Melodies for maladies

Melodies for maladies

Doctor-musician Tara Rajendran is researching on integrating music in healthcare infrastructure and the many benefits of music therapy.

Dr Tara Rajendran

These are certainly testing times, the pandemic wreaking havoc across age groups, across even health parameters, where even those considered healthy have been gravely afflicted. The cures sought have been multi-fold, going beyond the recognised allopathic treatments to encompass alternative medicines as well as the regular practice of yoga, meditation and breathing techniques.

Music has always played a role in soothing the mind, reducing stress, elevating the mood and spirit. In many ways, music has been therapeutic in healing the mind and emotions. While this surface role of music has been oft recognised and recommended, Dr Tara Rajendran goes one step further to cite research studies where particular strains of music have served to assist in a range of medical specialties, from cardiology, neurology to psychiatry and palliative oncology.

Having graduated from Kasturba Medical College, Manipal University, Dr Tara is currently pursuing her doctorate in Indian classical music after successfully completing her Masters in Saraswati Veena. Starting her music education at the tender age of five, on vocal Carnatic and later the Veena, Dr Tara has performed at multiple National Music Festivals over the years.  

Relieving pain and stress

“I noted the therapeutic role of music at a very early age when I witnessed my grandmother responding positively to music while ailing with acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. This experience was further validated when music aided in relieving my exhaustion while in the final year of medical school,” states Dr Tara. “I would play the Veena and literally feel the stress melting away.” Pursuing her Masters in music while still in medical school further strengthened this experience, she adds.

However, it was the book she came across, ‘Emperor of all Maladies’ that proved to be the turning point. “It is the biography of cancer and this opened many vistas for me, prompting me to take a keen interest in Oncology.” This encouraged her to begin clinical research on this topic; she pursued it further while doing a clinical elective program in Oncology in the Universities of Cornell, Harvard and Stanford. “The objective was to interweave music with Oncology and I received guidance from music therapist Dr Joke Bradt to take this further.”

During this program at these universities, Dr Tara noticed the fine integration of music into healthcare infrastructure. “Instrumental music can be seen playing in patient waiting rooms, chemotherapy rooms and operation theatres. The US recently completed 60 years of introducing music therapy into the academic curriculum. Yet in India, in spite of having such a rich collection of indigenous music, there are no National Medical Commission (NMC) accredited music therapy training programs and this potential therapy has been totally underused,” she laments.

Studies in music therapy

Detailed studies overseas have pointed to significant relief through music therapy. “Playing Mozart Sonata K.448 was found to reduce the frequency of paediatric epileptic seizures. Likewise, the anxiety quotient of premature babies kept away from the mother, were found to reduce with musical interventions such as the ocean disc and Gato Box, which emulate the sound of amniotic fluid and heartbeat.”

Dr Tara however cautions that the efficacy of a strain of music as a therapy needs to be gauged based on its capacity to work across the population without bias. “Randomised controlled trials will need to be used to test the efficacy of music intervention as a therapy, by observing before and after, through standardised tools of assessment.” 

Addressing three realms

Essentially, the therapeutic potential of music has been explored in three realms, neurology, endocrinology and psychology, according to Dr Tara.

“There is a connection between music and the human brain. Certain strains of music reduce the pulse rate and blood pressure through the impact on the autonomic nervous responses. This positively impacts anxiety, stress and depression by modulating the activities of the Amygdala in the brain. Studies have also shown some of the music interventions to decrease stress hormone levels in the blood, in turn calming the patient.”

Similar results are witnessed in psychiatry, Dr Tara points, where it can leave an impact. “When a particular strain of music is recalled from the past, it evokes the same emotions that were experienced earlier.” This element serves as a therapy in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease where vocal music training in an Alzheimer’s patient has shown improvement in psychomotor speed, she adds.

Likewise, autistic children facing difficulty in communication have been found to show improved levels of communication with music therapy. “Music has also been found to aid in rehabilitation of heart attack and stroke victims. Cancer patients have been found to experience lower levels of pre-operative anxiety and better pain management as music also aids in improving sleep.”

Individual preferences

Dr Tara is quick to point that individual preference for music plays an important role as “music connects with the memory. But there are certain strains of music such as the Raga Kalyani in Carnatic music, which is known to evoke joyful emotions in the listener. Yet, what is effective for specific individuals is still dependent on a multitude of subjective elements.”

With the pandemic still lingering, Dr Tara recommends music, especially for the exhausted medical fraternity, to aid in de-stressing and reducing anxiety levels. She however laments that the country currently lacks a licensed practitioner as well as adequate qualified research on this to take it ahead on a larger scale.

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