Music and the nervous system in eighteenth-century British medical thought

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Abstract

It is well established that during the eighteenth century learned medical explanations for health and disease gradually moved away from the balance of humours, and increasingly focused on the state of the nerves. George Rousseau, Anne Vila and Christopher Lawrence, for example, have shown us how the Enlightenment culture of sensibility revolved around the nervous system, the assumption being that sensitive nerves were indicative of social refinement and feeling, but also meant susceptibility to certain kinds of disease.1 With its emphasis on weak nerves as the cause of melancholy and related distempers, George Cheyne’s The English Malady: Or a Treatise of Nervous Diseases of All Kinds (1733) perfectly exemplifies this new trend.2 However, despite the attention that has been paid to eighteenth-century doctrines of the nerves, the fact that music played a part in these physiological theories has yet to be fully appreciated.3 This may well be because some of the most famous physicians who wrote on the nerves (such as Cheyne or Robert Whytt, for example), did not identify music as a likely cure for melancholy or other so-called ‘nervous diseases’.4 In brief, when it did arise in medical discourse there were two main roles that music served, and these were ultimately related to each other.5 The first was as a topic that merited consideration in its own right: that is, why and how does music affect people?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMusic and the Nerves, 1700-1900
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan Ltd
Pages44-71
Number of pages28
ISBN (Electronic)9781137339515
ISBN (Print)9781137339508
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 29 Sept 2014

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