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Healing with the Music of the Heart
Finding Healing Music in the
By COREY KILGANNON
Published: November 9, 2004
Around the South Jamaica housing projects in Queens, young men
with pit bulls guard street
corners and rap music blares from car stereos. But one house,
on 110th Avenue, seems to openly
defy its gritty surroundings.
Its owner, Milford Graves, has covered it with an ornate mosaic
of stones, reflective metal and
hunks of discarded marble, arranged in cheery patterns. The
yard is a lush garden, dense with
citrus trees, herbs and exotic plants.
Mr. Graves, 63, a jazz drummer who made his mark in the 1960's
with avant-garde musicians
like Albert Ayler, Paul Bley and Sonny Sharrock, performs only
occasionally now. He spends
about half his week teaching music healing and jazz improvisation
classes at Bennington College
in Vermont, where he has been a professor for 31 years. He spends
much of the rest of his week
in his basement researching the relationship between music and
the human heart.
After descending the psychedelic-painted stairway into his laboratory,
visitors are faced with a
collection of drums from around the world, surrounding a network
of computers. Wooden
African idols spiked with nails rub up against medical anatomical
models. Amid a vast inventory
of herbs, roots and plant extracts sits an old wooden recliner
equipped with four electronic
stethoscopes connected to computers displaying intricate electrocardiogram
In 1967, Mr. Graves was honored in a Down Beat magazine critics
poll as the year's bright new
talent. He had offers of lucrative gigs from artists like Miles
Davis and the South African singer
But after years of hard living as a jazzman, Mr. Graves began
studying holistic healing, and then
teaching it. He became fascinated with the effect of music on
"People with ailments would attend my performances and
tell me they felt better afterward," he
Curious about the heartbeat as a primary source of rhythm, he
bought an electronic stethoscope
and began recording his and other musicians' heartbeats.
"I wanted to see what kind of music my heart was making,"
In his basement, he converted the heartbeats to a higher register
and dissected them. Behind the
basic binary thum-THUMP beat, he heard other rhythms - more
spontaneous and complex
patterns in less-regular time intervals - akin to a drummer
using his four limbs independently.
"A lot of it was like free jazz," Mr. Graves said
one day last week in his basement. "There were
rhythms I had only heard in Cuban and Nigerian music."
He demonstrated by thumping a steady
bum-BUM rhythm on a conga with his right hand, while delivering
with his left a series of
unconnected rhythms on an hourglass-shaped talking drum.
Mr. Graves created computer programs to analyze the heart's
rhythms and pitches, which are
caused by muscle and valve movement. The pitches correspond
to actual notes on the Western
musical scale. Raised several octaves, the cardiac sounds became
"When I hooked up to the four chambers of the heart, it
sounded like four-part harmony," Mr.
He began composing with the sounds - both by transcribing heartbeat
melodies and by using
recorded fragments. He also realized he could help detect heart
problems, maybe even cure them.
"A healthy heart has strong, supple walls, so the sound
usually has a nice flow," he said. "You
hear it and say, 'Ah, now that's hip.' But an unhealthy heart
has stiff and brittle muscles. There's
less compliance, and sounds can come out up to three octaves
higher than normal.
"You can pinpoint things by the melody. You can hear something
and say, 'Ah, sounds like a
problem in the right atrium.' "
In 2000, Mr. Graves received a grant from the John Simon Guggenheim
which he said gave him money to buy essential equipment.
Dr. Baruch Krauss, who teaches pediatrics at Harvard Medical
School and is an emergency
physician at Boston Children's Hospital, said the medical establishment
has only recently begun
to appreciate the rhythmic and tonal complexities of the heartbeat
and speak about it in terms of
syncopation and polyrhythms.
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