Music as Heroin

(book review, West Coast Review of Books, 1981)


The Healing Energies of Music by Hal A. Lingerman (Theosophical Publishing House)

“Music as physical, emotional and mental therapy.”  The author, a self-described minister, counselor and teacher, tries to show how one can be a better person by listening to “certain pieces of music, played with timing and good taste,” and by avoiding the music that hurts his plants.  To illustrate this to us he begins with an “incident” from Greek history in which an enraged man, sword in hand, is reduced to lamb-like gentleness with a single chord plucked from a lyre.  If you believe that, then this book might be for you.

Lingerman’s approach is based around a strange mesh of the bible, astrology, sixties-style mysticism, and what are apparently Theosophical ideas of Sound and Light that are never really explained.  The music is not explained technically at all, but rather in terms of what instruments are good for the physical, mental, spritual and soul “bodies.”  Compositions, too, are categorized this way:  the physical body, for instance, benefits when it hears marches, fanfares, “Oh What A Beautiful Morning,” Liberace, the soundtrack to “Born Free”, and Johnny Cash.

He then drifts into how we can control our moods with music.  To release anger we should beat our rugs to “Ride of the Valkyries;” or calm down to the strains of Bach or Andy Williams.  Lingerman, again, recommends Johnny Cash because “the tremendous outpouring of feeling” on his live prison albums (perhaps the cheers after “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”?) are “testimony to the basic longings of mankind, no matter how seemingly distorted, for some ineffable union in the Spirit.”  Lists of music are provided for our various moods.  Interestingly, lust or physical attraction is not one of them.

It gets really hazy after this.  Apparently, we are all either air, water, fire, or earth; maybe a combination thereof, and must carefully select our music accordingly.  He does this for us, with a mixture of religion and pop psychology—all based on the idea that we can know our exact temperment (which can never be changed).  He tells us which composers had which temperments.  Apparently, we are supposed to stick listening-wise to those composers with our own temperments.  If we don’t, who knows what could happen….

The man’s approach is patronizing in the extreme.  We cannot make any decisions for ourselves musically without his guiding light.  He tells us to first take the dust off our stylus.  To say thank you, literally to say “Thank you” to the music for playing for us.  He tells us what to play for our kids (“Scheherazade” and “Tubby the Tuba”), what to play for our fetuses, why we should not play Beethoven and Tchaikovsky after one another (it could upset us), or play much Tchaikovsky at all (it will upset us).  That rock music irregular rhythms (irregular?) will hurt us as well as our plants—except, research shows, that of the Beatles.  That digital recordings are not as therapeutic as regular recordings.  That listening to international music helps make us “planetary citizens”:  the American selection is an album each of Navajo songs, “negro” spirituals, and “American Civil War Songs of the North and South” as sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

I could go on and on.  Though the “light” selections go from “Whistle While You Work” by the above named choir to the Captain and Tenille and Barry Manilow, and that “the ‘Sound of Music’ is one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed,” the classical selections in general are very good, by many and varied composers.  But we are given Stravinsky’s “Firebird” but not “The Rite of Spring;” Liszt’s “preludes” but not the “Mephisto Waltz.”  And there is no jazz listed or even mentioned at all.  Too many rhythms, too many time changes, too much threat.  He gives you music as heroin: clean off your needle, say “Thank you” and float away into the euphoric nothingness of “The Sound of Music.”  This is not therapy.  It is escape.

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