More Than Entertainment: Music for Communication, Military, & Health

Nov 16, 2016

blog - More Than Entertainment - Music for Communication, Military, & Health

In today’s modern world music is an everyday part of our lives. Even if you’re not a big music lover, it’s inescapable. We have music in our TV shows and movies, in our advertisements, on our hold lines, and even in our elevators. In almost every case this music is meant to either entertain us, or give us emotional cues as to what we should be feeling about what we’re seeing. But in the past music had an even larger role in human life. Starting in the ancient past, though to only a century or so ago, music and musical instruments were used as tools for more than merely making pleasant sounds. In fact, throughout the ages music and musical instruments have been used for communication, to aid troops in warfare, and even to heal the sick.


Signal instruments are musical instruments that are not only used to make music, but are also used to communicate over long distances. Because they need to produce a loud, clear sound that can travel far, most signal instruments are either percussion or brass. Before the introduction of modern technology that made communicating across rough terrain as easy as picking up the receiver, people used instruments to send messages through mountains or sparsely populated gass- or woodlands.

According to local legend, the alphorn, also known as the alpenhorn or apline horn (which you may recognize from Ricola cough drop ads) was used throughout medieval times, and even earlier, as a signal instrument in communities all over the Alps. In many villages it was used in place of church bells to call worshipers to mass.

In West Africa an hourglass-shaped “talking” drum that goes by many names (dondo, tamanin, lunna, Kalangu, etc.) is one of oldest instruments used by West African griots (societal leaders and keepes of oral tradition). With a sound that resembles the tone patterns of human speech, an entire language was developed, and used to send detailed messages from one village to another much faster than could be carried by someone on horseback. These messages can travel as far as 4-5 miles (about 7-8 km).

Often, the message that needs to be conveyed is extremely simple: danger. These kinds of messages don’t need to be coded like a language, they only need to be easily recognized (think of an old air raid siren. Everyone knows what it means). For this purpose a huge variety of instrument have been created. Countless coastal cultures have utilized the conch shell as a means to signal. Others have developed bells, as in a church belfry, or even gongs, like throughout Asia.


Instruments have also been widely utilized for a very specific kind of communication: aiding military troops. Military bands have probably been around for as long as there have been militaries because in the chaos of war, musical instruments were once the only way to command forces to advance, stand, or retire. One of the earliest reports of military instruments came from the 17th century adventurer Evliya Celebi, who noted that the Ottoman Empire had 40 guilds of musicians in 1670’s Istanbul alone.

In Western history, especially that of the United States, the most common military instruments were the fife, drums, and bugle or trumpet. The earliest Western military bands were made up of fife and drum players. When played in the upper register, the extremely small and portable fife is exceedingly loud and piercing. This, when coupled with drums, made it the perfect military signaling instrument. According to some reports a band of fife and drums could be heard as far as 3 miles away, over the sound of artillery fire.

Drums summoned men from their homes, farms, and ranches to answer the call of duty, and helped keep armies marching in stride. The drummers, who were often young boys, were seen as a kind of mascot by many of the more seasoned soldiers.

Over time, the use of bugles and/or trumpets also became quite popular in the military, especially in navies, to signal commands to the crews of several warships at once. Today, most military bugles are used simply to signal soldiers of various things, including serious calls to action, as well as more mundane things, like lights out in the barracks.


In addition to the more communal uses like communication and military tactics, many musical instruments have been used to heal the sick and wounded, and cast out the evil that may cause those illnesses.

One of the oldest instruments thought to bring good fortune and health is the gong. Originating in China sometime around 5,500 years ago, it has traditionally been believed that the essence of the sacred gong-makers is imbued within the very metal of the instrument itself. It is believe that if a person were to touch this powerful object, they would be gifted with happiness, luck, and good health.

While there are several cultures that believe close proximity to the actual instrument is good for your health, the vast majority that use instruments to heal are more concerned with the actual sounds rather than the instrument. The mouth harp (sometimes called a jaw harp) for example, has been used for hundreds of years in rituals by Mongolian and Siberian tribal groups. It has been said that the music produced can induce a trance-like state that can help heal sicknesses.

Another example would be from the Māori people of New Zealand. Their connection to music is so powerful that the taonga puro, a group of traditional Māori musical instruments, are regarded as literally the children of their gods. One such instrument, the kōauau (a flute) is used to summon healing spirits, as well as to make people laugh, another valuable asset to the healing process.

Mental health has also bee the focus of many musical instruments throughout human history. The tanbur, for example, was used for healing, calming, and aiding in the creation and maintenance of inner emotional balance. The forefather of modern guitars, the tanbur, tanboor, tar, or lyre, originated in Mesopotamia and southern and central Asia several thousand years ago. One particular religious cult that rose to some power in the 18th century, known as Zaar, use the tanbur as part of a wild and droning ceremony meant to entrance a possessed person into a frenzy, eventually cleansing the spirit with music.

Music has always been an important part of human society for much more than simple entertainment. We can only imagine what uses we will find for it in the future.