The Sound Of Healing: How Artists, Doctors, And Counselors Are Using Music To Treat Bodies And Minds

by Balaji Subramanian - Oct 31, 2019 09:57 PM +05:30 IST
The Sound Of Healing: How Artists, Doctors, And Counselors Are Using Music To Treat Bodies And Minds Photo: Rounik Ghosh
  • Healing the body and mind with music is no longer restricted to ‘classical artists’ or traditionalists. It is now a formally studied and practiced discipline.

Shreya Giria is a practising counsellor from Bengaluru and a certified expressive arts therapist who has extensive experience working in schools, colleges, and corporates.

She believes in the efficacy of music on the mind and has personally witnessed the positive role music can play in personality development as well as self-care and preservation.

A soothing tune at a time of stress or anxiety, or an upbeat rhythm when one is low, is known to alter the mind-state and elevate consciousness, and in turn human functionality as well. The role of music in boosting motivation finds its roots in the nature of sound, she adds.

“For a lot of people learning music and singing, the process itself can be therapeutic. It is a skill, which is uplifting and intricate at the same time. It uses many different parts of the brain and is known to prevent brain degenerative disorders,” Giria says.

Using an eclectic approach, she is bringing positive changes in the lives of many people using music as the primary tool.

How Music Impacts Trauma Victims

There are several causes that could lead one to experience trauma, but few surpass sexual abuse and domestic violence. In such cases, the victim may have had to endure years of abuse in silence and that is where trauma-informed therapists like Anindita Kundu play a vital role.

It is not easy for a person who has endured abuse to open up, which is why professionals like Kundu create an environment where the victim feels safe and can express personal experiences, thoughts, and feelings.

She says, “It is imperative to gain their trust because often the person who commits sexual abuse is known to the victim and that is a breach of trust which drags them into the deep abyss of suspicion and mistrust.”

Kundu has been a trauma-informed therapist for over seven years. She provides counsel in the area of holistic healing, women's health, domestic violence, and abuse prevention using music as an important bridge.

When music is used as therapy, the simple act of singing, humming, or chanting can help activate the Vagus nerve. The role of the Vagus nerve is to activate the ‘rest and restore’ response in the body and the brain and lower the ‘fight or flight’ (stress) response.

Many of the distressing symptoms of trauma are felt acutely by the body, such as tightness in the chest and a sinking feeling in the stomach.

Yoga, physiotherapy, meditation, deep breathing, listening to calming and relaxing music, singing, chanting, humming and so on help stimulate one’s parasympathetic nervous system’s Vagus nerve to kick in the health benefits of relaxation.

Music has an impact on the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for storing emotions) by reducing the fear response. It makes one ready for increased pleasure or for a fightback response.

Kundu is also dealing with patients who are undergoing chronic pain due to disorders like endometriosis (characterised by pain in the pelvic region) and fibromyalgia (musculoskeletal pain). She uses a specific genre of music to help alleviate the symptoms of emotional and physical pain.

A 2014 study found that music was helpful for patients with fibromyalgia. The study showed that listening to certain kinds of relaxing music “reduced pain and increased functional mobility.” Research shows that music eases pain by triggering the release of opioids — the body’s natural pain relievers.

Kundu says, “Music also has a significant impact on memory. The documentary Alive Inside chronicles how music awakens patients suffering from memory loss. It is also documented that people suffering from Alzheimer's can be helped with music therapy.”

Indian Classical Music For Good Health

Nithya Rajendran is a Mumbai-based practitioner of both classical Carnatic and Hindustani music and through her musical journey, she realised that she could help others by creating awareness of a “divine force” governing our existence.

Using the power of elevated thought, she said there comes into being an ability to connect with people beyond the barriers of age, ethnicity, language, or culture, through a collective emotional experience of beauty — as from the sound of Ragas.

Nithya Rajendran is a certified Indian music therapist. She believes that in India there is immense potential for creating a scientifically-backed structured approach to using Indian Classical Music for therapy; if that is done, the field has the scope to eventually match the reach and acceptability of Western Classical Music therapy.

Nithya Rajendran, a classical music exponent, uses music to heal patients
Nithya Rajendran, a classical music exponent, uses music to heal patients

I am reminded of a character from the film, The King’s Speech. The speech therapist, Lionel Logue, is not certified only because there were no ‘recognised’ certification courses in speech therapy.

In any case, this ‘intuitive’ speech therapist Logue helps soldiers suffering from “shell-shock” (now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD) or trauma. It’s a small matter that he treated the King as well.

In her years of practicing music, Rajendran has come to believe that Indian classical music is constituted of sound energies of the ‘divine creative force’. In that lies its therapeutic potential.

One of her students is a 15-year-old boy named Ramprasad, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, a disease that causes progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass and poses a direct threat to the patient’s life as it weakens the heart and lungs.

However, with the help of classical music, in just four years of practice, Ramprasad has witnessed a remarkable change in body and mind.

Ramprasad says:

Classical music has come like a direct gift from the almighty. It has saved me many times from bouts of depression and unrest. But after being enrolled in therapy, I feel that music is a much better way to ensure lung health as compared to steroids, which are a standard guideline for medicare for those in my situation.

In a study called the “Mozart Effect” — carried out by Dr Gordon Shaw, a physicist at the University of California, Irvine, and others — listening to music boosted cognitive function in general and spatial-temporal reasoning in particular. The test concluded that listening to Mozart helped improve test scores.

Music also plays an important role in sports because tuning in increases reaction speed. Studies have shown that listening to calming music before a competition can reduce anxiety and calm the frazzled nerves that athletes experience.

Virender Sehwag, the former swashbuckling opening batsman for Team India, has many times spoken of how he would sing songs while batting to help him relax. One of his triple centuries is, in fact, attributed to the power of a song.

Oliver Sacks spent over 40 years studying the human brain and neurological disorders. In his book Musicophilia, neurologist Dr Sacks makes some startling revelations about the connection between music and the human brain.

As this review of the work correctly describes, Sacks “explains that there is no single musical center in the brain, but rather 20 to 30 networks spread throughout every region that analyse different components of music, from pitch to melody.

“That's why a symphony that moves some people to tears is perceived by others as the cacophonous clattering of pots and pans, a condition known as amusia.”

Sacks also tells of people haunted by musical hallucinations, in which they hear a set of tunes, or even full-fledged choirs inside their head, a phenomenon one patient describes as his ‘intracranial jukebox’.

This book examines many aspects and the impact that music has on our health.

To quote Dr Sacks:

Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears — it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more — it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.

In many households in South India, one wakes up listening to hymns and to the sound of ‘Suprabhatam’ sung beautifully by M S Subbulakshmi.

In Tamil literature, Andal, also known as Chudikodutha Sudarkodi — meaning “lady who wore and gave her garland to Lord Vishnu” — is the only female Alvar (ஆழ்வார்கள்) among the 12 Alvar saints of South India, and she composed the Thiruppavai.

In the Thiruppavai, Andal wakes up the town folk singing about Sri Ranganatha early in the morning, during ‘Bramhamuhurtham’ — a period considered auspicious, giving rise to noble thoughts and intentions.

During this muhurtam, across India, millions of people would bathe and recite sacred hymns that are believed to benefit and rejuvenate the body.

In other words, the link between sound and health was something that those who lived before us knew about and strove to make it a part of our life so that we could lead healthy and fulfilled lives.

What is interesting is that this wisdom continues and is now being put to actual practice across the world in the form of music therapy by artists, counselors, and doctors.

The impact of music on health is understated. That it operates in the background in all the good – and not so good – times in our lives is known, but its healing capacity must be acknowledged.

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