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Durham University

Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease

Fellowship project

Dr James Kennaway

Pathological Sounds: The History of Music as a Threat to the Nerves

The nervous system had been central to understandings of music since the Enlightenment, but it was only at the end of the eighteenth century that the neuropathological model of disease that was developed by Scottish Enlightenment figures such as Cheyne, Whytt and Brown started to be applied to music. By 1800 music was being portrayed not just as a means of refining the nerves, but as a potential pathogen in works of psychiatry, dietetics, aesthetics and etiquette. During the nineteenth century, this discourse was influenced by such things as the theory of degeneration, the neurasthenia diagnosis and the emerging medical discourse of homosexuality. The sexologist Krafft-Ebing describes three cases of men who connected their same-sex feelings to love of Wagner. As well as physicians such as Krafft-Ebing and critics such as Hanslick, writers like Thomas Mann and Proust also dealt with the theme. Mixed with anti-Semitism and opportunism, this rhetoric of nervous music formed the basis of the Nazi concept of degenerate music. My goal is to outline and explain the development of the idea of music as a source of pathological nervous strain by putting it in the context of changes in neurology, psychiatry, aesthetics, cultural and sexual politics.