Can Music Heal?
“Music brings a warm glow to my vision, thawing mind and muscle from their endless wintering.”——–Haruki Murakami
Of the many wonders that nature has blessed us with, it is the language of music which binds us as a human race. Despite our racial, linguistic or gender identities, we find ourselves harmonised by the symphony of music. It’s a universal language that has since time immemorial, bound us to a single thread of myriad emotions, despite our differences, cultural or otherwise. What music does to us is that it makes room for so many emotions to flourish, which we had otherwise repressed. In an age, filled with so many distractions, music is perhaps that one thing which helps us unwind and synchronise with the elemental nature of our being. But one may ask, what is the true relationship between music & healing and how do we bring an experiential feeling into something that can be translated into an empirical value? And most importantly, what is the relationship between the human mind and music ?
Those who are professionally trained in the field of music, understand the semiotics of keys, notes, rhythms, beats and other such vocab that are closely associated with music. Over years of practice, they have trained their ears to understand the difference between symphony and cacophony. But, even if one is not a musician, there can be no denial of the fact that music touches us in a way that we often can’t describe in mere words. We have all at different points of our life experienced moments of frustration, depression and yet when we have put on the earphones, all our problems have seemed to drift away. There have been moments of catharsis that we have felt while listening to some soulful music. And when we talk about music, it isn’t always a song with lyrics, but pure melody that transcends us into a metaphysical space. So, what is it that music possesses that can be sometimes stronger than the most potent drug?
Research shows that when we listen to music, all parts of our brain get affected. Different parts of the brain like the limbic system, under which we have the occipital & the frontal lobe helps in creating visuals as well as helps us make sense of what is being conveyed through the music.
Studies have also shown that music not only affects the parasympathetic nervous system but also helps to create a sense of homeostasis or a sense of balance. Listening to music or playing any musical instrument helps in the release of different neurotransmitters, mainly serotonin & dopamine, which are also called the happy chemicals. As such, when the body is in pain or in some sort of discomfort, and one is listening to some music, the pain subsides or the brain doesn’t allow the pain to affect the body to the same degree. So, in many ways, music is an antidote to pain.
As many of us are aware, the diagnosis of cancer can be quite debilitating. In most cases, a cancer patient reports feelings of anxiety, depression & in some rare cases a constant feeling of panic on account of the fear of mortality. In fact, some of the cancer treatments do involve physical pain. Sheer will power doesn’t always help. The intervention of music, as some notable cases have shown, to create a sense of calm, by just listening to some instrumental music, hours before a radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Patients have reported that such music therapy has helped them regulate their nervous system and have considerably reduced the feeling of pain or fatigue in the patient.
Music therapists suggest that listening to music, whether in solo or in a group, can have a lot of therapeutic effect on cancer patients. Moreover, learning any simple musical instrument can go a long way in rehabilitation programmes & improve cognitive and psycho-social skills. In the opinion of senior oncologist, Dr. Vikash Kumar Agarwal of VCCC, music can’t cure diseases or repair damaged tissues, but it can curtail the pain, distress & anxiety associated with the disease. He even advocates the fact that if one attunes oneself to the harmony of nature, one would be able to hear the music in the chirping of the birds, the sound of waves crashing on the shore or in the ruffling of the leaves. As a medical practitioner, he believes that music can be found in the most unusual of places- that a person may not have to necessarily listen to what is packaged as rock, jazz or pop music, but can hear the music even in a kirtan, hymn or azan.
Music that is made in a group or listened to, as a community has far reaching effects, as was done during the historical times. There is ample evidence of music being composed by a group, as has generally been the root of country music or any folk music for that matter. Music, when listened to as a community, has a more cathartic effect, as is evident in live concerts. However, in the post pandemic era, listening to music in a social gathering was not always feasible and we know that music therapy in our country can not always be a viable option. However, one can always listen to music on their own. One of the most reputed oncosurgeons in the country, Dr. Vikash Kumar Agarwal, tells us that just like a lullaby that makes a newborn fall asleep within seconds, music has the ability to soothe the most troubled soul. His advice to cancer patients is that if circumstances don’t permit the option of getting a professional music therapist, one may use their own music preference in a solo space, to let the magic happen.