Music therapy: Myths and Facts

Dr Praveen Kumar Jha

Music therapy is a relatively new term for me. Any such discipline is not conclusively approved as a radical treatment modality at the moment. Even if it is discussed in Ayurveda, it is not extensively practiced in Ayurvedic colleges of India. In the West, it is still mostly in experimental phase. It has been used in some allopathic institutions in Maharashtra for two decades, but not been well researched. Hindustani music therapy experiments had been going on since pre independence, but research articles did not appear in any index journal. I don’t think if a registered allopathic doctor starts his clinic as a ‘music therapist’, a single person from the middle class will enter their cabin. Such relaxation therapies, naad-yoga or parapsychology etc. are considered to be upper- class luxuries.

But, I have been looking at this subject in an objective way including the functional MRI of the brain. While working on it, we also did some initial experiments. However, I have not come to any conclusion because such research requires a lot of time, resources and data. Research has been done at Ranchi Medical College (RIMS) in Jharkhand, which were also published. Dr. Nishindra
Kinjalak and Lavanya Kirti have done some research on this subject, which I got to know on my recent tour to Bihar. Besides, I have also interest in Hindustani music and authored a book, so I am a bit qualified to draw some initial conclusions. I find many arguments about music therapy acceptable, some I have doubts about, and some I find absurd as well. For example, claiming the cure of cancer from music is not only preposterous, but also unethical. I suspect that arthritis cure is also an exaggeration. Onkarnath Thakur, once a well-known name in the music therapy said at a music conference.

Hindol raga cures arthritis”. One of the audience taunted, “Panditjee! Then, why do you suffer from arthritis?”

We should set the limits of music therapy according to the limits of science. Especially, when we explain this to the scientists of the West, we need to be concrete in our understanding. Western music therapists have defended scientifically their arguments and got it finally approved by the American Medical Board. In some illnesses, it has got a place as an assistive or supportive therapy.

I was involved with research on Alzheimer’s in the United States. At that time, I received a paper that Alzheimer’s patients, who have lost their memory, started humming the song after listening to the tune. They couldn’t read newspapers, but they were enjoying music. In Norway, a Parkinson- afflicted old man whose whole body trembles while walking, would come to the hospital lobby to play the piano. He was in a condition that he could not button his clothes, but the fingers were perfectly playing the piano.

Earlier, people believed that the right part of the brain is part of art and music, and the left part is of language and mathematics. This theory is out-dated now. When ‘Functional MRI was performed while listening to music, there were many spots in both parts of the brain. Even if many parts of the brain are paralyzed, the musical comprehensibility will not be completely lost. Music proves to be an effective mean of awakening the sleeping brain, or for making the awakened brain sleep.

This is not unnatural. Children sleep after listening to lullabies, and people used to wake up with temple bhajans and mosque prayers. Music is also associated with emotions. It is a simple experience that if we change the music, the mood will change. Bharat Bhasya, has explained this centuries ago. According to this text, when a song is sung in a slow tempo, compassion and pathos will be born; Humor and romance would be born, if sung in the medium tempo, and if sung in a fast pace, valour or anger (rudra) will be born.

If you remember that song from movie Satte Pe Satta – ‘Pyaar hamein kis mod pe le aaya’, See! How the song starts with pathos in slow rhythm and the rhythm changes to valour (Veer Rasa) as the pace gets faster.

When we listen to music, many events occur simultaneously in the brain. A sound is only a sound when there is someone listening to it. If there is no one to listen, then it is just a vibration. When the brain of a human or animal listens to that vibration, a sound travels through the ear and ultimately to the brain. Our brain captures vibrations, and perceives it as sound. If this music is put in the ears
of an unconscious person, then the bones of his ears will vibrate, and he may hear the sound. If his mind is able to interpret this vibration, he may also understand that a person in the room is walking.

Because, both music and tap of feet, are vibrations with different frequencies.
We are also able to understand whether it is the voice of a man or a woman. Because the pitch of the two are different. Someone’s voice is heavy, and someone’s voice is soft. For example, if a steel plate falls on the floor and a tennis ball falls, different pitches would be produced. We would wish that a head-injury patient could comprehend this difference. In Hindustani music, the Raga Darbari is the melody of low pitch (Mandra Saptak), which is often sung by men. Female singers with baritone voice like Gangubai Hangal could sing it, but usually female singers avoid singing
Darbari. On the other hand, female singers like Raga Madhuvanti because its pitch is different.

These differences are used in music therapy so that the mind could recognize different voices. A patient should ultimately develop the ability to identify male and female voices. One can also note a difference, when the same tone comes out of the sitar or guitar. This sound parameter is called ‘Timber’. Flute and Santoor have been particularly used in music therapy. While flute is a simple instrument, which primitive brain can quickly recognise; Santoor is a 100 stringed instrument that can simultaneously awaken hundred different points of the brain. Dr. Keni of Bombay conducted experiments with the Santoor and believes that it has a multifaceted effect on the body. Like a placebo in psychosomatic problems. Many other similar theories were found.

Yet, none of the scientific researches were done on a large sample size.
Our brain also recognises rhythm. Let’s consider a patient whose balance is disturbed for some reason. For example, his steps are staggering, or the voice is shivering; If a music is played to him, then his body will try to adapt to this rhythm. One may try different kind of music in his headphone,when he or she is on a treadmill. A slow-paced music may reduce their pace while a techno-music may increase it, just like dance steps.

During our childhood days, Radio Ceylon would play late night songs based on Raag Pilu. The structure of the night ragas is such that the mind becomes calm and we get better sleep. When a doctor from Pune started playing the Raga Darbari to his patients, he could reduced the doses of sleeping pill to half! Music also helps to reduce the stress. If the stress level is high, then it is effective to start from Raag Yaman Kalyan and end with Bageshri or Darbari. Another raga effective in reducing stress is Raag Abhogi Kanhara. Hindol is the raga of Veer Ras, which is said to be useful in diseases of bones and joints. Jayanthi Kumaresh and Jaideep Ghosh came out with a series on a music therapy, in which Hindol was advocated in arthritis. I do not believe in the cure of arthritis with music, but it may help in decreasing the pain or decreasing the perception of pain.

I doubt any of the effect if their brain is not pre-conditioned. As of now, the listeners of Hindustani music are few and they are not conditioned for such music. In fact, they may find it irritating and may not enjoy it at all. To appreciate the taste of mango, one has to eat it often. Only if a person begins to listen such music from early age, the brain would be properly conditioned and perceive it as a pleasant music. The effect of such alternative therapy largely depends on having a faith on it.

(Author Praveen Kumar Jha is a Norway based doctor and a musicologist who has recently authored a book on Hindustani music—‘Wah Ustad’)

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