Music and wellness: insights through time

We all know that music can make us feel better in ourselves. But the concept of ‘wellness’ relates to something much broader and more fundamental – not just our immediate emotional and sensory states, but also the deeper foundations of our physical and mental health.

What have different cultures had to say about the healing powers of sound throughout history? And what insights can we glean for our modern lives?

Resonant meditations: ragas, mantras, & talas

India’s classical music traditions are spiritual, devotional pursuits, with artists seeking to heal their listeners and bring them into closer union with the divine. While cautioning that “ragas are not like prescribed medicines which can cure diseases”, Jaipur-Atrauli vocalist Shruti Sadolikar-Katkar heralds the power of Hindustani raga in “calming the nerves, and helping the mind in attaining peace”.

These soothing, meditative aims have manifested in a multitude of different ways, stretching back to the mantra chanting of Vedic temples over 3000 years ago:

Pranayama: The South Indian morsing (jaw harp) has long been used to heighten the experience of pranayama (breathing meditation): it vibrates through the musician’s skull, turning the whole head into a buzzing, multi-sensory amplifier. Similarly, bansuri maestro Pandit Rupak Kulkarni says his instrument “brings many benefits…for your entire body and soul. Pranayama happens automatically, so to play is to soothe the mind. The flute needs no maintenance – the only thing you need is to be in tune internally”.

—Modern raga-therapy: The legendary santoor (Himalayan dulcimer) pioneer Pandit Shivkumar Sharma explains that he created Raag Antardhwani as an explicit meditation aid: “My listeners around the world were asking me to make a special recording for meditation…Many meditation centres, yoga centres, even people were using my music for healing…and couple of doctors also told me they have used my music, especially the alap [rhythmless introduction]…”

Rhythmic tranquility: Pandit Anokhelal Mishra goes to the dentist

Born into an impoverished family, Anokhelal Mishra (1914-1958) rose to be known as Tabla Samrat (‘Emperor of Tabla’). Despite widespread adulation, he remained markedly humble throughout his career, sometimes sitting on the floor of the concert hall instead of the raised stage in respect for the achievements of forebears.

Chandra Nath Shastri, one of Mishra’s senior students, recounts how his discipleship originally came about via an unconventional musico-medical circumstance. The great Pandit once visited Shastri’s father, a dentist, to have a tooth extracted. He was nervous, and the dentist suggested that he compose a short rhythmic piece in his head to calm himself. He became completely absorbed by the task, and a few minutes later the dentist asked what he had composed.

Mishra recited it, then asked which tooth was about to be extracted. “So you didn’t notice?” the dentist replied. This took Mishra by surprise, saying: “Doctor Sahab, your fingers are so good I could not even feel any pain…If you learn tabla then your playing will be better than anyone’s”. The dentist replied that he used to perform part-time, before medical responsibilities took over; but that he was now teaching his two sons. Mishra asked for permission to teach them, and Shastri’s father agreed…

Longevity & later-life health benefits

The interconnected nature of musical learning and performance has long been known to help us retain our mental and physical capabilities as we age. South Asian music regularly bills octogenarians on the most prestigious stages, and some – such as vocalist Prabha Atre – continue with strength and vigour right up close to their 90s.

These benefits are not just limited to active practicers or performers either – watch this incredible clip of how musical memory can effectively return the power of speech and communication to an advanced Alzheimers’ patient (also featuring the fantastic medical writer Dr. Oliver Sacks):

Stress relief for healthcare workers

We interviewed Drupti Vaja, our talented Spiritual Bridges debut single vocalist, about how music relates to her full-time work as an NHS nurse in Birmingham – and how sound can be a source of stress-relief in challenging times. All respect to her sincerity on the pressures of the COVID-19 frontlines – a few excerpts:

“I used to come to work listening to spiritual songs – on the journey I’d listen to prayers…[and] pray for the patients that I was looking after, but also for myself & my loved ones – to make sure they’re safe. I think music helped me come out of that, and have that ‘light at the end of the tunnel’…”

“I really thought that I was never going to sing again because of the things we were facing at work. But it’s helped me to be a stronger person in the end…I just feel very lucky that I could help. If anyone asks me if I’d do it again I’d say ‘yes’. I’m quite proud that nobody can ever take the experience away from me…and to have come out of it stronger.”

“…As soon as I heard ‘studio’ my heart skipped a beat…for me that was a huge turning point…after not being able to connect or interact with anyone when I was working at the hospital. I moved out of home for a few months, not knowing if I was going to bring it back to my family…To go to a studio and meet different artists, different people…”

Next: see Ragatip’s ‘Spiritual Bridges’ project, uniting disparate devotional traditions of the East and West…

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