Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Beyond Pachelbel's Canon, or Music for Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) by Elizabeth Aisling


Music is everywhere. Walk into any store, be put on telephone hold, drive down the street at any time of day or night, and notice what you hear around you. How much of it lifts the spirit? How much of it reaches deep inside to a yearning place – a chamber of the heart where creativity and spirituality reside? As a highly sensitive person and as pianist, guitarist and fretted dulcimer player, I have long been aware of the power of music to heal the spirit. Let me give you an example.

In 1974, while living alone in an apartment in DeKalb, Illinois and biding my time in a boring clerical job at the university library, I spent many of my evenings listening to WFMT, the Chicago classical station. One night, like every other night, I had the radio on and was going about my business, when gradually I became aware of a deep peace and an indescribable sense of joy and well-being that washed over me in waves. There seemed to be a pulse of some sort behind it, a spirit healer from some unknown source, and I found I had to put aside whatever I was doing and sit, mesmerized, before the radio. Piece after piece played - everything from Strauss waltzes to Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies to The Desperate Ones from Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. And then, suddenly, it was over, and the announcer said, “You have just been listening to a program of music in three-quarter time.”

I have never, ever forgotten this. I have often thought of writing to the station and asking them if they saved a tape of the program. After that experience, I began to pay closer attention to what types of music are calming, or cheering, or exhilarating. I find I have been drawn over the years to music that seems to have the following characteristics:

--triple meter, such as the WFMT program;
--Evocative, stirring melodies;
--Hymns and church organ music;
--Although this would overwhelm some HSPs- exuberant, dramatic music with beautiful melodies and a festive sound;
--Mystical sounds in minor modes;
--Ethereal choral singing and beautiful vocals,especially men and boy choirs;
--Generally, women with low voices and men with resonant voices;
--Melodies that seem to reach deep within and bring forth unconscious memories of childhood;
--Second movements of symphonies and concertos, which seem to be more restful and melodic; (note: I have heard this comment from other HSPs)
--Music played on acoustic stringed instruments; (excluding the banjo)
--Music that resolves, as opposed to stream-of-consciousness music that meanders;
--Music with a drone or an ostinato in the background. I believe this is why Pachelbel’s Canon in D appeals to so many, and why Gregorian chant is so popular;
--Ancient music in unusual modes (scales);
--Any music in the Dorian and Lydian modes. (See Sounding the Inner Landscape by Kay Gardner for a discussion on modes and scales)

Music I find vexatious would include:

--Loud brass instruments, unless it is a clear, pure trumpet solo, accompanied by pipe organ;
--Fast, nervous music;
--Perky Christmas music, such as Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree and the barking dogs singing Jingle Bells in every store and mall beginning before Halloween;
--Chinese restaurant music;
--French horns that sound like nasal, barking dogs;
--rap - the deafening assault of a thumping beat blasting from every other vehicle along an urban street lined with strip malls;
--dissonant jazz, scat singing, chaotic Dixieland bands;
--Tex-Mex music (the type that sounds like Lawrence Welk juxtaposed with Herb Alpert on acid);
--Warmed-over,trite-sounding tunes played cloyingly on an electric piano;
--male singers who can get by with singing off-key (notice how most female singers can’t pull this off and make recordings);
--the shrill sound of a shrieking soprano with too much vibrato;
--squeaking violins;
--the soundtrack to Annie (especially the nasal "the sun'll come out - TEW morrow")
--the newfangled “folk” music sung at churches that sounds less like hymns and more like a combination of show tunes, sentimental Muzak and Irish drinking songs. I attended a funeral once and was subjected to a song that sounded, for the life of me, like a mixture of Dulcinea from Man of La Mancha and Send In the Clowns.

Some types of “gothic” music can overwhelm and overstimulate. I had to walk out of a concert once because the music was loud and frightening. I also have a strong aversion to the soulless, impersonal music played at malls and self-service gas stations –piped in as you shop or pump; sort of an easy-listening and contemporary jazz hybrid with a mechanical, demented drumbeat in the background. When I hear that “music” I feel as if I am being anesthetized, brainwashed into a lockstep trance that has become a soundtrack for our canned culture.

I have put together a list, in no particular order, of music that I turn to, over and over again, for refuge from our chaotic, clanging world.

Classical music:

Cassidy, Patrick - Deirdre of the Sorrows, Famine Remembrance
Cassidy's music is a combination of Irish melodies and Baroque-type polyphony. His works are marketed as new-age, but they are NOT - I file them with my classical music and appreciate them as such.

Faure, Gabriel – Requiem, op. 48 – Sanctus, Pie Jesu Try to find the recording with Victoria de los Angeles.

Mendelssohn, Felix - Songs Without Words, Elijah
Listen to the choral parts of Elijah, and the solo "If with all your hearts you truly seek me."

Chopin, Frederic – Piano Concerto no. 1 in E minor, second movement

Thompson, Randall - Alleluia

Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilych - Symphony no. 1: "Winter Dreams" - second movement

Vaughan Williams, Ralph - Mass in G minor, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Five Mystical Songs (especially I Got Me Flowers)

Brahms, Johannes – A German Requiem, op. 45 – “How lovely is thy dwelling place"; The Four Symphonies

Saint-Saens, Camille – Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, “Organ”; Le Cygne ("The Swan")

Respighi, Ottorino – Ancient Airs and Dances

Gounod, Charles Francois – St. Cecilia Mass – Sanctus

Handel, Georg Frideric – Largo; Solomon – “Music, Spread Thy Voice Around";
Alexander’s Feast, or, the Power of Musik
- the most splendid work by Handel, in my opinion - John Dryden's poem set to music with delicious choruses and gorgeous melodies. I listen to this when I am in an exhilarated mood - it is soundtrack for joy. Caveat: Some HSPs find Handel's music overstimulating.

Hovhaness, Alan - Mysterious Mountain

Franck, Cesar – Three Chorales for Organ - try to find the versions by Marie-Claire Alain.

Vivaldi, Antonio – Concerto # 5 in E major – “L’Amoroso” – first movement - This music was played in the Swedish movie Elvira Madigan.

Mozart,Wolfgang Amadeus-Clarinet Concerto in A major; Vesperae Solemnis de Confessore, K. 339 – “Laudate Dominum”

Field, John – Nocturnes

Bingen, Hildegard von –Canticles of Ecstasy

Preisner, Zbigniew – Requiem for my friend/Life - This Polish composer writes mostly film music. This is a new, classical recording. Listen, especially, to Meeting, the first movement of Life.


The Age of Innocence - Melodic score that wraps itself around the heart.

Fairytale, a True Story –by Zbigniew Preisner, who also composed the soundtrack for The Secret Garden. In my mind, the Fairytale score is the most beautiful music ever written for a movie. There is also a CD entitled Preisner's Music which is an import and hard to find, but I was able to order it from Click here:\

Lorenzo’s Oil - not upbeat, but very stirring.

Romeo and Juliet (1968 version by Nino Rota) Back in print on CD!

Interlude (hard to find LP) Soundtrack, composed by Georges Delerue, to the 1960s movie starring Oskar Werner as a conductor who cheated on his wife with a rather twitty young woman - a very dated and somewhat schlocky movie, but BEAUTIFUL music. I found an LP of it through a used-record source. (Delerue also wrote the music for Steel Magnolias;the overture to that movie is lovely.)


Barrett, Ruth and Cyntia Smith
Click here: Early Years – double CD of their first two albums Aeolus and Music of the Rolling World. These two women have beautiful, resonant, low voices and sing both original and traditional folk and Celtic-based music, accompanying themselves on fretted dulcimer. Seeing them in concert is a transforming experience. Listen, especially, to Unicorns and Lovers of the Moon.

Brightman, Sarah - Eden, Time to Say Goodbye, The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection, La Luna-- I can hear all the snobbish elitist music critics now, in chorus, reeling off their usual phrases such as "trite," "dreck," "dross," "pure, unadultrated kitsch," ad nauseum - because Sarah Brightman truly does some things that most singers couldn't get by with. She takes traditional melodies like Women of Ireland and classical pieces such as Albinoni's Adagio and arranges them shamelessly and beautifully, complete with words and - yes - a shimmering electronic wash of sound behind it. And her voice is good enough so she can pull it off. She even does a sweet version of Dust in the Wind on her Eden album. Maybe she is dumbing down the classics, maybe she offends the purists, but I don't care - she has a voice that could melt the stars. Her version of Handel's Lascia Ch'io Pianga makes up for her rendition of My Heart Will Go On in Italian. How to classify Sarah? I don't know. She is a hybrid. Her music grabbed me and I was hooked. Her work is exquisite. I love her.

Douglas, Bill – Deep Peace, Songs of Earth and Sky -- Bill Douglas writes beautiful choral music. Some of his instrumental compositions are pleasant as well, but the choral works are the ones that make my spirit soar. Listen to Willow and My Love is like a Red, Red Rose on Songs of Earth and Sky and The Piper on Deep Peace.

Stockley, Miriam - Miriam-- Brand-new solo release from the lead singer for Adiemus - and what a lush, classy album. She is like a cross between Maire Brennan and Norway's beloved Sissel Kyrkjebo, with a voice that catches like a sob in your throat. I write this upon my first listening to this disc - this woman is a goddess!

Stadler, Gary - Fairy Nightsongs -- First heard in a magical store called Creative Energy on Amelia Island Florida, this is a beautiful disc - the type you hear and say "What is that playing? I have to have it!"

Snow, Shelley – Shamaneya
Shelley Snow has a gorgeous voice and she sings in a language all her own.

Secret Garden - Dawn of a New Century
Exuberant, swirling melodies and vocals - Riverdance-with-a-gentler-edge meets Enya - listen to cuts #10 and #13 with headphones.

Alkaemy - The Merlin Mystery
British composer Julia Taylor-Stanley's ethereal compositions; a companion to the book The Merlin Mystery by Jonathan Gunson.

MacLean, Dougie – Dougie MacLean Collection
McDonald, Steve – Sons of Somerled
I mention these two men together because I discovered them at the same time. They have beautiful voices and their music is melodic and moving. Dougie evokes the sixties troubadour Donovan and his guitar playing is masterful. (Try Singing Land and Caledonia) Steve uses Enya-esque backings to his soaring renditions of traditional Scottish ballads, as well as many of his own. Especially stirring are Scotland the Brave and Loch Lomond.

Gardner, Kay – A Rainbow Path, Ocean Moon
On Rainbow Path Kay takes us on a journey through the chakras of the body with her healing compositions. Ocean Moon is a reissue of the instrumental cuts of her beloved early album Mooncircles, which gave me chills when I first heard it in 1983.

Riley, Philip and Jayne Ellison – The Blessing Tree. There are other recordings by these people but this one shines. It reminds me of a combination of Enya and Loreena McKennitt, There a sensitive, lovely version of Lullay, Lullay, Thou Little Tiny Child at the end, but the album can be listened to year-round. It is breathtakingly beautiful. Lots of acoustic piano and very nice melodies.

Hoppe, Michael – The Yearning – Deep, wistful flute playing evocative of souls who have passed on but reside in our collective unconscious.

Connie Dover – Somebody, Wishing Well, If Ever I Return-
Of all the current female singers in the Irish/Celtic genre, Connie has the clearest voice and the classiest arrangements. I have never heard her make an unmusical sound. Try Ned of the Hill and How Can I Live at the Top of the Mountain from If Ever I Return, Ubi Caritas from Wishing Well and Personnet Hodie from Somebody.

Enya – any recording! Avoid the Taleisin Orchestra’s reworking of her compositions – they are pure kitsch.

McKennitt, Loreena – any recording. The only annoying song this woman has ever sung is The Bonny Swans, in my opinion, and that is only because it goes on and on and on with a whining electric guitar in the background. All her other work is exquisite. Try The Two Trees from The Mask and Mirror.

Coulter, William - Celtic Requiem - the lilting guitar piece at the end is heartbreakingly beautiful.

Madredeus –O Espirito de Paz
Plaintive, entrancing vocals with stunning guitar.

Cifani, Liz – Bella Stella
Liz plays a variety of harps, both double nylon-strung and wire strung, and performs compositions by Turlough O'Carolan as well as some of her own.

Schroeder-Sheker, Therese – The Queen’s Minstrel
Especially haunting is Choose Me.

Stoltzman, Richard – Innervoices
No words to describe this - it must be experienced. On this album is a version of Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus that moved me to tears.

Ni Riain, Noirin, Celtic Soul, Soundings
Again–quiet, ancient, evocative of deep inner consciousness and peace, gentle instrumentation.

St. John, Kate – Indescribable Night
Haunting, driving-alone-late-at-night-under the moon songs. Try Now the Night Comes Stealing In.

Grean, Lorin – HandWoven
Trancelike vocals and harp music, with a delightful piece or two for cat lovers.

Stockwell, Sarah – Dark of Moon
Listen to The Language of Stones. I consider this autumn music, preferably for October.

Price, Kate – The Time Between, Deep Heart’s Core
Hammered dulcimer and vocals, intensely beautiful and other-worldly. Good autumn music also.

Most of these recordings can be found through Click here: or Click here: or any large music store. Check your public library as well.

Over the years I have had the privilege of attending workshops by many fine, sensitive individuals who are not only attuned to the nuances of healing music, but are knowledgeable about the theories behind this. I truly believe that these people and others like them are on a positive, healing path through music and should be mentors to those of us who are HSPs - musicians and non-musicians alike.

--Ron Price, a professor at Northern Illinois University, founded Healing Harps. He works with people who have physical disabilities and has found that playing the harp has the power to relieve many of the symptoms of neurological disorders.

--Jim Kendros: Jim is a classically-trained musician who specializes in the nyckelharpa (Swedish keyed violin)- which he demonstrates during his magical concerts with this unusual folk instrument. Jim has an exuberant presence and an intuitive style, and in addition to performing works of Mozart, Bach and Couperin, he plays Swedish folk tunes interspersed with engaging commentary. Jim has written over eighty works and shares his love of music by teaching, conducting and lecturing in the Chicago area. His sensitive and beautiful compositions are backed by a self-produced CD of his unique blend of harpsichord, pipe organ and ethereal choral accompaniments. To experience an evening with this man is to be transported to a haunting and joyous place. To contact Jim, call 847-319-0017.

--Kay Gardner, whose wonderful book Sounding the Inner Landscape discusses in depth the physics of how music relates to the chakras of the body. She has lectured extensively on the various modes of music and how the series of intervals in a scale can have the power to heal. She gives lectures and demonstrations using her flutes and presenting music history and theory in a down-to-earth, informative style.

--Therese Schroeder-Sheker works with the dying, using music to help them cross over to the next world. Her ethereal recordings of harp and voice are available through Ladyslipper Music.

--Liz Cifani, principal harpist of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, teaches of the healing properties of the overtones of the harp, and as she sits in workshop and we encircle her, all holding harps to our chests, physical proof of the power of music is felt in the depths of the body. She believes that music is an integral part of communication. To hear Liz speak is inspiring and fun; to hear her perform is to be transported to a plane of pure ecstasy.

My list is undoubtedly biased – you will have many works and thoughts to add, I am sure. I encourage all sensitive people to share with others music that provides a haven of transcendence and joy. It is only one of many ways that we can begin to add beauty and symmetry to our jangling culture. I believe that this is an important mission for HSPs; perhaps, for some of us, our life’s calling.