Indian Classical Music has powerful healing effects
Music is the best healer. The healing power of music has been known for decades; in India, the literature on science of music dates back to as early as the 4th century B.C(1, 2). In the international landscape, music therapy has been used all over the world to address various social, emotional and cognitive issues. Music is more than a form of art that can be performed anytime, anywhere with powerful healing effects. As demonstrated by several scientific studies, listening to music can have a wide range of therapeutic benefits which include but not limited to
alleviating physical and emotional pain
reducing stress and anxiety
stabilizing cardiac and respiratory rate
enhancing learning, memory and attention
improving the overall quality of life.
The therapeutic benefits of Indian Classical Music. Among the various forms and genres of music that are known to have strong therapeutic potential, Indian Classical Music (ICM) deserves special mention. Long before acoustics had been introduced as a subject of study in Europe, the ancient Greek, Arab and Indian civilizations were quite familiar with the curative role of sounds and vibrations (3, 4). In fact, the healing power of ICM, more commonly known as Raga music has been well documented by one of the ancient Indian texts called Raga Chikitsa (5). Herein, I will try to explain what is so special about raga music that makes it a powerful healer for various ailments.
Some basics of Raga Music. In ICM a ‘Raga’ is formed by permutation and combination of selected notes (swaras) that have the inherent capability of influencing a specific emotion upon the listeners. Each raga, in general, uses a set of five or more notes from a fixed scale of seven notes namely Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni (corresponding to Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti in Western System) that can be sharpened or flattened (except Sa and Pa) to get twelve notes in each octave. It may not be appropriate to define a Raga just in terms of mode or scale alone because in ICM, there are several ragas that share the same notes; interestingly, the same note(s) can be projected differently to enable them to retain their unique musical identity. Additionally, there are specific rules governing how the notes should be used. For instance, the notes used in an ascending scale or Aroha may be different from those used in the descending scale or Avaroha. While some notes in a raga will be considered as the main pitches, other notes may be used just like ornaments that need to be resolved to a main note. It is the Indian mastermind, who recognized that raga music is much more than a mere sensate music used for entertainment and that the vibrations in their resonance can effectively synchronize with our physical and emotional health. Therefore, by stimulating one’s moods and controlling brain wave patterns, ragas can be used as a complementary medicine for various diseases, especially those related to mental health.
Ragas have specific Rasas that affect the emotion of listeners. Traditionally, ICM is based on the concept of nine Rasas meaning essence/sentiments. These include Shringara (romantic and erotic), Hasya (humorous), Karuna (pathetic), Raudra (anger), Veera (heroic), Bhayanaka (fearful), Vibhatsa (disgustful), Adbhuta (amazement), Shanta (peaceful). Each raga is primarily dominated by one of these nine rasas. However, the same raga can evoke more than one rasas. Well-trained artists can highlight a particular rasa by playing with the structures of musical presentations such as emphasizing on specific notes and accents or by introducing specific ornamentations. Depending on their specific nature, a raga can effectively control our emotional state, for example induce or augment joy and sorrow. This has been also confirmed by a number of scientific studies including a recent one from the National Brain Research Institute, India (6). It is this unique quality of raga music that makes it so powerful in the healing process. Playing, performing and even listening to raga can help with treating a variety of diseases.
What is so special about Indian Classical Music that makes it powerful in the healing process?
Raga music is believed to have a different pitch perception mechanism. Raga music sounds very different to a Westerners’ ears because of its unique melodic mode structure. While Western Classical Music (WCM) relies on the harmonic relationship between notes, the interest and complexity of ICM lies in its inimitable melodic mode structure, which is believed to demand a qualitatively different cognitive arrangement. Unlike WCM, the major/minor tonal system is not used in ICM nor does it rely on the concept of absolute scales or pitch positions. In ICM, the frequency or position of all notes are relative to the tonic and reference note ‘Sa’. Most importantly, the drone ‘Sa’ is not just a single note but it includes all harmonics and sub-harmonics. That is why, students of ICM spend so much time just learning and mastering the ‘Sa’. According to British composer, human right activist and therapist Nigel Osborne, “It is a note that has no beginning and end. It envelopes and contains our consciousness. We become enfolded in it.” (7)
The unique melodic and rhythmic structure of Indian Classical Music makes it so powerful healer. In ICM, the performance of almost all musical pieces opens with alap. This is a form of slow-paced, melodic improvisation used to introduce the raga to the listeners and further develop its essence. The melodic vibrations associated with alap has an intimate rapport with the most ancient and primitive form of communication among human beings that existed before language. These sound effects have distinct impact on our brain cells and can significantly affect our body and mind. For example, Dhrupad is the oldest surviving genre of ICM having originated from the chanting of vedic hymns and mantras. The elaboration of Dhrupad alap is done using syllables of the following mantra: ‘Om antaran twam, taran taaran twan, ananta hari narayan om’. We are not going to discuss here about the deep spiritual and meditative aspects of this phrase. However, it needs to be emphasized that the syllable “Om” itself is so powerful that chanting “Om” several times can have several health and psychological benefits including suppression of anxiety or stress-related disorders and strengthening of our heart, circulatory or digestive systems (8). Coming back to the structure of ICM, as a performer develops a raga and moves to the actual composition having more sophisticated note structures, those are picked up by higher cognitive functions of the brain that carve our emotions. Last but not the least, the intricate rhythmic structure of ICM can excite both primitive and higher cognitive areas of our brain. In a recent research study conducted by the scientists of National Brain Research Center, India, 122 participants were exposed to musical pieces composed by Pt. Mukesh Sharma, an eminent Sarod player (6). They found that emotions changed as the tempo picked up from alap to gat (faster, rhythmic part). As for instance, the emotional ratings for ragas like Tilak Kamod and Desh transformed from ‘calm/ soothing’ in the slow-tempo, arrhythmic alap to ‘happy’ during the performance of the faster, rhythmic gat. Overall, the high level of abstraction, improvisation and design involved in ICM is as intellectual as emotional, forming the basis of the so-called Raga Chikitsa or raga therapy. While active singing is certainly beneficial, just listening to raga music can also have substantial impacts on the levels of various hormones and neurotransmitters in our brain (such as cortisol, dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine) responsible for regulating our mood, emotional balances, stress response, heart rate, breathing and so on. Careful selection of ragas and its proper presentation to patients, taking into consideration his/her physical and emotional state, can serve as a complementary medicine.
Therapeutic ragas. In India, although some qualitative and rigorous research work in the area of music was conducted by ITC Sangeet Research Academy between 1983-2010 (9-13) and Sir C V Raman Centre of Physics and Music, Jadavpur University, studies related to music cognition and therapy are still in their infancy. The Chennai School of Music Therapy (India) in collaboration with IMC University of Applied Sciences (Austria) has taken significant steps to translate our rich musical tradition to clinical practice. Although further systematic, scientific investigation in this area is required, musicians, clinicians and sporadic researchers trying to explore the effect of various ragas on human body and mind found that ragas like Darbari Kanhada, Kamaj and Pooriya can help diffusing mental tension whereas ragas such as Ahirbhairav, Pooriya and Todi can be used to reduce hypertension (4, 5,14). Similarly, Carnatic ragas like Punnagavarali, Sahana etc. can be used to control anger and violence whereas raga Hanswadhani has been known to provide positive energy. Based on some research studies by Dr. T.V. Sairam, Hindustani Ragas such as Deepak, Gunkali, Jaunpuri and Malkauns are believed to have curative effects on stomach-related disorders (4) such as acidity, constipation, intestinal gas etc.In a notable study conducted in children aged 5-12 year, Balan et al. observed that pain experienced by kids during venepuncture could be significantly reduced by using Indian classical instrumental music (raag Todi) (15). According to a more recent study conducted by Sathish Kumar et al., the Carnatic raga Ananda Bhairavi has an effect in postoperative pain management which was evidenced by the reduction in analgesic requirement by 50 % in those who listened to this raga postoperatively 3 days(16).
Raga music as a form of healing art: My personal viewpoint Sharing my personal experience, I have no doubt that raga music has wonderful healing effects. I am a postdoctoral research associate at Biomedical Research Imaging Center at UNC working in the area of functional brain mapping using a combination of MRI and advanced genetic tools. I have been also learning Indian Classical Music from my tender age of three and volunteering as a DooR to DooR artist since July 2017. During my several visits to UNC hospital either alone or with my co-artists, I have shared our treasures of raga music with several patients, thanks to Joy Javits, the Founder and Coordinator of DooR to DooR program. To the beginning, I was slightly nervous, how the patients are going to react because they have little or no familiarity with the sound I presented to them. But every time, without any exception, I have succeeded to bring some joy and smiles to their faces. It is more than rewarding to me when I see their neutral or even gloomy faces changing to a happy smile. Once I met a patient for whom I sang a composition in raga Kirwani, a very relaxing raga, and her eyes were filled with emotional tears. In another instance, I sang a devotional piece based on raga Kalavati for a patient and she burst into tears after I finished, which were so cleansing. I feel really honored when patients with serious health conditions hold my hand tightly after the song saying, ‘Thank you so much for your musical offering,'or 'I didn’t understand the words but the notes are so striking and beautiful, it touched my heart’. From my own experience I have seen that singing raga Bhimpalasi and Darbari Kanhada have so much soothing effect on their body and mind that they just fall into a deep, peaceful sleep after listening these ragas. A patient once said that the nurse should check his blood pressure after I sang for him. He felt that the tunes were so relaxing that his blood pressure seemed to become normal. While visiting elderly patients, I have observed that they feel very much relaxed and spiritually motivated when I sing some Bhajans (light classical-based devotional pieces) or Dhrupad-based compositions for them. On the other hand, younger patients (between 20-40 years age) seems to get extremely fascinated with our Drut (fast) Khyal compositions that offer more flexibility and freedom compared to Dhrupad music that is purely devotional and spiritual. The compositions of Khyal covers diverse topics such as romantic or divine love, description of seasons and nature, praise of kings and gods and allows greater scope for improvisation. A unique aspect of Khyal music is Taan that involves rapid movement of notes or melodic passages. I can see a spark of joy in their eyes when I try to move my voice fast from one octave to another or sing some complex melodic sequences within the chosen raga. I can see their inquisitive eyes trying to visualize and analyze the fast movement of my notes, which is not that straightforward as they occur on the nanosecond time scale. However, their earnest attempt to unfold the complexity and mystery of our unique tune help them to forget their physical distress for the time being and brings in them brings in them positive energy, spontaneity, happiness and alertness. Based on my personal experience of interacting with several patients, I am more than convinced about the powerful healing effects of ICM. However, one needs to be really careful with his/her presentation because it could be possible that a particular raga or musical piece that has wonderful healing effect on some patients may not work for other suffering from similar health problem. As each raga is associated with specific rasas, we really need to be a meticulous observer and sensitive performer to be able to read the emotional state of a patient and tweak our presentation accordingly. While Indian Classical Music can be powerful healer, its therapeutic merit will depend on correct intonation and right use of basic elements such as nada (sound), swara (note), shruti (musical interval), raga (melody), laya (rhythm) and tala (beat).
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