1st Edition

Bad Vibrations
The History of the Idea of Music as a Cause of Disease

ISBN 9781138249141
Published October 9, 2016 by Routledge
226 Pages

USD $62.95

Prices & shipping based on shipping country


Book Description

Music has been used as a cure for disease since as far back as King David's lyre, but the notion that it might be a serious cause of mental and physical illness was rare until the late eighteenth century. At that time, physicians started to argue that excessive music, or the wrong kind of music, could over-stimulate a vulnerable nervous system, leading to illness, immorality and even death. Since then there have been successive waves of moral panics about supposed epidemics of musical nervousness, caused by everything from Wagner to jazz and rock 'n' roll. It was this medical and critical debate that provided the psychiatric rhetoric of "degenerate music" that was the rationale for the persecution of musicians in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. By the 1950s, the focus of medical anxiety about music shifted to the idea that "musical brainwashing" and "subliminal messages" could strain the nerves and lead to mind control, mental illness and suicide. More recently, the prevalence of sonic weapons and the use of music in torture in the so-called War on Terror have both made the subject of music that is bad for the health worryingly topical. This book outlines and explains the development of this idea of pathological music from the Enlightenment until the present day, providing an original contribution to the history of medicine, music and the body.

Table of Contents

Contents: Introduction: musical orders and disorders; From sensibility to pathology: nervous music, 1700-1850; Modern music and nervous modernity: Wagnerism as a disease of civilization, 1850-1914; Pathological music, politics and race: Germany and the United States, 1900-45; Music as mind control, music as weapon: pathological music since 1945; Bibliography; Index.

View More



James Kennaway is a historian of medicine, with a joint appointment in the Department of Philosophy and the School of Medicine and Health at Durham University. He specializes in the relationship between music, aesthetics and the body, with broad research interests in the history of physical and mental illness.


'What an interesting find! From the pen of James Kennaway, a historian of medicine at Durham University with an interest in popular culture, this detailed account of the shifting representation of the nature, hidden dangers and even strategic uses of music now arrives... Bad Vibrations is a perfectly unusual and very informative study.' Jive Talk blog '[Kennaway’s] volume, a musicological and literary analysis, offers a compelling cultural history of the nerves and the invention of pathogenic music... [His] approach is refreshingly broadminded.' Social History of Medicine 'Bad Vibrations is a very exciting, well written and intelligent survey with a focus on the dark side of music.' Torture 'This is a pioneering work which provides a strong argument for conceptualizing music as a powerful technology that has shaped, and has been shaped by, Western understandings of disease and health in social as well as individual bodies. It suggests that medical professionals and also the lay public have been as interested in music’s degenerative effects as in its healing powers, and paves the way for future research that looks at the complex relationship between these conflicting ideas.' British Journal for the History of Science 'With its ominous title of Bad Vibrations, readers might approach this truly remarkable work of energetic erudition and brilliant scholarly insight with trepidation, but author James Kennaway has produced a thought-provoking opus on the history of music from the perspective of a disciplined medical historian with sufficient scientific knowledge to address the human impact of music and indeed of sounds in general... this is a work destined to become a classic of medical history.' Lawrence Kruger in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences '... raises a vital discussion in that it seeks to include aesthetic experience, particularly the involuntary and content-free aspects of musical experience, in the history of medicine... the book's