Ancient Greek Tradition and Perspective on Music Therapy


Photo: Eurokinissi/Giorgos Kontarinis

By Dr. Anthony Paraskevopoulos

Music therapy today can be traced backmany years. The modern purpose of music therapyis to improve and restore mental and physical health. But, the roots and branches of its healing power on our personal health –and behavior towards one another – stem from Ancient Greece.

The Ancient Greeks found their music to be extremely inspirational not only in times of war but, in peaceful ones as well. It was considered to be “therapeutic” to their body, to their social interactions with one another,to the dominion over elements of nature and, perhaps most importantly, to their minds.

As far back as 200 AD according to Athenaios, persons subjected to the disease sciatica (neuritis of the hip and thigh) would always be freed from pain if pipes were played in the Phrygian mode over the affected body parts. In social interactions, according to a well-known myth, the famous music master Terpander, was called to Sparta upon the request of the city's council to eliminate the animosity that prevailed among the various factions in that city. As instructed, he played his Kithara and the opposing groups became reconciled to one another. Concerning the dominion over elements of nature; the Greeks could express their uniqueness as creative beings by reaffirming their alliance with the gods.

In the year 620 BC, Sparta – again – was struck by a plague. The people of the city went to the poet Thaletas for help. With his beautiful hymns, he appeased the gods and the plague was lifted.Orpheus subdued the beasts of the forest with his songs and accompanied by his lyre playing -- he was able to enter Hades.Arion through his wonderful singing enlisted the help of dolphins to carry him on their backs and away from his enemies.

Many of the first mortal musicians were poets who had been blinded as a sort of reward/punishment by the gods. In The Odyssey, for example, Homer (himself blind) describes the situation of the poet, Demodocus. “The muse loved him above all other men and gave him both good and evil. Of his sight she deprived him, but gave him the gift of sweet song.” And we read, later, of two more poet-musicians, Tiresias and Thamyris. They incurred the anger of the muses in some way and were blinded as a result, but who were, at the same time, endowed with musical talent.

As Greek civilization developed and the character of the country as a nation of highly organized city-states emerged, the mythological theories of music were replaced with ones more suited to the needs of the times.

The Greeks did not find their mythological beliefs to be inferior to their scientific ones. In fact, the mythical powers and even the magical properties of music were felt by the Greeks of the Periclean era (the Golden Age) just as strongly as they were felt in archaic times. This is evident in Plato's Republic. Music was always a powerful force in Greek life.

According to the Greeks of the fifth century BC, when this doctrine was most widely promulgated, music had the power to influence the will or character of mankind in several ways. Aristotle, in the Poetics, claimed that the various musical modes (or scales, to use the modern correlate) produced differing effects on the listener. Some “depress,” some “enfeeble the mind,” some produce a “settled moderate mood,” while some “inspire enthusiasm.”

It is no surprise; therefore, that music was taken quite seriously as an educational force whose elements were a matter of state policy. Thus, we learn that in Arcadia, music education was required of all citizens up to age 30, while in Athens, Sparta, and Thebes, the playing of the aulos and participation in the chorus was the duty of all conscientious citizens. But perhaps the greatest testimony to the vital presence of music in the lives of Ancient Greeks was the fact that the musicians and poets were not honored by merely a small group of educated and cultured elite who had the means and time to appreciate such an esoteric form of expression. Like the best athletes and warriors who lent their physical efforts to the glory of the state, the best of these spiritual victors were also crowned with the laurel wreath and became national heroes in the eyes of their countrymen.

Anthony Paraskevopoulos holds a doctorate in music & education from Columbia University.