Healing with music


Music therapy is very much a part of India’s ancient traditions and texts, but hardly anyone follows it today. One of the very few, qualified therapists is Pondicherry-based Dr. M. Hariharan, who is trying his best to revive it. But it is an uphill task in India he says, even as the rest of the world has successfully adopted music therapy.

Indian music therapy, otherwise known as Sangita Chikithsa (meaning treatment by music), is quite an old and familiar concept in Indian culture. Many references are found in ancient Sanskrit texts and literature, like for instance, in Raga Nidhi, Raga Vibodha, Ragamala, Ragas, Raginis and Raga Ttattva Nidhi. Even references to clinical application of music for curative purposes can be seen in Sri Muttuswami Dikshitar’s (one of the Musical Trinity of South India) Navagraha (nine planetary) compositions for curing various ailments.

However, like many other arts today, India has lost touch with her roots in music therapy too. I have composed and directed 23 CDs and DVDs centered around curing and helping to regulate various ailments including BP (blood pressure), diabetes, cancer counselling, pain, stress, sleeplessness, nervous disorder, memory loss, weight management, heart problems, chakra balancing, chakra positioning etc. People in India use music as a means to relax after a hectic schedule of work. It is not used for healing or curing, but for releasing the body and the mind temporarily from stress. But I advocate music therapy for permanent healing and cure.

How does music therapy work?

Music therapy is a programme that uses music to heal ailments. It is a listening therapy programme using specially filtered classical music to improve ear and brain function. A link is established between the sounds we hear and our functioning in speech, learning, energy and stress. Hearing is physical and listening is psychological. Both are vital to our communication skills, establishing good relationships, socialising, and learning intuitiveness. Out of the 12 cranial nerves, 10 are linked to the ear, indicating the importance of the musical sounds to our nervous system. Studies show that listening to certain kinds of music improves brain function.

This is how the combined music therapy module works:

  • Meditation helps one’s mind, nerves and brain mechanism to concentrate and focus.
  • Chanting purifies the mind and body.
  • Sacred chants purify different parts of the body.
  • Planetary mantras clear the toxins, organic and inorganic substances in the body.
  • Vedic astrology helps one diagnose the presence of various ailments with the help of the positioning of planetary combination and influences, and for remedial and curative guidance.
  • Music therapy helps the psychosomatic activities of the mind and body.

We identify and classify patients according to their ailments. Music therapy can cure all kinds of diseases except cancer and diabetes, though this treatment helps extend the lifespan of cancer patients. Music therapy is widely used to control and cure depression, stress, anxiety, BP, migraine, body pain, rheumatism and so on. The therapist administers treatment according to the patient’s age, gender, preference to music etc. The duration of the treatment is about 12 weeks. If a patient is on medication, I don’t ask them to discontinue. However, gradually, I reduce the amount of intake and increase the music sessions. Thus, it goes in a balanced way. There is also follow-up which is optional. I recommend that the patient be completely relaxed when he or she undergoes the treatment. We administer soft music for heart patients and high rhythm for low BP patients. I use santoor music for working women, for instance, to relax their mind. Similarly, specific instruments and specific ragas are used for specific ailments.

The CD’s for music therapy for healing and the DVD’s for chakra positioning are to be heard only in the sleeping mode (i.e. when one retires to bed for sleep), and not during activities like walking, driving, eating and so on. The listening hours have to be spread out for a minimum period of 8-12 weeks, with about 30 minutes of listening to the prescribed music every day.

The classical music that one listens to transforms the improvement of the ear function and also recharges the cortex of the brain. During this period, the client is advised not to leave medical care, and we recommend that the healing process be monitored by the physician or para medical staff. The dosage of medicines, especially for BP, diabetes, cancer, pain, depression, sleeplessness etc., can be slowly reduced to a minimum level as advised by the physician. The best part of this therapy is, it is non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical, and completely safe. There are no negative side effects. Musical healing treats the cause of a listening problem by stimulating and restoring natural ear and brain function. It is also very effective in improving concentration in children.

Today, music therapy is widely practiced and used in many hospitals and clinics in most countries in USA, Canada, Europe, Australia and South East Asian countries. There are more than 70 universities and 300 Colleges in USA and other countries, which have included music therapy in their class room teaching and curriculum, leading to diplomas, under-graduate degrees, graduate degrees and doctoral programmes. The curriculum planning, accreditation, training, job opportunities, research activities, are all managed by the World Music Therapy Congress, with which I am closely associated too.

Ironically, my clients are invariably NRIs (Non-Resident Indians), as music therapy is not very popular among Indians in India. Sad but true! I had opened a clinic in Pondicherry, but had to close down after three months due to lack of response. I have tried to organise an annual Asia Pacific Symposium on Music Education Research in India. However, one basic qualification for this symposium is that the country must have at least 10 institutions which offer a course in music therapy and as we did not have any, we were disqualified.

It is a matter of frustration that not one institute or university or college has come forward to introduce music therapy in India. People in India do not believe in music therapy as a curative approach. This is the reason that I have founded the Research Society for Music Education and Music Therapy based in Pondicherry. The USA had only six universities offering this course in 1985, but today there are 64 universities and more than 300 colleges offering music therapy. In Europe, except in Switzerland and UK, if you want to open a pharmacy, you must have music therapy products also.

I believe in the application of music therapy techniques for early curative healing by combining meditation, kirtan chanting, sacred mantras, planetary chants, vedic astrology and music therapy. My music therapy modules and techniques are self-devised, practical applications, and I have found my patients benefitting immensely with this. The mantras, sacred chants, and planetary mantras are to be heard and listened to on a day-to-day basis to cleanse the energy around and purify the body. The mantras are from the old textual traditions as prescribed by the great saints and seers of the Indian traditional lore. (See box) Did you know that Indian music is very effective for healing and improving the behaviour pattern of even your pet?

It will be good if more youngsters took to music therapy as a profession. I plan to start a six-month course in music therapy at the Lakeshore Hospital, Kochi in Kerala. This ancient Indian tradition must be revived at all cost.


Dr. M. Hariharan

The writer is a well-known music therapist, having trained in the vocal traditions of both Carnatic and Hindustani classical music since the age of seven. He has a Ph.D in ethnomusicology and an Hon. Ph.D from USA on music therapy. He has conducted more than 300 workshops and 200 lectures on the healing powers of Indian music therapy. He has composed and released 24 audio CDs and 3 DVDs on Indian music therapy using traditional Indian musical instruments. Currently, he is the Head of the College of Fine Arts and Performing Arts, and Special Officer for the Culture Department of the Government of Pondicherry, India. He was awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Excellence Award for achievements in the field of Music and Musicology. He is also Chairman, Research Society for Music Education and Music Therapy, Pondicherry, and Indian Music Therapy Research Foundation, Kerala.