Indian Music Therapy

Indian music often depends upon melodic movement, that is, the occurrence of tones or musical notes to create a single line of tune. Rather than being based on harmony, which uses several lines of melody in pleasing contrast with each other, Indian music is distinguished from Western music.

This type of music 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.

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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. These notes include 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, whereas fear and disgust are conveyed by the use of dhaibata. As for sadaja and rishaba, these notes are commonly used to create a mood of anger, courage, or wonder.

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.

The listener’s counterpart to raga is rasa, which is 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, as well as 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 modes. The sound waves that make up music impinge on the cochlea to produce signals, which reach the brainstem and finally the auditory cortex of the brain.

There are several 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, 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 that produces pleasure activates the frontal cortex, whereas the temporal lobe is activated when listening to unpleasant music. Additionally, sadness in music is sometimes a source of exquisite pleasure as well as pain, unlike most other arts where sadness is typically perceived to be unpleasant.

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Physiologic effects of music

Music relaxes the muscles, reduces both systolic blood pressure and heart rate, and even brings down the oxygen saturation, particularly when the music 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 to 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 hormones, unlike techno music.

Music in therapy

Music therapy, therefore, is a systematic form of intervention that 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 music 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

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 of Indian music therapy 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 that relieve anxiety, effect relaxation, and bring about sleep. It also, however, brings about gentle stimulation and increases the attention span. This raga-based approach to music therapy is individualistic in that its dependence upon swara allows the singer to tailor the music to the listener’s preferences and listening habits.  Taken together, this type of music therapy 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; however, their lack of rigorous quality standards requires more evidence to be available. Unpublished research confirms these findings and also points to improved cognitive and 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.
  • Help understand the person’s inner self, image, and personality.
  • Gives a better awareness of self and environment and thus produces a positive impact on social interactions

The mechanisms of the effect of music therapy may include:

  • Offering a medium for emotional expression without the use of words.
  • The creation of music in a band offers a 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: Apr 6, 2021

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.


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