wendell Holmes­ Poet

“Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” ­Arnold “Red” Auerbach – Basketball Coach and Executive

December is a very important month for most of us. It brings us Christmas and Hannukah and reminds us to get prepared for another year and to review, renew or rewrite resolutions to improve ourselves. These are great things, but something most people don’t realize is that December also brings us Ludwig Van Beethoven’s birthday. He was born on either the 16th or 17th of December (depending on which history book you read).

Beethoven died well over 250 years ago, yet his name is still iconic in popular culture. He is one of those rare figures that has earned “one name” status like Madonna and Pele. This is because he left us with some of the most touching and beautiful music ever written. You’ve heard his most famous songs including The Moonlight Sonata (first movement), Fur Elise, Ode to Joy and, of course his Fifth Symphony (Da Da Da Daaaa!!). It is in honor of Beethoven and his singular genius that I write this article.

Music has a certain power that words cannot describe. It is something that is ubiquitous in all cultures and societies. It is something that human beings have produced and enjoyed for thousands of years. Music can make us feel things that we cannot express verbally; it has the power to make us feel a spectrum of emotions from elated to melancholic, energetic to calm, angry to peaceful.

Due to its power to affect people, music can be used in therapy. Music therapists work by helping patients express themselves and tap unconscious thoughts or feelings through interpretation, improvisation and composition of music. This process works even for those of us with little to no musical talent. Isn’t that the beauty of music? – A person may be born as likely to fly as they are to be able to sing or play an instrument with any competency (except when he or she is singing like a bird in the shower), yet that person can love and be affected by music as much or more than a concert level musician.

In Beethoven’s case, he happened to be lucky to be born with an extraordinary gift in expressing himself through music. I believe that his music is so powerful and timeless because he composed it in the setting of a life filled with turmoil. He was born to an alcoholic father who was unpredictable and abusive. He spent much of his adult life battling what appears to be depression, and, after 1809 the loss of his hearing. He was explosive and given to periods of immense creativity and then little to no production. He was seen by dozens of physicians due to chronic abdominal pain and digestive problems and irritability and depression. In life, he never received a diagnosis for his problems, but in 2000, researchers did find significantly high levels of lead in 8 strands of his hair. It is not the scope of this article to discuss lead poisoning, but suffice it to say that it can contribute to the physical problems and symptoms of mental illness that Beethoven suffered from. He died a fairly lonely man who was not nearly as financially successful as he could have or should have been. Beethoven himself once said, “Beethoven can write music, thank God, but he can do nothing else on earth.”

Perhaps Beethoven’s music is as enduring and powerful as any ever written due to his ability to express his turmoil, but also his “capacity to endure or even resist suffering.” In his biography on Beethoven, Maynard Solomon writes, “{Beethoven} permitted aggressive and disintegrative forces to enter musical form: he placed the tragic experience at the core of his heroic style.” Solomon later continues, “It is for reasons such as these that Beethoven’s has been called a ‘tragic’ music. But Beethoven’s heroic music is not primarily a conventionally tragic music, let alone a death­haunted music, for most of his works in this vein close on a note of joy, triumph or transcendence.”

John Nash, the famous mathematician that the movie “A Beautiful Mind” was based on (who happens to suffer from Chronic Paranoid Schizophrenia), recently addressed psychiatrists at the American Psychiatric Association. In his talk, he noted that mental illness may be a natural variant in nature in which people afflicted are able to tap a part of the mind or consciousness that others cannot. He postulated that this ability may be evolutionary in providing humanity great expressions of art and music, among other things, that a person not afflicted with mental illness could not give.

This may or may not be the case, but certainly great music (which is a matter of opinion to each of us) possesses significant power, including healing power, that cannot be expressed verbally.    This is the gift that Beethoven has left us.
Ludwig Van Beethoven 1770 – 1827 Thanks to Maynard Solomon, “Beethoven”, Schirmer Trade Books, 2001.

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