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Tickle the ivories

 Kaushikibrata Banerjee |  2015-04-26 20:53:51.0  |  New Delhi

Tickle the ivories

In a recently held seminar at the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) in Delhi, for the first time ever, a discussion was organised on music therapy for practising medical personnel and students as well to give an insight into the therapeutic implications of music.

This therapy is quite ancient for the Indian mind. Ancient texts like Raga Chikitsa have existed in the past glorifying the therapeutic characteristics of various ragas. The method involved in the therapy relates to the selection of music for a patient. The therapist has to know and understand the patient’s likes and dislikes about sounds, music and instruments and accordingly prescribe either an assertive raga or a relaxing one depending on his/her needs.

Internationally acclaimed author of several books on alternative medicine Dr T V Sairam says: “Long before acoustics came to be understood in Europe as a subject of study, the ancient Arab, Greek and Indian civilizations were already familiar with the therapeutic role of sounds and vibrations and the later day concepts pertaining to them. While music as a whole is well recognised for its entertainment value, the Indian civilization had gone a step forward to recognize the curative aspect of music. The ancient system of Nada yoga, which dates back to the Tantras, has fully acknowledged the impact of music on body and mind and put into practice the vibrations emanating from sounds to uplift one’s level of consciousness. It is the Indian genius that recognised that ragas are not just mere commodities of entertainment but the vibrations in their resonance could synchronise with one’s moods and health. By stimulating moods and controlling brain wave patterns, ragas could work as a complementary medicine.” Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in music therapy in India.

While music has long been recognised as an effective form of therapy to provide an outlet for emotions, the idea of using song, sound frequencies and rhythm to treat physical ailments is a relatively new domain, says a report by psychologist Daniel J Levitin, PhD, who studies the neuroscience of music at McGill University in Montreal. 

A wealth of new studies is touting the benefits of music on mental and physical health. For example, in a meta-analysis of 400 studies, Levitin and his postgraduate research fellow, Mona Lisa Chanda, PhD, found that music improves the body’s immune system function and reduces stress. Listening to music was also found to be more effective than prescribing drugs in reducing anxiety before surgery.

There’s been a great deal of study by neuroscientists on the different ways music acts upon the brain, affecting behaviour, memory and the like. But there is also growing scientific evidence endorsing its curative powers. Music legend Pete Seeger was one of the pioneers to use music to improve mental health and well-being. And, health professionals must capitalise on the path he blazed. Seeger effectively used music to influence change with his combination of incredibly catchy melodies and thoughtful, socially conscious lyrics such as “We Shall Overcome,” “This Land is Your Land,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” which had a powerful influence on national movements, including the fight for civil rights, world peace, and environmental protection.

Music has emerged as one of the most powerful alternative therapies apart from creative arts, meditation and yoga. Because of its ubiquity in society as well as its ease of transmission, music has reached people who do not otherwise have access to care.

From the rhythms of the heartbeat experienced in the womb to soul-stirring sounds of a marching band, rhythmic patterns and music surround us. Language itself has a musical quality to it and from the beginning of mankind, as expressed through chanting and drumming, resembled music more closely than speech. It is primal to life and expressed by each of us every day whether through dancing to a favourite tune, keeping rhythm with a pencil or remembering a special time when hearing a forgotten melody. It is central to our lives and is embedded in our culture, defining how we acknowledge milestones, rites of passage and celebrations as well as providing comfort, transformation and inspiration. This is the link between our present world and our past.

Interestingly, several patients have successfully confronted the terror of a cancer diagnosis with the help of music therapy and have endured the discomforts of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Dr Mitchell L Gaynor is a pioneer in integrative oncology and a prominent Manhattan cancer specialist and leader in combining alternative therapies with mainstream medicine. In an Alternative Medicine, 2003 report, he narrates a story about how he opened up a promising new frontier in healing by treating his cancer patients to the sounds of meditative chanting. The report says: “About a decade ago, he had his own Tomatis-like moment when he was called in as a consulting hematologist to treat a Tibetan monk with a severe, ultimately fatal heart condition. 

Curious about Eastern spiritual practices, Gaynor asked the monk to share with him some chants. A few days later, the monk arrived at the doctor’s apartment armed with a metal singing bowl of the sort that has enlivened Tibetan Buddhist chanting and meditation for centuries. Gaynor, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Weill Comell Medical College, was by then no stranger to alternative therapies. He’s an authority on nutritional approaches to cancer — his book Dr Gaynor’s Cancer Prevention Program was published four years ago — and had already incorporated visualisation and guided imagery into his practice. But nothing had prepared him for the sound of the monk moving a small wooden baton lightly around the rim of the beaten metal-alloy bowl. “That rich, deep note with a strong vibrato resembled nothing I had ever heard,” he says. 

“I could feel the vibration physically resonating through my body, touching my core in such a way that I felt in harmony with the universe.” This dramatic statement convinced Gaynor that the combination of sound and meditation affects health more profoundly than anyone short of Alfred Tomatis could have imagined. His patients now listen to Tibetan and crystal singing bowls and chant long drawn-out syllables as a routine part of their cancer therapy. He even uses the high-tech tools of the trade – the latest chemotherapy drugs and monoclonal antibody treatments — to attack cancer cells directly, and the meditative chanting to soothe the minds and bodies of the patients who have to endure the disease. He also doles out nutritional advice and emotional counselling to deal with the patients’ fears and anxieties. Such research is not only prevalent in the USA but there have been considerable advancements in India as well. 

Rajeev Vats, a former commercial pilot, is a cancer patient and is now under medication and has immensely benefitted from music therapy. Due to his oral cancer, there was a time when he could not even speak and used to make sounds for communication. His tongue had to be cut off to prevent the spread. But after undergoing music therapy, there was such improvement that at the recently concluded AIIMS seminar held by Dr Sairam, Vats addressed the audience for about five minutes or so and narrated his own story of how he experienced modest decreases in pain.

Padma Bhushan Pt Rajan Mishra says: “Music has harmony and divinity in it. Nature’s sound is music. There is music in each and every individual and in every living species on earth. Since the creation of this earth, music has been used to treat physical ailments. The chanting of mantras had immense impact on patients suffering from serious diseases.”

Speaking about his own experience, he goes on to say: “For all these years that I have travelled the world and done concerts, I have seen many people coming up to me and saying that they have been transformed to a different world altogether after listening to our music. I remember an incident when we were performing in Holland in 1994/95 where a Dutch lady had severe pain in her legs and she could not even walk and was taking medicines for it. She attended our concert and her pain almost vanished. She was so happy that she attended all our 13 concerts there and later told us that she had even stopped her medication.”

Pt Rajan Mishra is the elder brother of Pt Sajan Mishra and both are celebrated exponents of the Benaras Gharana. The duo has performed across the world and continues to enthrall their fans, keeping alive the 300-year-old lineage of khyal singing in India. Pt Rajan Mishra goes on to elaborate that there has been a lot of research done on music therapy in India. “Late Dr Shankar from Varanasi did a lot of research and studies on ragas that were sung by us, including bageshree and behag, and there were notable improvements in patients. I believe, children who learn music will never become criminals.”

For individuals with autism in particular, music therapy has shown to be a positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviours and a motivator to reduce negative ones, according to the American Music Therapy Association. Music can also help with the development of language skills, and the identification and expression of emotions, which are characteristic challenges in autism. Some children with autism have superb musical abilities and music therapy can help them focus on their strengths. Alzheimer’s patients, who have memory and thinking impairment, may still recognise songs of their youth or respond emotionally to music while it can also be used in elderly care settings to calm or stimulate residents. Singing with someone when you feel anxious, or expressing emotions through writing songs are more than just casual activities in music therapy. 

Therapists always have specific aims in mind like helping patients overcome a fear or fight depression. Music may trigger strong reactions or evoke memories which might range from pleasant to painful. It is very important for the therapist to support patients during these processes, to bolster their spirits of survival and endurance. 

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