Music and the Mind: Infinite Possibilities for Transformation

Swami Jnanarupananda Saraswati

Nada yoga, such as mantra, kirtan and raga, are sensorial phenomena that can be tools for transformation, enabling us to transcend mental, physical and spiritual suffering. The modern mind often forgets to turn within, to listen inside, to find our own wisdom. We habitually seek external stimuli to satisfy us, and music is one simple, charismatic method to turn our attention within and unfold the experience of fulfilment and inner peace.

To determine the mystical nature of music and how it transforms and leads us to the source and origin of sound, the concepts of vibration, prana, mantra, kirtan and raga. Most of us are familiar with the phrase 'music calms the savage beast' which we know is true for cobras, monkeys, elephants, lions etc., but the savage beast can also be analogous for the mind. Paramahamsa Satyananda's commentary on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras explains this cause of suffering. Our lives follow the mind and its senses. The chitta vrittis are our habitual, and also inherited or karmic, patterns of mind, which are superimposed upon our real selves, the tranquility of expanded consciousness, Purusha, the union of Shiva and Shakti, the Divine. Amongst these are the panchakleshas: avidya (ignorance), asmita (ego), raga (attraction), dwesha (repulsion) and abhinivesha (fear of death). These motivate us to search for pleasure and only bring us pain (klishta and aklishta).

My own experience of incurring a back injury after several years of sadhana, limited the use of the physical body through hatha yoga to harmonize the endocrine systems, the mind, and to clear nadis. And what of para and quadriplegics, amputees and those with degenerative diseases such as Alzheimers, multiple sclerosis, cancer and even old age, when mobility is restricted? How do people suffering from these conditions attain the highest, transform, transcend, quieten the mind, the body and bring peace to their soul? Music is a great method. It can induce and deepen relaxation, and promote self-healing and self-acceptance, regardless of mental or physical health.

At this time I was diligently following ashram lifestyle, but when sitting for meditation the mind would continue to whirl and plan. How can I do this better? What needs to be done next? But, if I sat with others chanting the Lord's name for half an hour, the pain in my body would diminish, the senses would withdraw themselves, the boundaries between the inner and outer worlds would dissolve, tranquility, peace, joy and a sense of lightness would be experienced and my mental concerns would dissolve.

This is in fact the experience of the rishis, the earliest practitioners of yoga. They would chant and then be able to sit for meditation for hours. They were able to channel their divine wisdom which we still honour today. Swami Sivananda was a keen kirtanist. He wrote of his experience, “When the Lord's Name is chanted the mind merges in bliss. It loses its individual identity in bliss and becomes one with the bliss itself.” (Sivananda 1993)

The nature of music is sound

So what is music? What is its nature that can uplift us? It is said that music is the oldest path to enlightenment. It possesses an incomparable power to unite people of different faiths, castes, classes and creeds; to uplift an individual, or the masses, from pathos to ecstasy (Singh 1975). Music can speak the language of the soul.

Some of the masters help us to define music further: Strauss – music is the translation of the heart's impressions and emotions; Debussy – music is the totality of dissolved powers; Freud – listening to music is an undifferentiated projection of an anal significance (Sanyal 1987). Swami Sivananda says kirtan is the easiest, surest and quickest way to God-realization (Sivananda 1993). Aghori Vimalananda says music is the manifestation of sound, and sound exists wherever there is energy (Svoboda 1996). Swami Niranjanananda says sound is the flow of consciousness (1993). So here are the clues, but the questions remain. What is it that transforms us, propels us towards unity with the Divine? How does it calm the savage beast? Does it dissolve the chittavrittis for good or simply distract us?

Of course, not all music is uplifting. Stress can be caused by the body rhythms being constantly bombarded by sound, natural or man-made, harmonious or disharmonious, energizing or debilitating, audible or not. Some sounds can be detrimental to our health, cause recklessness, diminished efficiency, dizziness, loss of balance, nausea and convulsions (Saraswati 1992).

During the 1970s Dorothy Retalleck, from the USA, performed many experiments with plants in scientifically controlled chambers. She found that plants grew more rapidly and abundantly with Bach's music, and grew towards the sound of Ravi Shankar's sitar, in comparison to Debussy, jazz, and country and western music. It was noted that plants withered and even died with rock and roll (Ostrander et al 1981). These experiments with plants suggest that it is not mind that uplifts, that is, our personal likes and dislikes, moods etc., but the vibration, the essence of sound.

Kay Gardner, a contemporary musician and music therapist, has found from her extensive research, that all global aboriginal cultures have the heart beat as the basic pulse of their music. Rock and roll uses an anapestic beat (tata tahta, tata tahta) which actually clashes with the heart's natural rhythm (Golden 1992). The Tantras and the Upanishads explain that the source of music is sound and that sound is a vibrational energy, prana. This concept can be difficult for the modern mind. One usually requires a leap of faith between the unseeable and the materially identified world that we live in, which can be difficult for the pragmatist.

The essence of sound is vibration

The science of physics can assist our acceptance of these subtle realities. Atomic theory, for example, asserts that all living and non-living manifest matter, comprising solids, liquids and gases, consist of energy, of atoms made of protons and electrons revolving around a nucleus. Their positive and negative charge creates vibrating waves of energy which can manifest form. They strive to continually stabilize their outer shells, just like us, by constantly interacting with other atoms. For example, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom combine to form water. Thus the whole universe is constantly moving, dynamically creating vibrational motion, which creates and transmits different sound waves with varying frequencies.

Pythagorus, in the sixth century, recognized the mathematical interrelationships between the harmony of the spheres, music and the soul. Astro-physicists at Yale University, USA, are able to describe the sounds of the planets. For example, Saturn hums a slow, dreamy melody and Mercury has a chirping, quick-silvery sound as it rotates through space.

Hans Jenny used a cymatic tonoscope to test the vibration of different tones, music and mantras, using inorganic compounds, such as plastic, and found that the sounds formed organic shapes. Particular mantras produced precise, balanced geometrical patterns or yantras, archetypal symbols that therefore hold inherently, conceptual energy. The Delwarr Laboratories, in England, analyzed waves generated by different music and found the final chord of Handel's Messiah formed a perfect five-pointed star.

D. H. Andrews, a chemist, also researched the relationship between form and frequency and found, for example, that the note A, below middle C, in the western scale, vibrates at 23 cps (cycles per second), manifests the colour red-orange and shares the same frequency as the metal copper. He was able to conclude that all elements, the tattwas, even those making up our own body, are able to be attuned and harmonized with different vibrational sounds.

The philosophies of Samkhya and Vedanta determine that the human body consists of five sheaths, koshas, or vibrational bodies, which consequently manifest different vibrational attributes. For example, the annamaya kosha manifests the physical body and its systems, manomaya kosha manifests the mind and its multiple functions, vijnanamaya kosha manifests the psychic body, and anandamaya is the bliss body. The pranamaya kosha links all these levels depending upon the purity of the nadis.

Dr Hiroshi Motoyama, of Japan, has spent the greater part of his life scientifically verifying psychic, or PSI energy, and the existence of the subtle and casual dimensions of the body. He cites the example that during an experiment with a psychic medium, a paper weight manifested on the testing room floor. It had been in a desk drawer in the room above. The ceiling between them had been specifically reinforced with layers of lead, copper and cement. This incident confirms not only the mind's power to transform and re-form material objects, but also so-called the ability of inert objects to vibrationally change and re-form (Motoyama 1991).

Many psychics, students of yoga, saints and sages, have recorded their experiences, the extraordinary activity of the kundalini, the chakras, and the 72,000 nadis that exist within the subtle body. With practices such as swara sadhana or toning, we can visualize, activate and feel these chakras, spinning vortices of energy, radiating wheels of harmony, that manifest along the spine.

We can, therefore, realign, release and revitalize the pathways of energy as well as tone the nerve plexuses and balance the endocrinal and other systems of the physical body. So, with sound we are able to vibrationally attune ourselves with the subtle, intelligent, all pervading consciousness. We can activate these subtle and causal realms and thereby expand our own awareness, understanding and knowledge, and experience inner states of profound fulfilment and joy.

Prana creates nada

Swami Niranjanananda (1993) writes that nada forms a link between one's present state of consciousness and one's inner potential, and describes practices that utilize music and honour nadabrahma, the harmony of the spheres, the Absolute, pranic vibration expressed as sound. But how does sound manifest within us? There are four levels of sound, manifestations of vibrational frequencies of prana, paranada, pashyanti, madhyama, and baikhari. Paranada is the purest, most intensely concentrated power, or shakti that manifests as kundalini. Its three qualities are: omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence. Its frequency is the sound Om or pranava, and the Yoga Sutras proclaim that pranava is Ishwara, God, the Absolute.

From paranada, as the energy disperses to manifest form, all other sounds emerge: matrika, or sound-units form the beeja mantras which manifest the chakras. For example, sahasrara has 1,000 petals each with a different combination of the fifty beeja mantras. It is here that the psychic body of the DNA stores the secrets of existence. Internal nada can be heard, like the sounds of a conch, a bell, a drum, Krishna's flute and so on. From here also the three vibratory qualities, or gunas, manifest, as well as the five pranas and the five devatas. (Niranjanananda 1994)

When we combine sound with the breath and concentration, which we naturally do while singing, we can use music for specific spiritual development, as each chakra, and each level of sound, represent different levels of consciousness. Through awakening and harmonizing these sounds, we can actually dissolve mental patterns and create new ones, and thereby heal both physical and mental imbalances and disharmonies, as our karma allows.


Different mantras, as a consequence of their origin, can therefore liberate, and reorganize and re-align the mind's tendencies, which eventually quietens the mind, intensifies its focus, concentration, and energy levels. Mantra can expand our self-understanding, and develop memory and creativity. They can alter and improve our attitude, our self-expression and our sensitivity to subtle vibrations.

In yoga psychology, mantras are used to correct psychological and psychic disorders, which are viewed as an imbalance of energy in the mind. David Frawley (1992), a US medical practitioner, states that while psychoanalysis can often keep a client self-centred, mantric energy can dissolve thought constructs like a magnet rearranges iron filings. The magnet of the mantra can realign and release energy, creating positive energy and thoughts, enabling the individual consciousness to develop a more harmonious level of experience which can eventually lead us to 'the imperishable omniscient awareness of Shiva's plane of oneness, of unity (Dyczkowski 1989).


Combined with the mystical qualities of music, the power of mantras are heightened. All languages can evoke powerful images and associations, but Sanskrit has the added purity of its original rhythmic patterns reflecting natural sounds, which have been faithfully maintained throughout the centuries. Sanskrit, or Devanagri, is regarded as the language of the Divine. One doesn't need to understand the meaning of the words, or even have faith in them, as Paramahamsa Satyananda testifies: “What I could not achieve with so many years of sadhana, I attained by singing a name which I did not have faith in.” (Satyananda 1992)

Other factors contributing to kirtan's potential are that the mind is tranquilized and calmed; the monkey mind becomes enraptured and consciousness becomes one-pointed. Kirtan differs from other forms of songs and bhajans because only the Name is repeated. Chanting in a group also intensifies the vibration. The effect of united consciousness is concentrated and, therefore, uplifting and transforming. Sound, when it becomes music, is the only thing which can so possess people they are able to drop all their inhibitions, even for just a moment, and dance.


Raga are particularly interesting because the masters of this art have refined their harmonies to eloquently reflect the natural sounds, the earth's elements and rhythms, (even those of the heart, peristalsis and the breath) and of course of specific emotions. They are designed to have a profound impact upon our thought and behaviour. Raga are mathematically perfected patterns of tonal series which match and attune our vibrations, penetrating the depths of our consciousness. Playing them successfully takes a lifetime of dedication between master and disciple. The musician is trained to smoothly flow from one tone, or swara, to another to disengage us from the material to the spiritual. Their gradation of pitch, intonation and octave divisions are able to reflect the different experiences and manifestations on all levels of consciousness.

Different ragas have different qualities. It is said that some can produce rain, like the Raga Megha, or fire like the Raga Deepaka. They can also have different healing qualities and are used in the Ayurvedic medical system. Some examples are: R. Bhairava has the power to regulate the three major doshas of the body, vata, pitta and especially kapha. R. Ramkali quietens the nerves and regenerates vital energy. R. Gujari sharpens the intellect and can harmonize relationships. R. Bhairavi remedies respiratory illnesses. R. Shiri remedies illnesses caused by extreme hatred and malice. R. Daiberi remedies heart pain and rheumatism (Singh, W 1975). Of course, these do not replace, and can be used in conjunction with, any medical service. The list and potentialities of music are a continuing phenomena that can develop and deepen our experience on all levels of consciousness.

Music is thus a means of transformation physiologically, mentally, emotionally and psychically. It is a tool that facilitates healing and insight. Simply by listening to music we are able to realign our vibrational frequencies. Music can be used individually or communally to alter moods, behaviour, attitudes, and even to attain samadhi, with guru's grace. Music can speak an international language of peace and harmony whether we are healthy, disabled or diseased. This is the transformational power of music.


Dyczkowski, M. S. G. (1989) The Doctrine of Vibration, Motilal Barnarsidas, Delhi, India.

Frawley, D. (1982) Health Care Professionals: Independent Study Guide to Ayurveda, American Institute of Vedic Studies, Santa Fe, USA.

Golden, S. (1992) Sounding the Inner Landscape, Yoga Journal, pp. 30-31.

Motoyama, H. (1991) The Correlation between PSI Energy and Ki, Human Science Press, Japan.

Ostrander, S., Shroeder, L. & Ostrander, N. (1981) Superlearning, Collins, Glasgow, UK.

Sanyal, R. (1997) Philosophy of Music, Somaya Pub, New Delhi.

Saraswati, Swami Niranjanananda (1993) Dharana Darshan, Sri Panch Dashnam Paramahamsa Alakh Bara, Deoghar, Bihar.

Saraswati, Swami Niranjanananda (1994) Prana Pranayama Pranavidya, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, Bihar, India.

Saraswati, Swami Satyananda (1989) Four Chapters on Freedom, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, Bihar, India.

Saraswati, Swami Satyananda (1992) Yoga, xx, 8, pp. 7-12, Munger, Bihar, India.

Saraswati, Dr Swami Shankardevananda (1979) Music Therapy, Yoga xviii, 2, Munger, Bihar, India.

Saraswati, Swami Sivananda (1993) Essence of Bhakti Yoga, Divine Life Society, Himalayas, UP, India.

Singh W. (1975) Musical India, Pageant and Posieden Press, NY, USA.

Svoboda, R. E. (1996) Aghora II: Kundalini, Rupa & Co, Calcutta.