There is a beautiful story about gods and music. Apparently, gods became very unhappy with the earthlings because of strife, wars, and general anarchy in the world. They came to earth and told earthlings that they will destroy them. However, gods wanted to give earthlings a chance so they asked them to give a single reason why they should not be destroyed. “We have produced great beings like Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, etc. who have given us great teachings”, said earthlings. Gods retorted that maximum number of human killings have taken place in the name of religion. Earthlings then recounted the great technological inventions that mankind has produced to which gods replied that there are still some 2 billion people living in tremendous hardship and poverty despite these inventions. The reasoning and response of gods stumped the earthlings.
Then somebody said, “we have produced great music”. “Let us hear it”, gods replied. The world music including Indian ragas, and western classical music like Bach, Beethoven etc. was played. After listening to the profound music, tears started flowing down the cheeks of gods. “Enough”, they said, “you have earned your freedom and right to live”.
Great music affects humans and gods alike in a deep way. It calms the mind and produces a great sense of well-being and euphoria. One also gets a similar experience during deep meditation and samadhi.
In the beginning was the Word. Almost all the great religions of the world talk about it. In Patanjali Yoga Darshan, Ishwara is defined as a special Being who is expressed by the original word Pranav. What that original word was nobody is sure though in major Yoga commentaries it is called OM. However, recently scientists have discovered that very soon after Big Bang, and before anything else appeared in the Universe, primordial sound waves were produced. Probably that could be the basis of Brahma Nad, mentioned in Upanishads. Sound has therefore been with us through all our evolutionary process and is ingrained in all our activities. Music – a product of sound is therefore a natural outcome of this evolutionary process.
Music affects brain at different levels. Our moods change with different types of music. However, at a very deep level its effect is similar to that of deep meditation. Probably it is a reason why all great religions have stressed music as a means for praying and meditation.
Indian classical music – one of the oldest musical systems of the world, has spiritual roots and is traced to Vedic hymns. Most of the Indian gods and goddess are shown to carry musical instruments. Similarly in other religions also, musical chants, hymns and other forms of music have been used since ancient times to sing the glory of God or to help focus the mind on the spiritual thoughts.
Why does music affect the brain in such a deep way and why does it help in meditation? Recent studies of brain using Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) have shown that some type of music activates neural pathways similar to those associated with euphoria and reward. These same pathways are activated in response to other pleasurable activities like eating and sex, which give emotional happiness.
Similarly in deep meditation, mind focuses on a single thought for a long time. Thus when contemplation, reflection and samadhi (together called Sanyam according to Patanjali Yoga Darshan) are done on a single thought for a fairly long time then it produces the sense of well-being and happiness. In this process a major portion of the 100 billion neurons of the brain is being used in a laser like fashion for a single thought. This deep meditation process probably helps stimulate or “tickles” the pituitary gland, which gives the feeling of well-being. The exact mechanism, though, is still not understood.
When we hear soul stirring music, we again get a feeling of well-being. Thus, the soul stirring music and deep meditative thought has similar characteristics. The brain therefore appreciates and absorbs the soul stirring music by creating the same complex thought pattern as that during meditation. This is the principle of equivalence.
Similar effects are also seen for different types of music, which produce anger, sadness, and other human emotions. It is therefore quite possible that neurological studies on effects of music will serve as a model for studying how brain works in general and at different levels of thought complexity. As we evolve intellectually and spiritually, we become increasingly tuned to emotionally satisfying music, since the brain becomes supple and is able to focus on a single thought for a long time. Then singing and poetry may become the major activities of vocal cords with speech being their by-product!
Even when we produce a great discovery or thought there is a general feeling of euphoria, happiness, and production of goose pimples. There have been many celebrated cases in history like the cry of Eureka by Archimedes when he discovered the principle of buoyancy. Similarly, when Einstein developed his theory of relativity, he said that getting the thought of principle of equivalence was the happiest event of his life. Some music and deep meditation also produce goose pimples and the feeling of tremendous happiness. Thus music can help and enhance the activities of meditation and other creative activities.
Music can also play an important role in building a compassionate and creative society. In India, if we can continuously expose our children from early age to the great Indian and World music then it is possible to help produce a generation of citizens who are compassionate and less violent. Music should therefore form an important part of school curriculum.