Music And Healing: Blossoming From Ancient Roots

Musicians and professionals are breaking ground with contemporary fusions of music and healing that incorporate time-honored practices
  • Dr. Mitchell Gaynor and Jon Regen
  • Photo: Donna Newman
    Panache Desai
  • Photo: Neelanjana Banerjee
    Robin Sukhadia (left)
  • Photo: Courtesy of Spark Media
  • Photo: Courtesy of Deva Premal & Miten
    Deva Premal & Miten
October 14, 2013 -- 5:48 pm PDT
By Laurel Fishman /

Though the ways music heals are countless and many professionals are applying music to healing methodologies, it's unprecedented for healing-based music to attain the high-profile status of Manhattan-based oncologist Dr. Mitchell Gaynor's recordings.

This past summer, Gaynor's newest release, Change Your Mind: Music For Brainwave Entrainment, a collaboration with singer/songwriter/keyboardist Jon Regen, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's New Age Albums chart. The album also topped Amazon and iTunes' New Age charts.

Gaynor's recording received the spike after he spoke on "The Dr. Oz Show" about integrating Tibetan metal singing bowls, quartz crystal singing bowls, chanting, and breathing exercises into his medical practice.

During his patients' initial appointment, an ordinarily stressful time of facing the harsh realities of a cancer diagnosis, Gaynor introduces his healing sounds. He says the music has a beneficial effect on the patients' brainwaves, makes heart rhythms more regular, and lowers stress-hormone levels, heart rate and blood pressure.

The patients often say they've never before felt so relaxed and peaceful. "A lot of things in life that seem like adversities can hold the greatest blessings," says Gaynor.

One of Gaynor's well-researched, inspirational books, The Healing Power Of Sound, offers sonic techniques to access deep states of relaxation and awareness. An easy sound-and-imagery process he recommends is to slowly and repeatedly sing the word "HU" on the out breath while visualizing a white light, cascading waterfall or any image that feels intuitively meaningful. Gaynor describes HU as the most basic healing sound, found in Gregorian chants, Native American traditions and many time-honored practices.

Among those breaking ground with other unconventional fusions of music and healing are six gynecologic oncologists, who are also musicians. Their story and those of their courageous patients are told in the recent documentary film No Evidence Of Disease, which chronicles the doctors' band, N.E.D. Through their music and the film, the six surgeons are raising awareness about the five major gynecologic cancers, which are frequently fatal when undetected or misdiagnosed.

The thought-provoking film depicts music as empowering and stress-relieving, forging an uncommon connection between the docs and their patients, N.E.D.'s most ardent fans. The documentary is fueling grassroots advocacy, while spreading the word about women's crucial healthcare needs.

N.E.D. drummer Dr. Nimesh Nagarsheth's book, Music And Cancer: A Prescription For Healing, is the basis and title of an in-demand lecture he presents to audiences ranging from medical professionals to cancer survivors. Nagarsheth parallels the arts of music and medicine, delves into music's healing properties (such as diminishing pain perception) and discusses how music therapy originated with ancient Greece's Pythagoras.

Since 1995, the world-renowned Institute for Music and Neurologic Function has utilized music therapy to augment self-expression and cognitive skills, regain memory and much more. When a specific area of the brain is damaged, the function it governs can be lost, but other neural networks that also serve that particular function can be stimulated through music therapy.

Today IMNF co-founder Dr. Concetta Tomaino is expanding the Music Therapy for Aphasia program of interventions, similar to those that restored speech to former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords following a gunshot wound to the head. Via Skype, IMNF professionals now can treat outpatients who have lost speech from strokes or brain trauma.

Taking his Project Ahimsa to disadvantaged children in several countries, Los Angeles-based tabla player Robin Sukhadia has been motivating youth for 12 years. Through his efforts, musical instruments have been provided to more than 20 music programs. In 2010 Sukhadia was awarded a Fulbright Senior Research Scholarship to spread his work.

This year, he presented a tabla workshop at the GRAMMY Museum, and he has been providing tabla classes to many at-risk youth. Sukhadia consistently sees his students transform from distractible to fully engaged. "Healing means being open, willing to change and being patient," he says. "These elements are essential for healing."

Eight years ago, musician Mark Romero met Ronald Jones, a former high-level NASA consultant involved in a Costa Mesa, Calif., study by a team of quantum physicists on the adverse effects of cell phones and other technology, toxic chemicals and electromagnetic fields. In seeking ways to shield and restore people's well-being from the negative impacts on their energy, health and brainwave functions, Jones discovered the effectiveness of listening to recorded yogic chanting. Jones began searching for music that could also offset those negative impacts.

In Romero's music, Jones found frequencies that allow listeners to experience instant improvement in strength, energy, coordination, and balance. Measured through EEG brain mapping, brainwave functions duplicated those associated with athletes in the peak-performance zone. Romero's music now helps adults and learning-disabled children to achieve targeted goals.

Spiritual teacher Panache Desai blends a passion for mantra healing with an equal love of dubstep, techno and house music. Performing under the moniker MC I-AM, he merges two different worlds to involve a larger audience than the established demographic he's already reached through avenues such as his televised discussion with Oprah Winfrey.

Desai likens rap to mantra chanting. "A priest chanting is flowing in the same way Jay-Z goes into the vocal booth and puts down 16 bars," he says.

In melding mantra and healing messages with EDM and rap, Desai creates an exuberant musical hybrid that distinguishes his genre from the more typically tranquil music-and-mantra recordings. Guesting on some MC I-AM tracks are artists such as Deva Premal & Miten, whose own healing music is peaceful yet vitalizing. A classically trained vocalist, Premal renders sacred chants with a distinctive delivery appreciated by everyone from Cher to the Dalai Lama. Premal characterizes the Sanskrit words she sings as energy-based sound medicine.

David Ison has recorded dozens of albums that are considered therapeutic by the medical profession. After sustaining severe spinal injuries in 1980, he used his musical talents and knowledge of meditation to avoid surgery and recover mobility. A National Institute of Health three-year study in the '90s clinically confirmed that his music induces relaxation and relieves various challenging physical symptoms.

In 1988 Dr. Jeffrey Thompson established the Center for Neuroacoustic Research in Encinitas, Calif. A musician and composer, Thompson invented a system using modulated sound pulses to change states of consciousness and bring about optimal mind/body healing. Thompson's many recordings and Neuroacoustic Sound Chair and Sound Table are currently used by individuals, and in a variety of clinics and other healing environments.

A member of the faculty of the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, Silvia Nakkach developed the school's sound, voice and music healing certificate program, as well as the academic master's degree in integrative health with a focus on sound healing. Her 2012 album, Medicine Melodies: Songs The Healers Hear, celebrates the first natural healers, shamans whose potent medicine was supported by music.

As advanced and science-based as some of these approaches have become, the origins are ancient, like the pioneering approach to medicine taken by Gaynor, who affirms that music and chant have been used as part of healing ritual in every culture on Earth since the beginning of time.

(Laurel Fishman is a writer and editor who specializes in entertainment media. She is an advocate for the benefits of music making, music listening, music education, music therapy, music-and-the-brain research, and music and interdisciplinary studies.)

Email Newsletter