Musical Nervousness as a Fashionable Disease


Music and the Nerves

I first became interested in the ‘fashionable diseases’ of the long eighteenth century when I was working on my book Bad Vibrations: The History of the Idea of Music as a Cause of Disease. In that period, especially in Britain, the notion that music was a matter of nervous stimulation became widespread, bringing thinking on music into the wider debate on nervousness, sensuality and sensibility. Until the 1790s, music was generally depicted as refining rather than damaging the nerves with the context of the Cult of Sensibility. Thereafter, however, musical nervousness became a full-blown fashionable disease, with a moral-medical critique of its excesses and the whiff of emotional and spiritual superiority.

By the eighteenth century British contributions to the discussion of music’s physical effects, such as Richard Browne’s 1729 Medicina Musica and Richard Brocklesby’s 1749 Reflections of Antient and Modern Musick, tended to assume that music’s power over emotions was experimentally verifiable, that the body worked on Newtonian principles, and that the nerves were responsible for music’s impact.1 There was an extensive debate about how the nerves transmitted sound to the brain, with a variety of theories on the nature of the nerves co-existing, with models of animal spirits, nervous fluid, electrical, vibrating and oscillating nerves all competing and often being combined. The idea of ‘sympathetic vibration’ between music and literally vibrating nerves was one model of the impact of sound that proved highly influential. Although George Cheyne also turned to the language of tightened strings, likening the embodied soul to a ‘Musician in a finely fram’d and well-tun’d Organ-Case… these nerves are like Keys’, he preferred the idea of nervous fluid.2

Although more hostile voices such as John Gregory complained that modern music had lost its moral purpose, Enlightenment aestheticians and physicians often explicitly stated that music refined listeners’ nerves and their morals.3 For example, Nicholas Robinson in his 1729 A New System of the Spleen suggested that ‘it would not be improper sometimes, to try upon those Diseases, that are supposed to have a very great Dependance on the Mind; (as the Hypochondriack Melancholy) and discover whether it is possible, by its Impulses to work a Change in those finest Nerves and Animal Fluids, that are too subtle to come under the Influence of the choicest Medicines’.4 Similarly, eighteenth-century dietetic books, such as John Fothergill’s Rules for the Preservation of Health of 1762 or James Mackenzie’s 1760 The History of Health, and the Art of Preserving It recommended music as a healthy exercise and raised no doubts as to its beneficial effect.5 In aesthetics, too, this physiological model of music’s positive effects was common. The Irish writer Daniel Webb argued in his 1769 Observations on the Correspondence between Poetry and Music that its impact of the nerves meant that it was ‘destined to act in aid of the moral sense, to regulate the measures and proportions of our affections; and by counter-acting the passions in their extremes, to render them the instruments of virtue, and the embellishments of character’.6

From Musical Sensibility to Musical Pathology

However, by 1800 there had been a marked hardening of attitudes towards music’s effect on the nerves as the sensibility model of music refining the nerves was challenged on several fronts. In terms of medicine, music became incorporated into a late Enlightenment model of the aetiology of disease that saw stimulation as the principal cause of sickness. Much later than other ‘luxuries’ such as the novel or coffee, music became subject to a developing medical critique of modern lifestyle and culture as sick. The emergence of a critique of music’s effect on health was part of a growing medical hostility towards sensibility and the lifestyles of the indulgent rococo lifestyle of the elite. The French Revolution, especially the Terror and chaos of the 1790s, made making sensibility’s defence of individual feeling against social convention much less palatable to mainstream opinion.

This social and medical critique of music can be seen in the work of the radical Bristol physician Thomas Beddoes. In his Hygëia of 1802, one sees the view of music as a potential cause of neuropathological conditions. At one point he implies that a young man’s death was brought on in part by the strain of music.7 Elsewhere in the book he outlines his ideas on the effect of music in more detail:

Even when it charms, it co-operates with weights, already suspended with too little consideration upon the nervous system, and all pulling in the same direction… The SAVOYARD [sic] rustic, who carols as she trudges, is, I can well conceive, all the better for her elegant accomplishment. But the English Miss, with whom already almost every occupation is sedentary, and every pleasure passive, must, I fear, be the worse – the worse for the acquirement of the art, and for the delight it yields, when acquired…. I will not suppress my suspicion, that the largest pack of hounds we have, turned out mad upon the country, might possibly have committed less ravage, than that rage for excelling in music, which, of late years, we have seen invading families, and imposing the necessity of such strictness of application upon the girls’.8

At the same time, the expansion of the middle class meant that the elite associations of sensibility were not only under attack, they were becoming diluted, and the physicians and writers that fretted about its medical consequences noticed the phenomenon spreading. By 1833, the Scottish physician David Uwins explained how social mobility and modern lifestyles, including music, were leading to sickness. ‘Pianos, parasols, Edinburgh Reviews, and Paris-going desires’, he wrote, ‘are now found among a class of persons who formerly thought these things belonged to a different race; these are the true sources of nervousness and mental ailments’. 9 As the century wore on, medical critiques of music would increasingly focus on the masses and less on the elite.

Musical nervousness was a fashionable disease not only in the sense of seemingly being a sudden ubiquitous diagnosis, it was also modish itself and could come with considerable prestige. The glamour associated with the over-sensitive, nervous and sickly musician was a common theme throughout the Romantic period. An article on hypochondria in 1826, for instance, suggested that, ‘Among the various classes of artists, for example, musicians are perhaps the most subject to those wayward fancies which mark the hypochondriac; witness Viotti, Sacchini, Mozart and others; while the effect upon minds gifted with undue sensibility is strikingly illustrated by the melancholy and passionate desire of revisiting.10 As is so often the case, the fashionable diseases of the Georgian period thus set the scene for subsequent developments. Discussion of music, the body and health up until today has continued to reflect ambivalent attitudes about sexuality, class, creativity and the ‘medical marketplace’.

James Kennaway

Back to post1. Richard Browne, Medicina Musica; or a Mechanical Essay on the Effects of Singing Music, and Dancing on Human Bodies (London, 1729), p.33.
Back to post2. George Cheyne, The English Malady (London, 1733), p. xviii, 4.
Back to post3.Richard Brocklesby, Reflections on Antient and Modern Musick (London, 1749), p.11.
Back to post4.Nicholas Robinson, A New System of the Spleen, Vapours, and Hypochondriack Melancholy (London, 1729), pp. 143-44.
Back to post 5.John Fothergill, Rules for the Preservation of Health (London, 1762), p. 57, James Mackenzie, The History of Health, and the Art of Preserving It (Edinburgh, 1760), p. 380.
Back to post 6.Daniel Webb, Observations on the Correspondence between Poetry and Music (London, 1769), p. 37.
Back to post 7.Thomas Beddoes, Hygëia (Bristol, 1804), Essay Seventh, p. 92.
Back to post 8.Ibid., Essay Third, pp. 53-4.
Back to post 9. David Uwins, A Treatise on those Disorders of the Brain and Nervous System (London: Renshaw and Rush, 1833), p. 51.
Back to post 10.Richard Phelps, “On Hypochondriasis” The Monthly Magazine (July 1826), pp. 40-44.

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