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, …read more