Indian Music Therapy

By Dr Liji Thomas, MD

Indian music is based on the concept of raga and rasa. Raga is the arrangement of notes in a particular order so as to create a musical adornment.

It depends upon melodic movement, that is, the occurrence of tones or musical notes to create a single line of tune, rather than upon harmony, which uses several lines of melody in pleasing contrast with each other, as is common in Western music.

It is the whole arrangement which is the creation, and is more than the sum of the separate notes. Rhythm is common to both, and is defined as the feeling of movement of music in time.

Music and emotions

Attempts have been made from long ago to relate the basic notes in Indian music to the eight basic emotions in Indian drama. The notes are sadaja, rishaba, gandhara, madhyama, panchama, dhaibata and nishada, while the moods are sringar (love), hasya (laughter), karuna (compassion), vira (heroism), raudra (wrath), bhayanaka (fear), bibhatsa (disgust) and adbhuta (wonder).

Different notes are used to evoke the different emotions. Thus madhyama and panchama are used to create a feeling of love or laughter. Gandhara and nishada are evocative of compassion, while fear and disgust are conveyed by the use of dhaibata. As for sadaja and rishaba, they are commonly used to create a mood of anger, courage or wonder.

The listener’s counterpart to raga is rasa, the mental and emotional reflection of what is heard as music. The reaction to the music one listens to is both the primary effect of the notes and their arrangement, and a secondary effect of the thoughts and moods evoked by the primary reaction. In ancient Hindu literature, this effect is an offshoot of the ultimate reality which is outside the physical universe, and is in fact the bliss towards which all things work.

Music processing

The brain processes music in a very complex way, using several different modes, such as perceptual, emotional, cognitive, motor and autonomic. The sound waves that make up heard music impinge on the cochlea to produce signals, which reach the brainstem and finally the auditory cortex of the brain.

There are also additional areas involved in music perception, which help to define the pitch, the timbre or quality, the rhythm, the roughness and the loudness or intensity of the music. Different parts of the brain operate to produce musical aptitude, a musical syntax, musical semantics and the language of music.

Other areas, such as the amygdala and cingulate gyrus, may be responsible for the emotional reaction to music. Music which produces pleasure activates the frontal cortex, while the temporal lobe is active when listening to unpleasant music. Also, sadness in music is sometimes a source of exquisite pleasure as well as pain, unlike most other arts where sadness is unpleasant.

Physiologic effects of music

Music relaxes the muscles, reduces systolic blood pressure, heart rate and even brings down the oxygen saturation, when it is slow, soft, and not accompanied by words. However, faster music causes a rise in these parameters, as well as in the breathing rate and overall sympathetic tone.

Cognitive reactions to music strengthen the firing of certain neurons, which may also be used to perform a related task. Thus music helps enhance learning in certain areas, such as verbal learning and abstract conceptualization.

These effects of music are brought about by many areas of the brain. Dopamine, endorphins, and nitrous oxide are all thought to be involved in the pleasurable sensation of listening to pleasant music. Both emotional and physical effects, such as skin vasodilatation, and a drop in blood pressure, may be observed. Classical music produces no change in stress hormones, and growth hormone, unlike techno-music.

Music in therapy

Music therapy, therefore, is a systematic form of intervention which uses music, and relationships dependent on the music, to promote health. Music experiences used in this form of therapy may comprise active playing, active listening, or composing.

The therapist then relates the music experience to the player’s life experiences. It is important that the therapist is qualified in music therapy, as otherwise the process is referred to simply as music medicine, and is supplementary in its use. The essential components of music therapy therefore include:

  • A qualified therapist trained in music therapy.
  • A single person or group to work with.
  • Personalized goals sought to be attempted by applying music experiences followed by interpretation or reflection on the experiences.

Music therapy may be structured or free-flowing, with structures and activities being selected during the session.

Indian music therapy is highly subjective, and is geared to meet individual needs, while focusing on the spiritual element. Its goal is to achieve union with the ultimate reality, and harmony in a musical sense is not employed. The spiritual basis is seen in the way it encourages the expression of devotion to the spirit.

The approach used here is raga-based, and produces changes in the body which relieve anxiety, effect relaxation and bring about sleep. It also, however, brings about gentle stimulation, and increases the attention span. It is individualistic in that its dependence upon swara allows the singer to tailor the music to the listener’s preferences and listening habits.  It is different from Western music therapy in its focus on deep religious feelings.

Many studies suggest the positive impact of music therapy on depression scores, but their lack of rigorous quality standards requires more evidence to be available. Unpublished research confirms these findings, and also points to improved cognitive as well as behavioral outcomes as well as emotional healing.

Other areas in which Indian music therapy has provided some evidence of being a credible alternative therapy include schizophrenia, dementia, autism, insomnia and substance abuse, as well as disorders of speech, and coordination, and in relief of terminal cancer pain.

Benefits of Indian music therapy

Indian music therapy, in common with other forms of music therapy, confers the following benefits:

  • Positive effects on mood.
  • Better concentration and attention.
  • Assists with coping and relaxation.
  • Helps understand the person’s inner self, image and personality.
  • Gives a better awareness of self and environment, and so produces a positive impact on social interactions

The mechanisms of effect of music therapy may include:

  • Offering a medium for emotional expression without the use of words.
  • Creation of music in a band offers social environment.
  • The creation of music is its own reward and motivation.
  • The pleasure in listening to music overcomes the flattened affect and lack of motivation or meaning, in depressed individuals.


Last Updated: Nov 12, 2015

Read in | English | Español | Français | Deutsch | Português | Italiano | 日本語 | 한국어 | 简体中文 | 繁體中文 | Nederlands | Русский | Svenska | Polski
The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News-Medical.Net.
Post a new comment