It was a moment steeped in bliss. Sitting in a pool of lamplight, with the cool night air brushing against my skin I relaxed into the moment. Tender strains of the harp washed over me. As the music swelled and subsided, note by note, my heart felt eased and calmed. My consciousness was drawn away from the petty constraints of everyday life. Magically, all the tensions and strains of a stressful day evaporated. As the lilting sounds of the Celtic harp wrapped themselves around me, I felt refreshed and soothed. As always, this little retreat into a musical space lifted my spirits.
The magic of music
The healing and calming effects of music have been recorded since antiquity. “Music has the capacity to touch the innermost reaches of the soul,” claimed Plato, the Greek philosopher. Pythagoras, also of Greek descent, was extremely interested on the effects of music on human psyche, and even established a school in his effort to study the influence of music on human passions and behaviour. In fact, each night, even as his students slept, Pythagoras, faithfully performed odes and other musical compositions which he maintained had a healing effect on the subconscious. Not only did his students report a night of restful sleep, but some also claimed to have prophetic dreams and visions whenever Pythagoras played his nocturnal odes.
Widespread belief in ancient China also ascribed healing energies to music. The Chinese believe that all musical notes spring from the heart, and hence, every note in the exterior world of sound corresponds to an inner sentiment. Zen master Su Ma T’sien, who dates back to the 1st century BC, was convinced that music had a direct impact on human behaviour. He stated that harmonious notes had a beneficial effect on human conduct, whereas discordant notes had a deleterious effect.
Did you know?
Suizen, a Japanese word that means blowing Zen, is known as a meditative practice of Zen Buddhism using the shakuhachi bamboo flute to achieve a state of self-realization into the Buddha nature.
Closer home, we have the Indian Raga, the exact scales of which provoke the same results. Tansen, one of the nine gems in Akbar’s court, could make a cloud rain when he sang the raga ‘Megh Malhar’; and light an oil lamp with the power of ‘Dipak’ raga.
Music and the mind
Cyril Scott clearly demonstrates the effects of music on the human psyche in his book Music: It’s Secret Influence Down the Ages. He shows, for instance, how the sombre and restrained interiors of the Victorians were co-related to the funeral odes of Handel’s music. In sharp contrast to Handel is Beethoven, whose flamboyant musical style had a powerfully liberating effect on the subconscious, claims Scott.
Another famous study states that listening to classical music for extended periods leads to a heightened sensitivity and greater creativity. This is called The Mozart Effect, a term coined for the alleged increase in brain development in children who were exposed to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The study states that particular sounds, tones, rhythms and especially the music of Mozart, can strengthen the mind, unlock the creative spirit and even heal the human body. Don Campbell, in his acclaimed book The Mozart Effect, offers dramatic accounts of how doctors, shamans, musicians and healthcare professionals use music to deal with conditions like anxiety, cancer and high blood pressure. The director of a Baltimore coronary care unit claims that half an hour of classical music produces the same effect as 10mg of Valium [a tranquiliser used to relieve anxiety and relax muscles].
For composer and sound healer Shawna Carol, singing is akin to natural medicine. She has developed a process which she calls ‘Spirit Songs’, which helps people release their emotional and creative blocks, which is therapeutic.
The scientific reason behind all these exploits is very simple. Sound, like electricity and light, is a conventional form of electromagnetic energy. Today, we have a clearer understanding of how vibrational frequencies can affect us at a cellular level. Sound has the ability to rearrange molecular structure. Everything in the universe is in a state of vibration, including the cells in our body. When these cells vibrate harmoniously we experience health. Tranquilising music can alter brain wave patterns and induce a relaxed, calm state in the listener, and has a beneficial effect on health.
No wonder the Egyptians referred to music as the ‘physics of the soul’.
The emotional factor
At the emotional level, music acts as a facilitator in altering our moods. It affects the limbic system, that part of our brain which is the seat of emotion. Hence listening to soft and gentle melodies calms emotions and brings about a state of mental wellbeing. In itself, music is neutral energy. It is we who are responsible for its ultimate effect. We need to use its energies with awareness. Loud, aggressive and discordant sounds will lead to violent and stressful states, whereas soft, calming music will engender peaceful and loving states. Helene Caya states in her groundbreaking book From Sound Springs Light, “the gentler the music, the more love it transmits.”
One of the most beautiful effects of music is the eradication of anxiety. Fear and anxiety are the underlying causes of various psychosomatic disorders. Even listening to harsh, distressing sounds can generate an autosuggestion of fear. Conversely, listening to soothing and harmonious sounds can generate a sense of immediate peace and wellbeing in the listener. Hence, music can be used as an effective therapeutic tool to root out anxiety and keep the mind in control.
Music and the spirit
In all spiritual traditions across the world, music plays an integral part in connecting the individual to his divine source. Lord Krishna is known for stealing the hearts of the gopis by his melodious flute. The Bible states: “Seek out a man who is skillful in playing the harp; and when the evil spirit is upon you, he will play it and you will be well” [I Samuel 16:14-16]. And from the Sufi tradition, Al Ghazali avers, “The purpose of music, considered in relation to God, is to arouse longing for Him, and passionate love for Him.”
Intense absorption in a piece of soulful melodies can lead to a feeling of expansion or elation of spirit. The soul feels intimately connected with the Divine. This leads to ecstasy and a feeling of joyous wonderment in the listener. The peace of spirit descends upon him.
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