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Bach and Body Aches: How Classical Music Helps Me Escape My Symptoms


My university has a big thing for Johann Sebastian Bach.

For 86 years, we’ve hosted a festival in honor of the classical music giant; it has always led to the performance of a major Bach work (or, on two occasions, a related composer), but these days it also includes scholarly lectures, food trucks and a 5k. Last year, the Friday night concert proved to be a healing experience just as much as an artistic one.

Bach Festival

I have a chronic illness, so I’m in some degree of pain every moment of my life. Even though I can usually hide it, bear it and live my life despite it, I am always experiencing some degree of all-over body aches and exhaustion that neither painkillers nor extra rest can solve. Leading up to my own Bach Festival debut for the Saturday night show – not to mention the endless workload associated with the end of the semester – I was feeling particularly achy when I took my seat in the balcony for the Friday night concert, featuring our school’s Motet Choir.

When I was still a music therapy major, I learned about the concept of Gate Control Theory: the idea that the peripheral nervous system cannot process multiple stimuli at once. The simplest example of this? When a person experiences chills, whether from the cold or from witnessing beautiful art, they are temporarily incapable of experiencing physical pain. Board certified music therapists seek this result for their clients’ pain management, and I frequently seek it for myself. To be clear: music and other chillingly beautiful arts are not a cure for complex chronic illnesses, but having a few seconds where I can escape the prison of my body are more than worth hours upon hours in practice rooms and concert halls.

This particular Bach Festival concert, however, gave me chills for its entire duration. Bach cantatas are no easy feat to sing, and I was awed by the superb work of my friends and classmates onstage. I’m sure it would be poignant and moving to describe how their music gave me a rare chance to breathe, but the experience escapes anything about which I could possibly capture in a blog post.

To reiterate: chronic illnesses are complex medical issues, and a pleasant tune will not cure any of us. Believing our symptoms and funding medical research are the long-term needs of those living with ME/CFS like I do. However, in the meantime, experiencing beautiful art is not such a bad thing for the body (or the mind and soul). I’m not in the least upset not to be onstage for any concerts this year; I can’t wait to cheer on my classmates from the audience and allow their hard work to do its magic.

The music which gives me chills may not be what moves you. There’s no rule that it has to be classical, but that’s usually what works for me. I have a short Spotify playlist of some of my favorites.

Image Credits: Destinee Siebe

Getty Image by Furtseff