The power of Music

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Music is a universal human trait. It has always been viewed from an aesthetic perspective but its healing power has been documented in various traditions of music across the world. One of these main traditions is known as Indian Classical Music(ICM) and is one of the oldest forms of music. It dates back to the ancient scriptures of India, the Vedas (dated around 5000–2000 BC), and is said to have originated from one of the four Vedas, the Samaveda. There are two main elements that form ICM known as ragas, meaning ‘one which induces emotion in the mind’, and taal(a rhythmic structure and style). The ragas provide the framework for melodic elaboration and are defined as a melodic basis for compositions and improvisations. There are hundreds of ragas in this tradition and each raga is associated with a specific theme. They are said to evoke a certain emotion in the listener. This part of the music is what got scientists curious. They started to wonder about the real power of music.

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(Sitar used in ICM)

Once the taal is set in ICM, the main focus for musicians is to vary the ragas dynamically in order for the music to not only sound good but also have an impact on our minds and bodies. Variations are introduced in the melodic improvisation, composition, tempo, and complex rhythmic cycle. In ICM, there is emotional variation not only between ragas but also in a single raga. Indian classical musicians have the ability to strongly vary the expressivity associated with a specific raga in their performances, in order to convey the emotions they want.

After noticing this emotional power of ICM, researchers were curious to know whether the impact of this music extends further. So an electroencephalography (EEG) study, which detected electrical activity in the brain, was conducted where 20 individuals listened to ICM ragas. They all showed increased overall alpha, delta and theta power in comparison with an eyes-closed rest condition. In addition, researchers were able to conclude that listening to certain ragas produce a significant decrease in systolic and diastolic blood pressure, to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and to enhance feelings of life satisfaction, experience of hope and optimism. All in all, Ragas are considered to have healing powers and the ability to improve overall health.

Using music as a therapy dates back to prehistoric times with ICM. Recently, it has been predominantly driven by the recreational and social-science model, focusing on well-being and emotional health. Over the past three decades, music has been studied as a cognitive phenomenon. It has been seen as a complex set of different processes and characteristics such as pitch, pitch interval, tempo, rhythm, melodic contour and rhythmic contour. Scientific evidence has been produced pertaining to various clinical conditions. The link between music and medical therapy was first established because of the discovery of ICM health benefits. And because of advances in research methods, tools, and techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), EEG, event-related potential (ERP), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and magnetic encephalography, this connection has exponentially grown. Music is considered to be a biological phenomenon and not just a sociocultural phenomenon. This has led to neuroscience-based music therapy, targeting multiple domains of functioning in addition to the social science and interpretive models

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Research on music and its effect on brain functions has produced insights into the nature of the brain, especially the phenomenon of ‘neural plasticity’. It bring about neurochemical changes in the brain which addresses several areas such as cognitive, emotional, social domains of functioning, which are adversely affected in psychiatric conditions. It has been associated with reduced effects of mental disorders such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.

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(Brain Development)

In conclusion, music has always had profound impacts on our mental, emotional, and social health from ICM to even current western music. ICM musicians are able to manipulate variations in ragas to bring about emotional responses, which is linked to improvements in health. The discoveries of the health benefits of ICM motivated scientists to dig deeper on Western more modern forms of music which contain different elements. They were able to find that even modern music, with its complex rhythms, tempos, and pitch intervals, bring about neurochemical changes in the brain which benefit cognitive, emotional, and mental health and also subsidize mental disorder impacts.

-Smaran Sivashankar


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