organMusical instruments play an important role in music therapy. Sometimes therapists play them to exert a calming effect on certain kinds of patients. Often the therapy consists of patients themselves extemporizing on instruments they choose. Or a patient can undertake to learn how to play an instrument as part of healing. The piano or various wind instruments are popular in these uses, but any instrument can presumably be employed.  Curiously, the organ receives little consideration in music therapy, in part because it is not available in ordinary treatment settings. But in fact, in regard to music therapy, the organ possesses four special properties that no other acoustical instrument can offer.

First, the organ is more closely associated than other instruments in the Western tradition with churches as physical buildings, with religion, and with spirituality, including the spiritual dimension of the predominantly liturgical music written for it. Many instruments can play music that conduces to reverie, but much of organ music is written precisely to lead to a meditative state of mind. Thus the organ can summon up for a psychiatric patient, for instance, the calming or inspiring associations of childhood participation in religious ceremonies.

Second, the organ is the most intricate of instruments. This property does not appeal to everyone, healthy or emotionally disturbed. But there is a particular kind of psychiatric or neurological patient who thrives on investigating the endless detail of registers, the physical layout of the innards of the organ, and the historical development of the organ in its many incarnations. Absorption in this interest can provide a healing experience.

Third, the organ is the most powerful of instruments. When one lets out all the stops, the cascade of sound shows why the organ has been called the king of instruments. The capacity to sound forth on the organ can benefit patients who have trouble communicating in words or who otherwise feel weak and unable to assert themselves.

Fourth, the organ possesses the greatest range and complexity of vibrations of any acoustical instrument. To the extent that the mechanism of action of music therapy actually involves the physical impact of vibrating sound waves on various cells and molecules throughout the body, the organ offers the richest kaleidoscope of such effects. One can play an oboe, flute, and cello trio, then switch to trumpet, violin, and bass, all on one instrument. In the realm of acoustical instruments, only the orchestra can surpass the organ; but the orchestra is not one instrument. So in theory a sensitive therapist or self-treating patient could devise–by intention, by iterative searching, or by serendipity–some combination of vibrations on the organ that would convey a special therapeutic effect. And this effect could conceivably include physical healing.

The organ’s unique potential in music therapy should be of interest to organists, therapists, and those who seek a path to healing.


Kenneth J. Dillon is an historian and one-time organ player who writes on science, medicine, and history.  See the biosketch at About Us.


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