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Music Therapy with Ragas

By Thomas Meisenheimer
(February 2011)

1. Bhoopali – Mother Earth
2. Malkauns - Love at Night
3. Yaman - Fire of Longing

For over 20 years I have been exploring the phenomenon of Indian ragas. Again and again I have bothered Pandits and Ustads with my questions: Do the ragas have a specific effect and can they be used as a therapeutic agent for healing with sound? The answers were so different that I was forced to do my own research and listen deeply into the core of the ragas. I found in them the moods of different times of the day, the cycle of seasons, but also strong human emotions and a longing for an experience of unity. It became clear that a certain raga always has a similar effect on me, but that the perception of this effect depends a lot upon the individual. Therefore I can not give any general prescriptions for the therapeutic use of ragas. The series "Music Therapy with Ragas" is rather a sharing of my personal experiences in order to stimulate your own explorations.

1. Bhoopali

The word Bhoopali can be translated as "Mother Earth". Raga Bhoopali uses a pentatonic scale with tonic (Sa), major second (shuddha Re), major third (shuddha Ga), fifth (Pa) and major sixth (shuddha Dha). In the South Indian Carnatic music the raga with this scale is called Mohanam. It is a very old scale that is used in various cultures around the world.

For me personally, this pentatonic mode and the absence of the fourth (Ma) and seventh (Ni) create a sense of stability, order and ease. The major third as the main note (Ga-vadi) is at the focus and strengthens my self-confidence. The psychological ripening is stimulated, as well as a reconciliation with the inner child. Bhoopali helps me with depression and to find a new positive perspective on life. The raga gives me comfort and has a soothing effect. The sound structure of the raga seems playful and happy to me. It has something naive, elated and innocent. After playing or listening to Bhoopali I often feel light and carefree. It is like a kind father talking to his child. Raga Bhoopali always gives me a feeling of protection and loving authority - I am filled with courage and strength and it helps me to stand on my own feet.

2. Malkauns - Love at Night

The pentatonic midnight raga Malkauns is like a declaration of love at night. It is often called Malkosh - derived from the word "Koushika" that can be translated as "passion". The "sound formula" consists of the tonic (Sa), minor third (komal Ga), fourth (Ma), minor sixth (komal Dha) and minor seventh (komal Ni). In the South Indian Carnatic music, the raga using this scale is called Hindolam. In Ragamala miniature painting, Malkauns is often represented as a nobleman enjoying intoxicating betel nut, surrounded by servants and sometimes holding a stringed instrument in one hand. Sometimes Malkauns is also shown as a meditating yogi or a passionate lover.

The absence of the fifth and the second gives the raga a very reflective and contemplative character. For me komal Ga expresses the passion. The fourth Ma is the calming influence, slightly intoxicating, contemplative. Komal Dha evokes the darkness, the mystique of the night, and Komal Ni is the sensual. The raga creates an inner attitude of humbleness and opens the door of my heart again and again. Malkauns is like a prayer of thanks, powerful and yet peaceful in itself. When I hear this raga, all thoughts easily come to rest. Malkauns works very relaxing and trance-inducing for me. I appreciate this balancing and harmonizing effect especially after a busy day. I perceive Malkauns as something powerful, respectful and dignified. It also reflects the dedication and unconditional love towards a master. This aspect is very beautifully demonstrated in the old Indian film 'Baiju Bawra': When the singer Baiju returns to his music master Swami Haridas after a long separation, raga Malkauns is heard, performed by legendary playback singer Mohamed Rafi

3. Yaman - Fire of Longing

Raga Yaman (or Imam) is perhaps the most famous North Indian raga. Its origin is not really clear. Some think that the raga came from Persia. Others see a Vedic origin and claim that the scale was previously called Raga Yamuna. The sound structure of Raga Yaman is based on the tonic (Sa), major secondar (shuddha Re), major third (shuddha Ga), tritone / augmented fourth (tivra Ma), fifth (Pa), major sixth (shuddha Dha) and major seventh (shuddha Ni). In ancient Greek music this scale was known as Lydian mode.

Indian classical music training often begins with Raga Yaman, because it is considered a key to all other ragas. It is said to purify and open the heart. And the open heart is ready to receive knowledge and has a desire to penetrate deeper into the mystery of music. For me raga Yaman is like a love song, a solicitation of the unattainable lady. This unrequited love, as reflected in the Indian mysticism of love in Sufism or Bhakti, is expressed here. Many Sufi poems use the image of the butterfly, which is so much attracted by the light of a candle that it can't help but fly into the flame and burn. This "annihilation" into an egoless state is musically induced in Raga Yaman. In all humility and modesty it is a sacrifice of love to the numinous.

Raga Yaman always makes me sensitive and delicate. The augmented fourth creates awareness of unresolved anger, disappointments and injuries. The major seventh and major third are very strong as well and light the fires of longing. Yaman is like an unsolvable Koan, an open question, an endless search for the meaning of life.

* Thomas Meisenheimer has been studying Indian ragas, their effects and their use as a therapeutic agent in music therapy for over 20 years. In the series "Music Therapy with Ragas" he shares his personal experiences - not as an eternal truth, but as an inspiration for your own explorations.