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A Brief History of Music in Healthcare

Starting this month I begin a new blog series to address the case for music therapy in healthcare. I want to put my profession to the test.  Does it hold the value I feel it does? Are there areas we need to improve? 

In this first post I start by re-visiting some of the happenings before music therapy became a formalized profession. Like all health professions the beginnings are unique. For example:

  • Chiropractic care originated in 1895 when Daniel Palmer of Iowa performed the first chiropractic adjustment on a partially deaf janitor. While the shirtless janitor bent over to empty a trash can Palmer noticed that he had a vertebra out of position. When asked what happened, he replied, “I moved the wrong way, and I heard a ‘pop’ in my back, and that’s when I lost my hearing.” Palmer had him lie face down on the floor and he proceeded to make an adjustment. The next day, the janitor told Palmer, “I can hear that rackets on the streets.” 
  • Psychology was a branch of philosophy until the 1870s, when it became an independent scientific discipline in Germany. 
  • Physiotherapy started with physicians like Hippocrates, and later Galenus, who advocated for massage, manual therapy techniques (joint manipulation) and hydrotherapy as a way to treat people in 460 B.C.  Now hundreds of years later these interventions have become their own disciplines.

The history of music in healthcare begins in ancient Greece alongside the theories of Plato that medical centres should embed art, music and many other forms of healing into its core. Early on Indigenous communities, also believed in integration between mind and body and that only when harmony was achieved could health be restored.

The earliest known reference to music therapy appeared in 1789 in an unsigned article in Columbian Magazine titled “Music Physically Considered.” In the early 1800s, writings on the therapeutic value of music appeared in two medical dissertations proposing music as an intervention to treat medical diseases.

Later a documented case of a physician in the 20th century using music in the context of surgery occurred in 1914, when Evan O’Neil Kane published his report in JAMA on the use of the phonograph within the operating room. Patients from this study identified that anesthetic induction was better coupled with music for reducing anxiety prior to surgery.

More documentation happened after The Second World War in America. Doctors found that music helped the soldiers physically and mentally. Training programs began to spread worldwide.  And well….the profession of Music Therapy was well on its way. 

Since then global Music Therapy Associations and regulatory bodies grew to oversee Music Therapist’s certification.  The evidence collectors, including many music therapist researchers, continue to add to the informed use of music therapy in healthcare. 

In my short time of being a music therapist (maybe not so short now) the most exciting changes have been not what we have been doing but where we now provide music therapy because of the outcomes achieved:

  • Mental Health Facilities, Addictions Programs and Forensic Units
  • Hospitals and Neuro Units/Programs
  • Dementia Care and Long Term Care 
  • Schools and Children’s Development Programs
  • Palliative Care and Grief and Loss Programs
  • Corporate Wellness Programs

I feel the area that can and should develop next is in area of preventative medicine – we will address this later.

As I review this brief history, I am left with this thought – that all professions worked very hard and had many struggles during their time of formalization – and many continue to face old and new challenges – from being misunderstood (do needles hurt during acupuncture?), to the public not knowing when to access what treatment (when do I go to chiro vs. physio vs massage), to feeling that other disciplines are taking up some of their rightful professional space (is harp therapy different enough from music therapy that they needed their own certification?).

What I believe is important at this stage of investigation is to recognize that no ONE treatment will solve all our complex human needs. But what is important, particularly to the consumer, the general public who are paying for these services either out of pocket or through taxes, is the knowledge that what they are getting has evidence behind it (including the potential risks), and the assurance that the person treating them has the training, experience, and intention to help and not harm.