Personal and Biblical Perspectives on Healing Through Music

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After World Wars I and II, musicians began visiting wounded soldiers around the United States, playing familiar, soothing melodies to help alleviate pain, reduce stress, and encourage rehabilitation. This was the beginning of music therapy, a field that is now internationally recognized as a cost-effective, non-invasive, and meaningful treatment for various maladies. In the 1950s, the National Association for Music Therapy was established, paving the way for education and research into the singular relationship between music and healing.

I first heard of music therapy in college, where I studied psychology, hoping to pursue clinical work. The more I learned about music therapy, the more alive it became and the more I imagined myself using my experiences as a musician to enhance and shape my career as a therapist. Music therapy seemed an ideal combination of my interests.

I pursued a Master’s degree in music therapy and became board-certified to practice music therapy nationwide. Now, I work as a music therapist at an inpatient psychiatric hospital, treating older adults struggling with anxiety, aggression, and suicidal ideation stemming from psychosis and dementia. In addition to music therapy, the facility also provides art therapy and dance/movement therapy to help patients express themselves, orient to reality, achieve a sense of self-control, and relate to other patients through creative means. 

Most often, my music therapy groups begin with singing, playing instruments, or writing a song, and morph into a combination of musical expression and verbal discussion. During a recent session, a group of patients wrote and sang the following lyrics together, a testament to their strength and resilience in the face of emotional turmoil: “Someday, I’ll overcome, one day; Someday I’ll smile again under the sun; Someday, I’ll do something inspirational; Someday, I’ll be in good health.” Through music and conversation, group members listen, offer advice, show initiative, make decisions, gain insight into their challenges, and develop healthy coping skills. 

In my time working as a music therapist, several patients have told me that music therapy is the highlight of their day and when they feel happiest and most at peace. I feel empowered by comments like these, and I am grateful to witness my patients’ shift from anger and fear to acceptance and clarity through the medium of music. Further, for those struggling to grip reality, music is an anchor, a stabilizing, metered force that organizes thought, stimulates memory, improves mood, and enhances the capacity for healthy social engagement. 

Recently, I came across two stories in Jewish writings that tap into the unique relationship between music and healing. The first, recorded in Sefer Hayashar – a midrashic text discovered at the time of the destruction of the second Temple – recounts the reunion of Jacob with his son, Joseph (Bereshit 45:25-28), when Joseph was thought dead. According to the Torah’s text, Joseph’s brothers tell Jacob that Joseph is alive, causing Jacob’s heart to “faint, for he believed them not.” The Sefer Hayashar presents this narrative differently: the brothers considered the immense emotional shock that the news of Joseph would cause their father, and they called upon a harpist, Serah, to ease Jacob into the news through song. The Sefer Hayashar writes, “Jacob heard [Serah’s] words and they were agreeable to him. He listened whilst she repeated them twice and thrice, and joy entered the heart of Jacob at the sweetness of her words, and the spirit of God was upon him…” Here, Serah uses music to help Jacob through this intensely emotional moment, enabling him to accept the news of his son with joy. Often seen in modern-day music therapy, Serah’s use of soothing, repetitive musical phrases helps Jacob process an overwhelming experience.   

Similarly, in Shmuel Aleph (16:14-23), when King Saul experiences an “evil spirit,” understood as “melancholia,” his advisors seek a harpist to soothe him. David enters and plays music to relax Saul, as the text says: “so Saul found relief, and it was well with him, and the evil spirit departed from him.” A deeper dive into these two stories reveals interesting textual parallels that suggest certain consistencies in the practice of playing music to encourage healing in biblical times. In both stories, a group of people identify emotional upset in someone close to them, a musician/healer intervenes, and the person in need experiences positive mood changes in response to the music. These similarities seem to resonate with the process of modern day music therapy as well.

These biblical accounts demonstrate the use of music to calm the listener, what music therapists today would call “receptive music therapy,” during which a client listens to music to reduce stress and improve relaxation. Alternatively, “active music therapy” involves a client making music, which activates different brain regions than listening, and may be used to improve self-esteem, reality orientation, healthy communication, and more. 

I am motivated by the presence of music as a source of healing in ancient Jewish history. It feels like a testament to modern day music therapy practice, and by extension, music as a source of connection both in and out of clinical contexts. Music is an inherently interpersonal process, and elements of music such as harmony and synchronicity seem to invite connection among those playing or singing together. Notably, music plays a significant role in modern Jewish practice as it is woven into prayer services, Torah ‘trope,’ special melodies for Shabbat and holidays, and even the blowing of the shofar, which resembles a wailing melodic voice. Perhaps noticing the power of music not only to heal but to bring individuals and communities closer can influence Jewish practice today.  

Back in college, when I first heard of music therapy, I was unaware of the extensive empirical data that exists on the topic. It turns out that researchers worldwide have been studying the effects of music therapy on mental, emotional, and physical wellness for over six decades, and they are finding consistent, significant, positive outcomes. Music therapy and its counterparts, art therapy and dance/movement therapy play a unique role in healthcare today for all ages – from babies in the NICU and children with autism to adults with PTSD and the elderly in geriatric care. It is my hope that the creative arts therapies continue to grow in prominence as they influence health around the world, and that music continues to be a source of growth and connection within our communities.   

Shoshana Leshaw, MA, MT-BC is a board-certified music therapist currently working in acute psychiatry. She integrates traditional psychotherapy with tailored music interventions to help clients improve their behavioral and emotional health. Living in Philadelphia, Shoshana enjoys singing with the a cappella group, The Chailights.