The Weekly Dose: SAlmonella, RElapse, GAllstones
Knowing modern medicine’s disdain for the esoteric, I was thus astonished to find reams of well-researched, well-framed studies about music therapy in universally respected, peer-reviewed medical journals.
My violin lay tucked away under the coffee table, out of sight, out of mind, out of tune.
Our estrangement started innocuously enough; my workload increased, I let my already poor time management devolve further, and the first item to be dropped off my daily to-do list was practising an instrument that anyway isn’t easy to master by even the most aurally gifted. Some travel came up, and I decided to take a break until Thursday. On the Tuesday after that, I remembered my forgotten deadline and resolved to restart on Monday.
Eleven Mondays have gone by since.
In all the intervening days, I have woken up worrying about the work I have to do that day, drifted off to sleep fretting about the work I have tomorrow, and, naturally, not done a whole lot of work with the time I ‘gained’ from ceasing practice. Random, unrelated thoughts invaded and pervaded every hour of my day, competing for my attention. My free time – of which I had lots – was spent on my phone. I became fidgety and anxious, about I know not what.
When I first heard of music therapy, my allopathic mind dismissed it as mellifluous mumbo-jumbo. Then, my violin guru mentioned that he regularly performs for an audience of cancer patients, and described the visible impact it has on them. When he and my fellow students played for the residents of an old-age home, I witnessed the transformation of crotchety, stiff seniors into foot-thumping, gleeful listeners. And last year, I read about how an ICU doctor – a violinist himself – regularly played a recording of violin legend Dr. N Rajam’s Raag Darbari Kanada as an adjunct therapy for a comatose patient who, on the 12th day, began to show signs of recovery.
If this still sounds like quackery, I understand. The internet is replete with articles claiming that ‘all bodies vibrate’ and interact with the ‘universal energy field’, and when the vibration of music matches with the vibration of the body...you get the gist. This theory propounds the application of specific raags for specific ailments. Now, I can understand how Raag Bihaag can help combat insomnia: it is captivating, languorous, and I have seen my mother fall asleep in three minutes under its spell (but that’s just because she finds most Indian classical music soporific). But surely, it’s a bit much to recommend Raag Shuddha Sarang for gallstones, or Raag Madhuvanti for piles!
Knowing modern medicine’s disdain for the esoteric, I was thus astonished to find reams of well-researched, well-framed studies about music therapy in universally respected, peer-reviewed medical journals. Bengaluru’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) found that listening to certain ragas for 30 minutes every day for 20 days significantly decreased systolic and diastolic blood pressure, reduced stress, anxiety, and depression, and enhanced feelings of life satisfaction, hope, and optimism even in musically untrained people. Kolkata’s Sir CV Raman Centre for Physics and Music found lowered levels of the stress hormones noradrenaline and cortisol in those who listened to Ravi Shankar’s sitar. An article published in the official journal of the Indian Psychiatric Society claims that the Carnatic raga Bilahari helps alleviate a melancholic mood, and the Sama raga can reduce anxiety.
If Indian classical music doesn’t move you, no matter. Critically ill patients who listened to Mozart’s slow piano sonatas had increased growth hormone and decreased interleukin levels; their need for additional sedation was also reduced. Even some types of rock music have been found to bolster immunity, and fight cerebrovascular disease.
When medicine reaches its frontiers – beyond which scalpels cannot reach, radiation cannot penetrate and drugs are useless – it accepts that it does not understand everything, and accepts that which it doesn’t understand. Listening to music daily in the first month after a stroke has been found to improve cognitive and emotional recovery. An Indian couple is using Konnakol – the rapid recitation of percussion beats – for helping special-needs children as an alternative to conventional speech therapy. Their parents might benefit too; music therapy for parents who have a child with disabilities improves parental mental health and promotes positive parenting.
The list of potential applications of music as therapy is unending and ever-growing. Some are eye- and ear-catching, like the man who played a Radiohead song on his guitar while undergoing a brain surgery, which enabled his surgeons to avoid damaging the parts of his brain which control movement and speech. The application I believe is most relevant – to all of us – is the power of music to counteract age-related cognitive mental decline, improve tolerance to pain, and help in end-of-life care.
Music can be therapeutic for those who administer therapy as well. Most operation theatres have music playing during surgeries, the genre of music/radio station decided by the head surgeon, naturally. While it may seem like an unobtrusive background score, music has been found to improve surgical technique, and the speed with which incisions are sutured; shorter the operation, lesser is the time spent by a patient under anaesthesia, and fewer are the associated risks. A survey found that playing music in the OT also helps in staff communication (although nurses complained that they can’t hear instructions when the volume is too high!). Surgeons themselves found that music produces a sense of familiarity for patients in a strange environment, reduces their anxiety before anaesthesia, muffles the effect of noisy medical equipment on them, and makes them more tolerant to unpleasant procedures like the application of dressings on burns, and chemotherapy.
The sounds I produce from my violin are not unlike the beeps and boops of ICU monitors; nevertheless, today, I took it out of its dusty black case, sat cross-legged on the floor, rested its scrolled tip just above my ankle, tucked its broad base under my chin, placed my bow across the strings and glided my fourth finger up the fingerboard to produce an almost perfect Pa. I held the note. Then moved to the next. And the next. Initially, my thoughts were cluttered with ideas for this column, the ache in my back, future travel itineraries and much else. And then...nothing.
It was raining, and my window-sills were alive with the sound of music. As was my violin. As was I.