History of Music Therapy as an Approach to Understanding Music.
(Part 2)

Yuki Mitsuhira / Researcher specializing in the history of music therapy

Aspiring to Change Music Therapy in Japan in a Historical Context.

Since embarking on her journey through the history of music therapy in Japan, Yuki Mitsuhira has been working her way through voluminous historical records. What interesting historical events and episodes has she discovered? She told us about the therapeutic values of music revealed in history, along with her plans for future research.

A delightful finding after months of exhausting archival research.

Many of the professors at Nichibunken offered me guidance and advice at the outset of my research into the history of music therapy in Japan. They broadened my perspectives in fields such as Japanese history, medicine, philosophy, religion, and literature. While no historical materials on music overtly describe music as a form of therapy, we agreed that therapeutic techniques based on sounds must have existed since antiquity. As a starting point, several professors recommended that I search not for ‘music used as therapy,’ but for ‘therapies that use sound.’ Taking their advice, I began researching publications from medieval and premodern Japan in relation to the history of medicine in the country.

Searching through historical materials as an academic requires time and patience. Coming across a valuable piece of information can be revelatory and rewarding. I remember my elation on finding a passage about sounds and health in an 18th-century thesis called the “Theories on Healthy Living.” The find sounds minor, but one day it may help overturn the classical belief that music therapy was introduced to Japan from the West after the war. My work during this period culminated in an abridgment of my research findings into a book. Nowadays I am working on the first half of the twentieth century. My fieldwork extends from libraries and history centers to hospitals, where various records are kept unsorted. I delve into half-century-old cartons with my mask, goggles, and gloves, poring through medical records, care histories, patient journals, photographs, and sometimes even video footage. I hope to write a sequel to my previous study based on findings from this era.

An abundance of documents from the twentieth century, often medical records and prescription notes, shed light on the music therapy practices of the time.

In search of therapeutic sounds congenial to the Japanese.

In historical studies, I always keep in mind the differences in how the Japanese and Occidentals create and conceive of music. Music in the West tends to focus on the rhythm, melody, and harmony as fundamental elements. The rhythms and harmonies in Japanese music, particularly in traditional genres such as nogaku, tend to be irregular from the perspective of classical music. As a matter of custom, the Japanese associate certain sounds with sentiments or sensations. The acoustical qualities of a chorus of insects may soothe, for example, or the sound of a bamboo tube hitting a rock may evoke a cooling sensation. I hope to identify the musical sense experienced in Japanese minds as a common thread throughout all of Japan’s history. If identified and defined, such a sense could be a linchpin for the establishment of a music therapy that takes firm root in Japanese culture and customs.

I have recently started applying historical findings to modern music therapy in practice. It will take decades to expand this approach into a full-fledged practical method. But any small successes I have today give me the incentive to press forward. I am also organizing public lectures and workshops with demonstrations to raise awareness of the history of music therapy and encourage more people to get involved.

Yuki lectures on the historical development of music therapy, demonstrating with the piano and traditional musical instruments of Japan. More than a joy, playing music is an endless series of discoveries.

Empathy and communication—extraordinary attributes of music.

Music has taken on a new significance for me since I shifted the focus of my studies to a Japan-centric context. Back at the music academy, the classical texts I struggled through in Latin and Greek never gave me a clear picture of the clinical scenes of the past. Today, when I listen to the music described in the historical documents of Japan, or when I play traditional instruments such as the shamisen or moon lute, the pictures that form are vivid. I am transported to clinical scenes I imagine to be real. This is an important point. As one of my senior researchers once said to me, “A historian doesn’t simply look at the past. A historian holds a dialog with the people she encounters in the materials she studies.”

When not researching, I play music with my colleagues. Playing connects me to the real world today, which of course is essential. In this sense, music connects people with each other and with different periods as a bridge between the past and present. My research into the history of music therapy has a long way to go. I will continue my search for the meaning and potential of music from a historical perspective.

Yuki also takes part in a project at Nichibunken to study Western perspectives on Japan from the mid-nineteenth century by investigating documents, maps, essays, and sheet music produced outside of Japan.

Read the Part 1

Yuki Mitsuhira / Researcher specializing in the history of music therapy
Yuki Mitsuhira took her Ph.D. at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies. She is currently participating in a Nichibunken research project to investigate the history of music therapy. She recently published Music as "Iyashi": Music Therapy and its Ideological Foundations in the Edo and Meiji Periods (Rinsen Shoten, 2018).

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