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 Music and Medicine The Universal Language of Mind, Body and Soul 
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Mind Over Matter by . View all columns in series
Have you ever thought about the very first time you heard music?

You're probably reflecting on those unforgettable lullabies that even now seem to melt into feelings of warmth and coziness. Settling into an expression of love never to be forgotten, you finally surrendered to wondrous possibilities of a dream world where new adventures were bound to unfold. As mother's voice progressively faded into a safe and predictable distance, your heartbeat slowed, your muscles relaxed and you let go.

You were naturally lulled to sleep, just as you had been from almost the beginning. Amidst a rhythmical lub-dub, you evolved within an ocean of sloshing amniotic fluid amplified by a rich cacophony of membranes, muscles and bones. A part of you probably still remembers the first symphony you ever heard a few months prior to seeing the world unfold around you.

It doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to realize music's impact on our lives. There's no doubt it has the power to orchestrate our emotional tone. Music can trigger just about any emotion - it can bring joy to our hearts or sadness in anticipation of pain, loss, or separation. Music sends our boys to war and announces their return in parades or funerals. It brings tears to our eyes even before the couple acknowledges "I do," and it inspires us to lead the charge when our team is behind in the last quarter. It enables us to celebrate life, to sing and to dance, and it centers us peacefully in prayer or meditation.

Music has also been considered a universal language.

As a child, I remember hearing that phrase as I repeatedly practiced Bach and stared at a marble bust of Mozart that sits in my office today. My piano teacher explained that music revealed a common theme. It was understood by everyone - everyone but me. She said that while different languages separated people by impeding communication, music united them. The problem at age 8, however, was that I didn't get it.

As a child, I couldn't comprehend the in-depth message, emotion and suffering revealed by some of the most famous works ever composed. For me, certain compositions expressed what I frankly didn't understand. Yet I still practiced day after day for many years.

Eventually, under the tutelage of Maestro Edgar Shiffman, the former youngest head professor of the Conservatory of Vienna who fled during the Holocaust, I found myself at the pinnacle of my less than inspiring musical career at age 14.

The anxiety and panic experienced that Sunday in New York City will never be forgotten. Steinway Hall itself was frightening, intimidating and overwhelming. The theatre was a formal relic of music's past, and backstage was as dark, gloomy and as cold as what I imagined hell to be. Any semblance of music in my heart was replace by rumblings in my stomach which were the only sounds I heard, and they were far from settling.

After a wait that seemed eternal, I finally entered the stage and sat before the longest monster of a piano I had ever seen in my life. It wasn't just an ordinary Steinway. Its keys had been caressed and pounded by the most highly acclaimed pianists in the world - extraordinary people who truly understood the music.

To make matters worse, the piano before me was paired side by side with an identical instrument to be played by an accomplished musician who had already established a favorable relationship with those keys on several occasions.

That duet with the maestro was an honor and a curse. It was unnerving beyond my expectations. As hard as I tried, there were no remembrances of lullabies or the music of my soul. Yet surprisingly without struggle, the piece seemed to flow automatically. The music I didn't seem to comprehend protected me in a cocoon of heightened mental focus.

Ultimately, even the applause and bravos elicited somber sentiments. I considered them no more than accolades for a performance closely matching what the composer supposedly intended hundreds of years ago. I realized that a door was closing - a bittersweet farewell to a part of my life that I could no longer endure.

That last concert was a perceived failure. It represented a waste of all the money spent on piano lessons and a disappointment to my parents. Yet it didn't make sense even at 14 to overshadow the memories of those lullabies my grandmother sang, the hymns I chanted, or the school songs we bellowed that made me feel so good inside.

As I look back, what was once considered a failure is now the guiding light for a physician incorporating music as a healing strategy in traditional medicine. It was a painful yet important lesson. I now realize that music is not a universal language in the context previously stated.

All forms of music are not understood, appreciated or enjoyed by everyone. Culture and preference must be considered in every form of music therapy. Enjoyment rather than performance should be emphasized at all ages. For a certain type of music to be healing, it has to resonate with one's soul - it must be comprehended deep within.

When music listening or performance is matched to our needs and preferences, a part of us naturally reconnects with the first symphony we ever heard. When we do so, it becomes obvious that music can become a universal language. When it resonates with what we love, music truly unites mind, body and spirit - Mind Over Matter!

© 1999 Barry Bittman, MD all rights reserved

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 About The Author
Barry Bittman, MD is a neurologist, author, international speaker, award-winning producer/director and inventor. As CEO and Medical Director of the Mind-Body Wellness Center, a......moreBarry Bittman MD
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