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New to Indian Music, Devotional, General, Wellbeing

5 Sounds that Heal

  • Author: Aysha Imtiaz

In a world grappling with the aftermath of a pandemic and mental health crisis, what sounds can help most on our road to recovery?

Emerging research has started to support what Indian classical music has known for centuries—sounds can heal. Even beyond reducing anxiety, fostering introspection and helping us move from a place of imbalance to balance, sounds can help us power through energy blockages and stymie overwhelming and crippling stress. What are the sounds that can help most? Read on to find out. 

1. The sound of the tanpura

The droning first and last sound in an Indian classical music performance, the tanpura (a fretless lute plucked throughout performance and practice) is harmonically resonant, pervasive and ubiquitous. Musician Jahnavi Harrison likens it to the ubiquity of salt—an omnipresent force enhancing and elevating the raga without taking center stage. Relatively recent research poses forays into its acoustic analysis, especially the effect of the tanpura’s sound on the human brain. Studies reveal the tanpura’s less dominating sound makes it a vehicle for ‘virtual notes’ , and the spiritual impact of the tanpura is both pronounced and proven. Most tellingly, research using electroencephalography on 10 participants highlighted the acoustically simple and specifically calming impact of the tanpura on the neural activation of the alpha and theta brain rhythms. It’s fast becoming a worldwide choice for music therapy

But even without the impact evidenced by science, the calming effect of the tanpura’s drone is felt deeply—at a visceral level. It’s the backbone to a musical performance, but also to recuperative relaxation. 

A trance-like state of consciousness is achieved by listening to it, mainly, scientists contest, by virtue of its repetitive state. As Professor Michael Ballam of Utah State University explains in the previously quotes research, there are profound impacts of musical repetition: “The human mind shuts down after three or four repetitions of a rhythm, or a melody, or a harmonic progression,” he is quotes as saying. “As a result, repetitive rhythmic music may cause people to actually release control of their thoughts, making them more receptive to whatever lyrical message is joined to the music. The tanpura drone in Hindustani music is a beautiful and most used example of repetitive music wherein the same pattern repeats itself again and again to engage the listeners and also to create an atmosphere,” the study authors conclude. 

2. The alap

The alap is the untimed exploration of the raag. Call it what you will: a prologue to the performance, a spontaneous rendering of the aesthetic arrangement, a way to unearth the persona of the raga; or call it a conversation. Whatever you call it—it’s beautiful. 

The fluid creation of melody without fixed notation allows the mind to wander, explore and settle on the quiet places of introspection and calmness. A highly granular and detailed study has found that the temporal irregularity of alap and its irregular stimuli, the participants’ response changed based on internal periodicity. There’s a pronounced difference in the pulse and response during alap and any other part of an Indian classical music piece such as, for instance, the jhalla

While certain Indian musicians are of the view that alap, too, has a pulse (in opposition to the dominant view that it is meant not to have a pulse), the overwhelmingly exploratory nature blurs and dulls heartaches...a melodic exposition leading listeners to look inwards, as that is where true healing begins. 

3. Primal sounds

Whether it’s the Muslim call to prayer in what is believed to be one of the most beautiful sounds in the world, the primordial and transcendent sound of Om or the deeply meditative chanting of Satnam Waheguru Simran, primal sounds have an almost elemental ability to electrify, invigorate, lull or inspire love of the divine. Bound by love and awe for a power higher than themselves, listeners can experience the elimination of negative thoughts, and a charged pursuit of qualities manifest by divinity. 

When one strips away the words themselves, even more basic and primal sounds emerge—such as a vocalised sigh or the sound of agreement—and such sounds have been found to elicit voluntary emotional vocalisation by drawing on the emotional motor system and imagination.

Research around the genetic, cellular and neurophysiological impact of music shows the impact of music to be stacked like a pyramid, with the primary effect of music being pleasure, secondary effects including an increase in high vibration emotions such as joy, happiness, calm, peace along with a reduction in low vibration emotions such as stress, anxiety, anger, pain and fear, the study found. As one progresses, mental and emotional stability follow, along with holistic wellbeing, and ultimately this journey leads to a path of spiritual advancement when the individual’s vibration frequency alters in and of itself, the study found. Study authors Govind Saraswati and Sonali Mohan summed it up best: 

“For all of us, the day as we know, from time immemorial, starts with listening to the bells or aarti in the temple, gurbani in the gurudwara, carols in the church, azaan in mosque, prayer in school or home and so on, even while some of us are still asleep. Practically, irrespective of the religion we are born in or we practise, the country we live in, or language we speak and understand, we begin our day with some form of music....somehow, music naturally connects or creates an energetic network or an energy field around us.” 

4. Bhajan, Qawwali and Kirtan meditation

Bhajan (Hindu devotional songs) Shabad Kirtan (literally translating to 'word chant' ) —a central and communal worship ritual for Sikhs—and Qawwali (the music of Sufi mystics) are all deeply meditative, transformative in their impact and conducive to a sort of contemplative and exultant devotional reverence for a higher power. 

While the three may vary in their religion of origin, delivery style, history, and listening etiquette (kirtan, for example is a deeply spiritual ritual where the devotees do not applaud), the devotion they personify and subsequent potency of their healing potential unifies these strands.

Studies report that cerebral blood flow itself changes during chanting meditation and that chanting facilitates activation of the vagus nerve. That’s important, as the vagus nerve (the name stems from the Latin word for ‘wandering’—vagus) ‘wanders’ throughout the body and regulates many important functions. It also serves as a nexus point connecting our central and autonomic nervous systems, and conscious and subconscious minds. Its activation, therefore, facilitates a crossover, leads to a calming effect and suppresses our flight-or-flight response—a highly stressed state that many of us have found ourselves in almost perpetually during the pandemic and global recession. 

Kirtan facilitates slow, regular and deep respiration, resulting in a soothing impact. Research also demonstrates that kirtan can enhance cognition in ageing individuals with memory-impairment, reduce depression, alleviate anxiety and influence emotional maturity. Qawwali, meanwhile, acts as a catalyst for ecstatic or trance-like states of spiritual experience while paying homage to an otherworldly love. It can even alter our state of consciousness and behaviour

5. Full length raga explorations 

And lastly, rather than one specific sound alone, the prolonged duration of a raag can extend up to an hour. The duration begets an act of unplugging and distancing oneself from everything else. Unplugging and engaging only with the present moment and the raag is in itself an act of wellbeing, and primes the soul to engage with the sort of mindfulness required to rebuild, heal and restore. 

Because ultimately, we’ve been bombarded with incessant messaging and triggers for far too long—and at far too inhumane a pace. Constant exposure shifts the focus from internal wellness to materialistic pursuits or fretting about the worries of the world. By spiking mindfulness and attentiveness at least for the duration of the raga, we can strengthen our ability to concentrate, much like a muscle. And by focusing on the present moment, the regrets of yesterday and worries of tomorrow fade quietly into oblivion. 

At the end, it’s wort mentioning that although scientific studies are still catching up, and many of the items on this list are South Asian in flavour, healing through music is not new — from Ulysseus' healing in the Odyssey to shamans who could heal wounds with their song, the restorative power of music and sounds is for all to enjoy—not bound by geographical region, genre, epoch or even religion. It cuts far deeper, and allows us all, if only for a moment, to get a taste of the divine. 

And what could be a more powerful salve to the weary soul? 

What, then, could be more healing?

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