Like David Levithan once said, “Music is everywhere. It’s in the air between us, waiting to be sung.” There isn’t a life that hasn’t been touched by some form of music. Historical evidence of prehistoric animal bone flutes, percussion instruments made from wood and stone suggests that music has always been an integral part of human life. We have used music to communicate, to bond, to celebrate the glory of god, as a form of art to enrich the soul, for entertainment and rejuvenation in the courts of kings. Since music also appeals to everyone, be it an unborn child in the mother’s womb or a person suffering from Alzheimer’s, over the ages we have used it to good effect.
Ancient civilizations acknowledged the therapeutic values of music and were some of the first to put it in regular practice. The Romans who used music to treat psychological disorders believed that music could assuage grief, alleviate pain and strengthen the spirit. Renowned Chinese philosopher, Confucius was of the opinion that it could improve blood circulation, hearing and eyesight. Post World War II, hospitals in the U.S sought the assistance of musicians to heal soldiers suffering from emotional trauma. The founder guru of the Sikh’s, Guru Nanak used music to spread his message among the masses. And it was the human voice that dominated compositions. Troubadours and Trouveres of the early 11th century popularised music and storytelling and spread their compositions far and wide connecting people from all around the world.
Nothing transcends cultures as seamlessly as music does. Often, when words fall short, the heart speaks through music, a language that everyone tends to understand irrespective of their cultural identity. According to a study by Harvard Scientists who examined music associated with behaviour like lullabies, love and dance tracks, hymns and healing songs, they found that owing to their musical features people were able to connect with these songs across cultures and society, helping them conclude what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.”
There is no denying that music is therapeutic and has multiple health benefits that range from improving the quality of life and enhancing our cognitive functions to being good for our mental and physical well-being. Since listening to music stimulates almost all regions of the brain, strengthening the brain pathways and keeping them active, it also keeps our brain alert and healthy. Music therapy has proved efficient in treating conditions like autism, substance abuse and depression, among others. It’s not a surprise then that music has come to our rescue when we’re down and need an instant mood booster. According to research listening to our favourite song or music can trigger a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we perceive music and makes listening to music a pleasurable and rewarding experience for humans, something even Pythagoras must have believed in back then when he recommended its use in anger management and depression.
One of the most popular uses of this mood-lifting property of music has been seen in alleviating stress and anxiety. Since stress is an overwhelming feeling, heart rate quickens and blood pressure goes up. Music is known to impact the emotional centre of the brain and research suggests that listening to the right kind of music can lower cortisol levels and release endorphins. Since our emotional equilibrium has a direct impact on our sleep pattern, stress along with the physical symptoms that come with it, like anxious thoughts, bad mood and depression, tend to cause delay in falling asleep and can even lead to poor sleep. So by overcoming these obstructions music not only helps induce sleep, it also improves sleep efficiency, making it more restful. Classical music with a slow beat, meditative and nature sounds that include gurgling water and sprinkling rain against the windowpane, are popular in aiding sleep, along with instruments like piano, Indian-stringed instruments, flutes and drums.
Whether it’s the wind whistling through the leaves, the pitter-patter of raindrops or the tong-tong of a coppersmith barbet chiselling out a nest in the tree trunk – all have musical overtones and everyone is free to tune to whichever they find soothing. The tempo, melodies, lyrics and rhythm triggers a range of emotional responses in humans and the key is to choose the right music for desired effects. And even if you don’t actively listen to music, there are many other ways to incorporate music into your daily life. Soothing background music doesn’t come in the way of any tasks, not even work. You can also combine music with your daily activities like up-tempo music can be played during physical workouts, you can play your favourite playlist when commuting, on your morning walk, while cooking, doing household chores; basically every monotonous activity can be enlivened with a little beat.
While some studies claim that a person’s taste in music can give away important facets of their personality, others have gone on to highlight a wide range of variables that can influence our taste in music at a particular point of time, like background, sex, culture, situation, mood and location. Like with most Anglo-Indians I grew up on a steady dose of Ronnie Milsap, Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, Patsy Cline and Tanya Tucker, but later in my teens found myself gravitating towards Indian popular music and Kishore Kumar and Pankaj Udhas became my favourite singers whenever I needed a soulful tune. After I came to Kolkata, I was introduced to the beautiful gamut of Tagore’s Rabindra Sangeet. Needless to say a few of them now feature on my current playlist alongside renditions by Sanjay Manjrekar, sportsman turned commentator who also has a mellifluous voice!