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.

In the five main chapters of Kennaway’s study, music and disorder, nervous condition, Wagnerism, special treatment of music in Germany and the USA and finally music s a weapon, the author adds valuable detail to music appreciation throughout the centuries.

pic bad vibThis review, however, will focus on the unique position jazz holds in a discussion on the sensual qualities of music as identified by Kennaway.

Going back as far as to Plato’s warnings that a change in the use of music and harmonies would finally lead to the general disobedience of laws, alteration, progress and evolution of musical styles have been critically surveyed by the ones deeming themselves in the position to judge upon these. The greatest shift, however, in this critical supervision of music took place in the late 18th century when recent developments in musical presentation “doubtlessly” seemed to be the reason for hysteria, a decay of morals and an urge to let go all discipline. Music – while being transferred to the body through vibrations and hence being a matter of nervous attraction – thus was responsible for disease, hysteria and could ruin one’s life. This shaped the idea that music was, in fact, pathological (music). And this is why (I guess) the book is called “Bad Vibrations,” echoing Brian Wilson’s great surf tune “Good Vibrations.” In addition, musical brainwashing and the use of subliminal messages hidden in popular music is examined in this study.
As early as in the Middle Ages there was a profound distrust in the qualities of music since it could stimulate “the flesh” and have all reason and fear of God vanish from the mind of man; hence music was identified as a  threat to order and religion just as any other influence that would remind man of self-determination, sensuality and freedom. Another dominant (and as irrelevant) fear was the emasculating effect of harmonies; men could lose their masculinity while listening to music.

This is where the notion of something that could be called “musical hygiene” presented itself in a new disguise. Although there are historical sources that state the healing powers of music, the sheer complexity of the subject and the fact that music was one form of nervous stimulation made it easier to condemn the art form altogether. For, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, over stimulation was seen as the source of a wide range of diseases.

To the sense of “musical hygiene,” the aspect of “racial hygiene” was added later and Kennaway correctly states that the two countries where this idea was carried out most vehemently were, in fact, Nazi Germany and the USA of the early 21st century. In both countries, the clearly visible effects of the sound on the body and, hence, possibly uncontrolled sexuality were feared, be it jazz in the USA and the “New Music” in Germany. And in both countries, the comprehensive idea prospered that this music carried the possibility of miscegenation, sickness, was drug related and, in conclusion, the effect of an overall perverted sexual instinct.
Added to the homemade, mostly racist anxieties of the American public concerning ragtime and jazz in the 1920’s, the paranoid European theories on new and unusual music were added to the American discourse.

There it was not the fear of the “New Music,” Jewish influences or the music of the  Bolsheviks but the effects of the wild and seemingly untamed rhythms of African-American origin that would stir female sexuality and cause a decay of morals. One of the worst fears was the supposed contagiousness of the rhythms of jazz over long distances (a notion which is satirically portrayed by African-American author Ishmael Reed in Mumbo Jumbo). One key element here was the syncopated rhythms of jazz that seemed to have the power to alter a person’s state of mind.

To cut this short: Bad Vibrations is a perfectly unusual and very informative study. For Mr. Kennaway did not just dig up documents from the history of medicine; since music and the body naturally are the subject of many academic disciplines we read from sources as diverse as neurology, gender studies, psychiatry, music criticism, the history of the body and the history of emotions.

Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2013

James Kennaway. Bad Vibrations. The History of the Idea of Music as a Cause of Disease. (The History of Medicine in Context). Ashgate Publishing, 2012, 226 p.