Florence Nightingale and the dangers of piano music

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Taio and his violin

There’s a heartening story from the BBC today about how the  Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery at King’s College, London has been able to hire a composer-in-residence. The composer, John Browne, makes a good point about teaching and nursing: “Many people who have been nursed in hospitals find the difference between the excellent nurse and the OK nurse is not any tangible thing they do. Rather, it is the way that they do it, and that requires an art – rather than a science – way of teaching.”

Now in the BBC story, Browne (the composer) highlights Florence Nightingale’s own enthusiasm for the soothing powers of music. But when I looked at the original (from Notes on Nursing: What it is and what it is not), I discovered something even more interesting: it wasn’t just any music – pianos were out:

I will only remark here, that wind instruments, including the human voice, and stringed instruments, capable of continuous sound, have generally a beneficent effect–while the piano-forte, with such instruments as have no continuity of sound, has just the reverse. The finest piano-forte playing will damage the sick, while an air, like “Home, sweet home,” or “Assisa a piè d’un salice,” on the most ordinary grinding organ, will sensibly soothe them–and this quite independent of association. (Florence Nightingale, 1860: Notes on Nursing)

This is a remarkably intuitive and intelligent observation: in a sentence, she has distinguished between the properties of musical sound and the associations that particular pieces of music have for people, and made what I think is probably a very good guess at why some instruments are better than others in the soothing department.

What interests me is that for many years, I’ve had a nagging doubt about the efficacy of the piano as an instrument for ballet classes. As we know, the violin has a much longer heritage as the instrument of dance teaching, and eight years ago, I rattled off my thoughts on this topic after talking through it with my friend Dan.  Earlier this year, I tried some things out with a wonderful violinist at Showa University when I was lecturing on dance accompaniment there, and as a little nudge in this direction, when we made my album Studio Series 6 of dance class music for the Royal Academy of Dance last year, we included a couple of violin solos and a cello adage.

There’s something about this whole story of music in hospitals, Florence Nightingale, the art of teaching that needs to complement the science, and the nature of musical sound production, that encompasses just about everything that my brain is currently trying to work out.

Update on 14th August 2018 

I notice a lot of people reading this for some reason, so it’s a good time to say that in the years  since I wrote it, following conversations with dancers, I’ve come to disagree with myself here. The piano can sound “joined up” and flowing (of course it can!) and conversely, it is impossible for a flute to play two overlapping notes, whereas a piano can play whole washes of sound. The piano can fill a room with a sound that has depth and rich, three-dimensional texture. What the stringed or wind instruments have in their favour is that a sound can change from moment to moment, whereas a piano sound once made, can only fade away or be added to. But that’s only a theory, because in practice, piano techniques and different pieces of music can give the impression of a changing sound from moment to moment, albeit in a different way. 

I look back on this post as an example of naïve musicians’ theorizing, and it’s interesting to see how my thinking has changed, so I’m going to leave it here. 


This entry was posted in Dance, Music, Playing for ballet class and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.