Music Therapy

Sound travels in the form of wave motions, transmitting energy and vibrating the medium it travels in. It is this transfer of energy which can be utilised in therapy. To gain an understanding of the potential usefulness of such a system we have to remember what a big part it plays in our lives and the effects it has on our being. We all know, for example, how we feel in noisy, heavy city traffic as compared to a quiet, peaceful country setting. Apart from these gross external sounds there also exist subtle inner sounds, from the heart beat, to the sound of air in the lungs, to the sounds in the mind, and beyond. Thus to know how to manipulate the sounds of our environment in such a way as to promote healing, requires a specialised and deep understanding of nada yoga, the science of sound.

The power of sound

Sound has the power to affect the body, emotions and mind. What affects one aspect has ramifications on the others. This is because the universe is a manifestation of sound. Yogic texts talk of the power of aum manifesting the universe, having pierced through bindu, the infinite point or centre of creation. If we can understand the science and power of sound we can master ourselves and the universe. This is that aspect of the science and art of tantra called mantra, and can be studied in many old texts (shastras).

The power of sound to affect matter was developed by the great singer Caruso who could shatter a glass. To do this he would strike the glass to discover its resonant frequency. Then standing in another part of the room would powerfully intone the note so that it would resonate the glass, causing it to shatter.

Music is an important aspect of sound in our lives. Used properly it can be a powerful means to promote health, but used unwisely it can lead to dissipation of mind, unhinging of the passions and degeneration in the body. It can also kill if certain very low frequencies are utilised. To understand how the power of music can be utilised to enhance growth we can read in the ancient texts how Lord Krishna's flute playing promoted the bewitching verdure in the forests and gardens of Vrindavan. Mian Tan Sen, one of the nine sages in the court of the Moghul emperor Akbar, could make plants blossom as though spring had arrived, just by intoning devotional songs (ragas) to them. He could also make rain fall and light oil lamps in the same way. Tan Sen cured many diseases with his singing. He took the disease onto himself, then another singer would take the disease from him, and so on, until it had been passed around, shared, and thereby dissipated of its negative, disharmonic force.

Many modern day researchers have shown that sound affects growth. P. Tomkins and G. Bird in their book The Secret Life of Plants report on experiments conducted by Mrs Dorothy Rettalack of USA. She set up three sets of plants listening to 'rock and roll', classical western music and classical eastern music. Loud pop music caused the plants to lean away from the sound. Western classical, Bach organ preludes, caused the plants to lean 35 degrees towards the music. The sitar playing of Ravi Shankar, however, caused the plants to strain towards the sound at angles of more than 60 degrees, "the nearest one almost embracing the loudspeaker".

Music has a hypnotic effect, subduing not only man and plants, but also the most vicious and irrational brute in the animal kingdom as well. For example, snake charmers are famous for their flute-entranced cobras. The rhinoceros, camel, elephant and horse have also been tamed by instruments such as the stringed veena and the pungi (trumpet). Birds, of course, are music lovers and adept musicians in their own right.


Ragas are pieces of classical Indian music. Compositions (gita) of pleasing sounds (swara) convey definite sentiments and possess the power to create pleasant impressions in the mind, calm the emotions, and therefore, affect the body. Listening to these most beautiful, intricate and powerful pieces, has a great deal of practical application in the field of therapy.

Much information on Indian classical music is to be found in the ancient ayurvedic medical books such as Sushruta, Charaka, and so on, which date back to the second millenia BC, and beyond. Ragas were used to ease and erase conflicting mental disturbances. They were also used in physical disease in combination with other therapy. One great physician, Dhanvantari of Ujjaini, during the reign of King Vikkramadittya said that musical sounds pleasing to the ear should be used as therapy for mental ailments.

Ayurvedic philosophy is based on the concept of the three doshas - vata, pitta and kapha - which have been literally translated as wind, bile and phlegm respectively. These elements are found in every part of the body in the combination appropriate to that part. Imbalance in these combinations leads to disease, and the ragas act by altering and regulating the balance of these three elements. However, there is more to them than their literal meaning. For example, the Charaka Samhita states the following:

"Vata is the source of both structure and function. It is that which is represented by the five forms of body energy: prana, udana, samana, vyana, and apana... the controller and guiding force of consciousness; the stimulant of the senses; the companion of sensations; the organiser of the elements of the body; the principle of synthesis; the storage battery of speech; the cause of feelings and perceptions..." (1, 12:8)

"Kapha is the nectar. It is the fertile water for the play of life; it is living fluid, the protoplasm which sustains all life processes." (1, 12:12)

"The normal function of pitta causes : power of cognition, fire of digestion, fresh complexion, clarity of thought, body temperature, hunger and thirst, and nimbleness of mind." (1, 18:50)

Any healing which can affect, and thereby regulate the balance of these three elements deserves investigation to establish its practical value in the healing sciences. For example, it is said that raga Bhairava controls ailments arising from dominance of kapha (phlegm) such as fever, constipation, etc. Malhar, Sorat, Jayajayavanti ragas are said to increase body energy, calm the mind and subdue anger. Asawari tranquillises all afflictions arising from blood, semen, phlegm, and the iris. Bhairavi stimulates the mind and helps regeneration, especially in respiratory illness, colds, flu, bronchitis, pleurisy, TB, and so on. Gurjari, Vageeswari and Malkaunsa clear diseases of phlegm such as asthma. Saranga eliminates pitta disorders such as headaches, bilious fevers, etc. Palasi, Multani, Pata-deepak and Pata-manjari clear eye problems. Darbari alleviates heart pain and rheumatism. Hindola is for disorders of the spleen and Pancham is for gastric troubles.

The ragas are also associated with different times of day, different plants, animals, and the four elements of earth, water, fire and air. Thereby the elements themselves can be influenced when ragas are performed according to certain rules. They do this by coming into harmony with the outer world and the cosmos.

The vibrations of kundalini

The knowledge of Indian music extends into the field of kundalini yoga. The basic scale (bilaval) balances the three elements when it is sung. It does this through vibration of the body at the point where mind and the neuro-endocrine system intersect at chakra points on the sushumna nadi, within the spinal cord. Resonance of the chakra stimulates it into action, and therefore different chakras can be stimulated according to need. For example, kirtan (chanting) of the name Ram will help people with peptic ulcer, constipation, and other digestive disorders as it stimulates the manipura chakra.

We can demonstrate this phenomenon for ourselves by singing the scale and concentrating at each chakra as we ascend and descend. The vibrations felt during this exercise stimulate the nerve plexuses and endocrine glands throughout the body, calming the nervous system, and bringing harmony to the whole body.

In the yogic tradition, the science of vibration and sound has been developed into an exact science called taan. The practitioner has the ability to control the rate and location of sound vibrations in his body. The voice is synchronised with complex rapid note changes, and sound vibrations can be directed so that they emanate from the mouth, nose, skull and spine.

One master of taan is Swami Nadabrahmananda, a disciple of Swami Sivananda. After initiation into sannyas and seven years of practice, he accomplished the most difficult of all aspects, kundalini taan, in which vibrations are made to vibrate the mooladhara chakra. This, he states, keeps him in good health and full of energy, even at the age of 82 years. Swami Nadabrahmananda has the ability to suspend his breath completely and not blink his eyes while playing tabla for half an hour. At the end of this time, while playing the last note he directs energy to the top of his head and makes a coin that has been resting there since the beginning of the session, jump into the air. The state of consciousness he has achieved through these techniques has been studied by Elmer Green, Ph. D., of the Menninger Foundation, USA, who reported:

"While wired up to our portable psychophysiology lab, he demonstrated an important kind of nervous system control (evidenced by the production and maintenance of alpha and theta brain waves) normally associated with a state of quiet reverie, while he was performing a complex and demanding raga, a musical performance".*1

Ottawa University tests have shown that he does not dream, and he has shown his ability to control the autonomic nervous system by consciously raising his blood pressure to 240 millimetres of mercury, thereby demonstrating the power of nada yoga to expand conscious awareness.

In modern life

Though very few of us can ever become masters of music, we can all enjoy and appreciate the effects of music in our lives. If we utilise mantra with music, as in kirtan, chanting of spiritual songs, We have a powerful means to affect and calm the mind, emotions and nervous system, releasing pent up, stored, stale and stagnant energy, and thus experiencing a 'release' or 'catharsis'.

At a purely therapeutic level the effects of music could be easily used in hospitals to help the convalescing and those who are ill to relax and thereby speed up the healing process. Doctors could help anxious and nervous parents to relax and music could even be prescribed instead of valium and other tranquillisers. Mental hospitals could only benefit by the introduction of kirtan and other forms of music' therapy.

Bring spiritual music into your home and you will find that it can have an amazing effect on your whole personality and inter relationships. This occurs especially when music is sung by the whole family as one unit. Growth of children is enhanced and their minds are made positive and dynamic. By creating harmonious vibrations we begin to resonate more and more in harmony with the cosmos, opening up to prana, the life giving energy. Our understanding and wisdom increase and knowledge of life is gained. As our spiritual master, Swami Satyananda Saraswati has said:

"Kirtan is like incense on the astral plane."


*1. Janardana, "Yoga's Music", Yoga Today, Vol.2, No.9, Jan. 1978.