Literature regarding Indian classical music is replete with stories expounding curative properties of music of the land. Whether fact or fiction, one cannot deny the effect music has on body, mind and spirit. Musicologists call it an expressive tool that has a therapeutic impact on people’s physical and mental health. That exposure to a raga induces a sense of wellbeing and raises the mind to a new level of consciousness is well known. But is it an antidote for diseases like diabetes, spondylitis, thyroid disorders, cardiac ailments, malaria, arthritis, and even TB, as is being claimed?

For instance, does exposure to the melodious Marwa, an evening raga with a hexatonic scale, cure malaria? Can the evocative Bhairavi uproot asthma, chronic cough, cold and even tuberculosis? Several music therapists in the country seem to claim this, and what’s more, recommend it as an alternative medicine. The Internet is full of information on which raga is good for which ailment. So if you are seeking relief from chronic constipation, simply listen to Gunkali or Jaunputi, or tune in to Malkauns to get rid of intestinal gas or high fever. Is this reality or myth?

Professor Shruti Sadolikar-Katkar, vice chancellor of the Bhatkhande Music University, Lucknow, said she has not come across any strong evidence regarding ragas having cured diseases. “Music is all about sound waves and has been considered to be effective in calming the nerves and helping the mind in attaining peace. But ragas are not like prescribed medicines which can cure diseases.”

Dr T.V. Sairam, president, Nada Centre for Music Therapy, New Delhi, endorsed Sadolikar-Katkar. Ragdari music has mysterious energy and is cathartic. However, there is no scientific evidence to prove the claim that ragas cure diseases, he said, adding, “Music can be used as a complimentary therapy in combination with an established mode of treatment like allopathy, Ayurveda and homeopathy. The relief that a patient gets is psychological and not physical.

Music originated from Sama Veda, one of the four Vedas, the ancient Indian scriptures. But that music was in the form of Vedic hymns to be chanted at the time of a yajna (sacrificial ritual). Musical scale developed with time and music then became a mode of expression like language. Slowly, Ayurveda too developed as a method of treating human ailments.

“If music was so effective then where was the need for Ayurveda? I am a musician myself and also know quite a few musicians who need doctors to treat various ailments. Why should artists need doctors if music could cure diseases?” Sadolikar-Katkar, who is a renowned exponent of the Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana and winner of the prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, observed. However, she said that she has come across many doctors and surgeons who played instrumental music in their clinics to provide solace to patients and it was found to be very helpful.

Even high priests of modern medicine do not dispute the power of music in combating negative feelings like fear, anxiety, pain and depression. That it helps afflicted individuals in developing coping strategies, expressing emotions, enhancing self-confidence and instilling a sense of security, is well understood. “Music definitely has a deep impact on the mind,” Dr Vijayalakshmi Subramaniam, head of the department of Otorhinolaryngology, Yenepoya Medical College, Mangalore, observed. “I can assertively say that not only does music promote wellness but also enables one to face and overcome challenges in life confidently, while still remaining grounded.”

Expressing from a musician’s perspective, backed by years of experience, Meeta Pandit, an exponent of Gwalior Gharana, said music offers stability to the mind and keeps one in the present. Narrating a personal experience, she said, “The power of music has helped me to cope with many turbulent phases in my life. I have rarely needed counseling. I have survived the situations in which any other person would have inconsolably broken down.”

When Dr Sairam was lying in a hospital waiting for his surgery, he chose to listen to melancholy music to ward off depression. “The sadness in the music was different from the sadness in me. My grief was chaotic. I had too many disturbing thoughts and was miserable. But the sorrow expressed in the music was an organised pattern of soothing notes. I was able to synchronise with that. Joyful music would not have worked then. The impact was wonderful.”

The curative aspect of raga, a sequential arrangement of selected notes in varying combinations that produces melody, has been a much-researched subject of a bygone era. Raag Chikitsa, an ancient Indian treatise on musicology is replete with information on cognitive impact of notes, rhythm and microtones in various permutations and combinations. In his article on music therapy published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, Dr Sairam propounded that the ancient system of Nada Yoga had fully acknowledged the profound impact music had on body and mind. Its ability to uplift one’s level of consciousness, too, was a well-established fact.

However, despite being an ancient practice, research in raga therapy in India is still in infancy. Few studies have been conducted in recent years, which have found some evidence to support the claim that a raga could be a safe alternative for medical interventions, like the use of synthetic analgesics in pain management.

The Indian Journal of Surgery published a study in 2012, which said that the exposure to Raga Ananda Bhairavi showed a positive effect in postoperative pain management. This was evidenced by reduction in analgesic requirement by 50% in those who listened to the raga postoperatively for three days. Some other studies have analysed the effect of music during cardiac catheterisation, prior to and after cardiac surgery and during rehabilitation. There are also research reports that espouse the effect of music in intensive care medicine, geriatric care and disorders like depression.

Music also boosts immunity. Illness affects an individual’s psyche and negatively impacts his/her overall wellbeing. “When used with medicine, music works as an adjuvant that calms the mind and helps improve overall wellbeing,” Dr Subramaniam said. “But this needs a lot more research.”

While Indian musicology may prove to be a treasure trove for the medical fraternity, it is imperative to enquire into this field with an open mind. Experts feel that it is necessary to create a body of knowledge to back the arguments on music therapy through research based on specific, scientific parameters.

“We need to conduct clinical studies on a sizeable population to create well-documented case studies,” Dr Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, another accomplished vocalist also affiliated to the Jaipur-Atrauli Gharana, opined. “It should be a collective effort. Medical experts, clinicians, performing artistes, statisticians and of course patients should work together for this cause.”

Dr Bhide-Deshpande was of the opinion that music therapy is a complex field and hence every aspect of this system needs to be thoroughly studied. “Music therapy may not work for all as the impact of music has more to do with reception than transmission,” she said. “You cannot force someone who doesn’t have an ear for music to undergo music therapy. One needs to have the antenna to receive music. If the antenna of a person is ill-formed, you may subject this individual to the best of music and there will not be any impact because she or he does not have the ability to process it further,” she opined.

According to Dr Subramaniam, since response to music is subjective, a great deal of qualitative research is also needed to garner substantial evidence. “My personal research experience with two Carnatic ragas, Shankarabharanam and Kalyanavasantam, as complementary medicine in the treatment of depression has yielded good results,” she said.

Based on the severity of depression as assessed by a standardised questionnaire, Dr. Subramaniam divided 40 patients into two groups. Both groups received pharmacological treatment as per standard protocols prescribed by psychiatrists. While 20 patients were advised to listen to Shankarabharanam for 15-20 minutes twice a day for a month, the remainder of the group was told to listen to Kalyanavasantam for a similar time period. The severity of depression was reassessed. “Improvement in symptoms was noted in most, which made it possible to reduce the dosage of antidepressant medicines they received. Now I am motivated to further my work,” she declared.

Dr Subramaniam is now working on improving memory and attention span in children using music. Study will be conducted in a Mangalore school. In palliative care setting, music is being given based on patients’ choice and “we find them to be calmer, requiring lesser dosage of sedatives/pain relieving medication and also having better sleep.” She is sanguine that her efforts in music therapy may open the door to new and exciting possibilities in treatment of human ailments.