As a classical organist, I know the power of music. Some pipe organs might be classed as sonic weapons. There are a few high-pitched mutation stops that torture the nervous system. A good 16- or 32-foot bombarde will bring plaster crumbling from the ceiling. Then there are the 64’ diapasons that you can’t actually hear—they just make you nervous. Good times….
But the power of the King of Instruments has also been employed for Good. The classic song (well, perhaps “old warhorse” is a more accurate term) by Sir Arthur Sullivan, “The Lost Chord,” begins, “Seated one day at the organ, I was weary and ill at ease….” Perhaps the narrator of that song would not have been so nervous and debilitated if he had undergone Mr. Lowth’s Vibratorium cure.
MUSIC THE PANACEA
For Numerous Ills That Flesh is Heir To
Chicago Electrician Has an Idea Which He Is Sure Is Bound to Be the Very Greatest Thing the Nineteenth Century Has Brought Forth
A Chicago man has conceived the idea that he can do away with the use of drugs and decoctions for the cure of some ailments which afflict the human family and substitute for them sonatas and oratorios, waltzes and polkas and ballads and music of various brands. He has invented, for the purpose of properly administering his new panacea, an instrument which he calls the vibratorium.
That the material being of man is affected in a wholesome way by music is not a new idea, but in the practical application of music to therapeutics by a given means Inventor Lowth is the first in the field. His vibratorium consists of a cot, held in position between organ pipes. It is supported by light rods, made of material, which will aid the resonance, and connected with a piano [sic. It’s obviously an organ]. The body of the cot, or what might be called the mattress, is in reality a sounding box, constructed on the same principle as that which obtains in the body of a violin or other stringed instrument. The person to be treated is placed in the sounding board and the performer, or prescription clerk, begins to operate at the key-board, playing, of course, the selection previously decided upon as best for the peculiar ailment to be treated. Mr. Lowth says the effect is immediately and thoroughly exhilarating.
It is, curious to say, something on the order of that produced on the nerves by a good, hearty laugh. The direct mechanical effect is a kind of intense, thrilling vibratory action, as marked as that of an electric shock, but continuous and soothing. The tone vibrations resulting from contact with the sounding surface act upon every fiber, fluid and part of the body, as sound permeates and passes through every obstacle interposed between its source and the ear which finally distinguishes it. All this disturbance or agitation is of good effect, and one harmonious, healthful wave passes through the ailing body as the music is played. That music is applied through his invention as a therapeutic agent is not the only claim Mr. Lowth makes for his vibratorium. Nature, not often, to be sure, deals unkindly with some persons, who have “no ear” for music. Mr. Lowth says all this can be remedied by his vibratorium if the victim is diagnosed early enough in life. He would subject him to the powerful physical influence of his sounding bed and load him up with harmony. Such treatment, he declares, would bring about the constitutional changes in the ear and brain and nerves necessary to render him susceptible to the influence of musical tones. Indeed, it is not regarded as impossible by careful and studied treatment to give a person, taken in hand early, an unusually fine taste of music. A Paganini or a Paderewski might be produced. The possibilities of Mr. Lowth’s discovery are to be demonstrated, as his methods are as yet only partially developed. American Citizen [Kansas City, KS] 25 November 1898: p. 2
James Lowth explained the process behind his invention in a longer article:
“I was led into an extensive study of the phenomena of emotions produced by and excited in the brain by musical tones, and also their transference by reflex action to the motor nerves and muscles. Following these studies were numerous experiments with instruments that were capable of heavily vibrating their frames or cases, such as music boxes, pianos, and pipe organs. Through the stethoscopes the frames and sounding boards all vibrated in exact unison with the exciting tone, so that was settled upon as a basis. I selected the organ on account of its continuity of tone and also for its positiveness of vibratory action.
“A cot constructed of thin wood in the form of a sounding board or box is supported by light wooden rods fastened in the sides of a full set of organ pipes, the upper ends of the rods being let into the bottom of the cot, giving it a position favouring its resonance…Beneficial changes may be produced in the diseased brains of insane persons by subjecting them to this vibratonic action as there is no doubt of its efficacy in bringing about cellular changes that will induce healthy conditions.” Indiana State Journal [Indianapolis, IN] 7 December 1898: p. 8
It is not clear if specific tunes were used for specific ailments: “Beer Barrel Polka” to revitalize drunkards; “The Old Oaken Bucket” for fevers and dehydration; “The World Turned Upside Down” for lunatics. Perhaps Lowth thought the vibrations alone would do the trick, although a Dr Siegfried Block and a musician, Charles D. Isaacson, experimented in the 1910s with matching ailments to their curative melodies. [Another day, another post.] The illustration also seems to be only an approximation–the base is an old-fashioned piano, the pipes aren’t to scale, and no wind mechanism is pictured. I cannot find any contemporary photographs of the device; this may have been the best the engraver could imagine.
A 1903 advert for “Doctor Wells’ Vibratorium” (“the only Vibratorium west of New York City”) claimed to cure all chronic and nervous diseases, Dyspepsia, Constipation, Rheumatism, Catarrh, Bronchitis, Asthma, Consumption, Diseases of the Heart, Liver and Kidneys, Diseases of Women, Paralysis, Neuralgia, Nervous Debility and all weaknesses of the nervous system.
The term seems to disappear after 1909, when an ad asserted that “Audies Vibratorium” would permanently cure deafness and “head noises.” The Audies’ claim is a little disingenuous since it is known that the hearing-impaired can sometimes hear music despite not being able to distinguish other sounds.
The notion of musical therapy continues. Today you can find all kinds of claims for “audio therapy” on the web, citing things like “quantum sound layering,” perfectly pitched silicon crystal bowls,” “tuning fork” for the body, “cancer cells playing out of tune” etc. etc. You’ll also find anecdotes of classical music played to dairy cows increasing milk output and a claim that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony destroys cancer cells.
As I remarked in the opening of this piece, I know the power of music, but putting a patient on a wind chest and vibrating them to health? One can only picture the misery of invalids with nausea or vestibular ailments… But think back to Doctor Wells’ Vibratorium’s list of ailments. Given that simulating massage of the pelvic area was sometimes prescribed for “diseases of women” and “hysteria,” the Vibratorium might actually have been effective in certain cases. Seen in that light, Mr Lowth’s vibratorium suggests, not the soaring stanzas of “The Lost Chord”
…And it lay on my fevered spirit
With a touch of infinite calm.
It quieted pain and sorrow,
Like love overcoming strife…
but rather the healing touch of the Excessive Machine in Barbarella.
Have you experienced a tuneful cure or seen real research on music altering the action of cells? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com