- Singing and Wellbeing: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Proof by Kay Norton
Norton describes her project in Singing and Wellbeing as an attempt to synthesize recent scholarship on the social and historical importance of singing with medical evidence of music’s health benefits. Her work, which combines the fields of music, the medical humanities, and medicine, is timely given the rise in prominence of the work of Oliver Sacks (especially his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain [New York: Knopf, 2007]) and the 2014 film Alive Inside, which documents the power of music to activate neural pathways, especially in Alzheimer’s patients. (The clip “Henry Wakes Up” went viral on multiple social media platforms.) The task of combining these three disciplines is daunting, given that all are highly specialized.
In the industrialized West, the fields of music and medicine exist in separate worlds, but historically they have been inextricably linked. (It is not by chance that Apollo was the god of music and medicine.) In recent centuries, Western culture and science created a false dichotomy that separated the activities of the mind and those of the body. According to the medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman, before the seventeenth century, human consciousness was not only collective but also a bio-psycho-spiritual unity. With the rise of scientific thought, that consciousness split, and we were suddenly “simultaneously [aware of ] being a body and having a body,” a phenomenon that is associated with “the rise of a discursive, metatheoretical ‘modernist’ orientation to the self that is secular, self-reflexive, and ironic” (Arthur Kleinman, Rethinking Psychiatry: From Cultural Category to Personal Experience [New York: Free Press, 1988], 50). What is most important for the purposes here is that this new split in consciousness “interferes with total absorption in lived experience” (ibid.). It is precisely this total absorption in a lived experience that is central to the act of singing, especially group singing. A hyper-individual and self-reflexive consciousness (as found in the West) may lead to discomfort with reuniting the art of singing and the scientific study of medicine. But the non-singing Western doctor is in the minority; the vast majority of healers—across cultures and throughout history—have employed an inflected human voice in some way during the healing process, whether through chant, prayer, or song. Western skepticism is one of the main challenges that Norton faces in her work.
A second challenge is the Western tendency toward discipline-specific specialization. Norton’s research is not just about music and medicine, but also music and wellbeing. Wellbeing involves far more than just physical health; it is a complex balance of physiological, psychological, social, and political elements. In some ways, this book addresses all of these—from how music changes our physiology to how music can be used to identify with others. Of course, studying such a complicated and multi-faceted phenomenon as wellbeing requires expertise in a wide variety of fields. Disciplinary integration creates profound challenges for the modern Westerner. Norton recognizes and indeed embraces her own limitations, and so my review must do the [End Page 703] same. Both Norton and I are trained in the field of historical musicology; neither of us is a scientist, psychologist, sociologist, or medical practitioner, but we are both deeply interested in the connection between music (singing specifically) and well-being in its broadest possible definition. Indeed, Norton’s work here extends beyond the fields of music and medicine in order to study the significance of the human singing voice using evidence from the fields of anthropology, evolution, world history, psychology, theology, and philosophy. For some, this might be a virtue of the book, in that it refuses to be pigeonholed into just one field of study, but for others it might be seen as an inadequate application of the disciplines.
The book is organized into two parts. In part one, “Singing in History, Cognition, and Parenting,” Norton demonstrates the centrality of the singing...