The Sunday TimesPlus

25th May 1997



Mind and music

Here is someone who believes music is a cure and exerts rare
powers of healing with sounds - music therapy. Here,
Madhubashini Disanayaka finds out more about it from
Musicologist Dayaratne Ranatunge

Recently, Sky News reported an interesting finding with regard to supermarket shoppers. The music playing in the background was shown to determine the choice of product of those who had no strong pre-conception of what to buy. Especially with regard to liquor, the research showed that while German music was playing in the background, customers tended to go for German wines, and the sales of French wine increased at the times when French music filtered down through the supermarket sound system.

The reaction of the customers about this finding ranged from amusement to denial that they would be caught unawares to unknown influences such as music. But the truth is that the effect of music on the human mind constitutes a field of research that has much potential and has absorbed the interest of musicologists as well as medical personnel, specially in the West. In Sri Lanka too we have one musicologist who had spent years on this study, Dayaratne Ranatunge.

"Sri Lanka is specially important in the field of 'music therapy'," says Ranatunge. "Our people believed in the power of sound from the earliest times. According to Robert Knox, who documented the lifestyles of the Kandyan Sinhala people in the 17th century, people did not take medicine when they were sick. To cure illness, they had shantikarma - bali, thovil etc., - which were really a form of music therapy."

We still believe in the power of sound. Take pirith of the Buddhists, for example. Most believe that the vibrations caused by the words are what gives the soothing effect that many Buddhists feel while listening to these verses in Pali. "Most people don't understand Pali. What really affects us is the sound, the pitch in which pirith is chanted. So it is not to the meaning, but to the music that the body reacts."

According to eastern belief, all things are made up of five elements, says Ranatunge - apo (water), thejo (fire), vayo (air), patavi (earth), akash (space). All these have sound. The human body is supposed to consist of all these five elements, and thereby, all sounds connected to them. "Even silence is a sound," Ranatunge reminds us, and adds that in something made up of noises, music or external sounds would obviously cause reactions.

As a research scholar on music therapy, Ranatunge had worked in the Therapy Department of the Putney Hospital, London from 1989 to 1990. In 1992, together with the Ayurvedic Research Institute, a seminar about this concept was held at Nawinna, generating much interest in this field in Sri Lanka. At the moment, Ranatunge is working on a book on this subject.

Dayaratne Ranatunge believes that our life is really a process of sound and rhythm. "Each day is a rhythmic cycle. We get up, wash our face, brush our teeth, eat, work, etc., and finally sleep, and that same cycle is repeated, over and over again. All human beings generally have a rhythmic cycle into which they fall. And there is also a rhythm in movement and in speech. It is when a person drifts away from that pattern, or is not in possession of his particular rhythm, that we tend to call him 'abnormal'."

As a musician, Ranatunge takes his research into the realms of music proper and works on the concepts like that of harmony and melody, the creation of particular emotions based on particular ragas, and of consonance and dissonance etc.

"I see a greater interest and an awareness of how music is connected to the mind, in eastern music than in western music," says Dayaratne Ranatunge, who is a trained vocalist in Indian classical music and a well known singer in this country. Therefore he has had a chance to see how much ragadhari music concentrates on aspects that are almost ignored in Western music. One of the strongest examples is that of the 'gayana vadanasamaya', a particular time of playing a particular raga.

While western classical music is a matter of creations done by composers, which other performers can play at whatever time they want, Indian classical music is based on ragas, a basic melodic piece on which the musician will improvise at the time of playing. For each raga, ancient musicologists of India have given a particular time of performance, believing that it is at that special time, the raga would be heard at its maximum beauty. Whether the sun should be rising or setting, whether it should be shining in the sky or gone altogether, when the mind receives a given set of notes have therefore been taken into account.

"Notes, the distance of notes, can create particular emotions. This is true of speech as well as music," says Ranatunge. "When a person is angry, the distance of the notes he uses to speak is greater. The rhythm is fast. When he is in pain, the notes are very close together, they drag from one to another, slowly, like a groan. Likewise in musical compositions, a passionate piece of music would use a raga that has a greater distance between its basic notes, like rag Bhupali." Therefore, knowing the psychological effect of a group of notes can also help in composition and creation of particular moods.

As a final outcome of his research, Dayaratne Ranatunge hopes that some benefit could be given to the field of medicine. He draws attention to the fact of how Ayurvedic medicine has always depended on the rhythm of the body in finding out ailments. The sight of a vedamahattaya holding the wrist of a patient, reading the vital signs of the patient's condition by the throbbing of his nerves, would be a familiar sight to anyone who has been treated by an Ayurvedic doctor.

"But now even the western world believes that the effect of the medicine depends on the body's reaction to it. The mind can help the body react, and it is here that things like music can help. In the developed countries, attention is given to concepts like hydro-therapy and aesthetic therapy," says Ranatunge and recalls how in Putney, a patient was put under his care and he could research on the effects that music had on him.

"Of course I need the help of medical researchers too, here. Music is generally considered to be a completely different field and for my findings to be accepted, and worked upon, the help of the medical field is crucial," emphasises Ranatunge. Apart from the knowledge of medicine, technical help, like that of machines like the EEG, to which he does not have access, is also vital. It will be those machines and such help which can provide proof of his theories, without which they would not be accepted in the medical field. "The most optimistic outcome I can think of, of such collaboration is that perhaps one day, it would be possible to give a cassette instead of pills for some illnesses!" he smiles.

It is not that Ranatunge is unfamiliar with the science of what he is working on. His degree is in science, he being in the first science batch that was to pass out of Vidyodaya. But he was also a music student at the Government College of Fine Arts, or Heywood, and after completing his studies, his first job was that of music teacher. That foundation determined the path his career was to take after that. Now Dayaratne Ranatunge is Director, Music and Music Research, Sinhala Service, Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation.

As a performer too, he has made a name for himself in Sri Lanka, most often appearing with his wife, Dr. Amara Ranatunge, herself an accomplished musician. Now the Head of the Music Department at the Aesthetic Institute, she speaks of how she too knew of the effects of music therapy from the time she had her first appointment as a music teacher at a College in Meegoda.

Perhaps what she speaks of is a fact that most of us know without exactly being aware of it. The fact that trees bear more fruit, flowers bloom better where there are cheerful voices of people, is becoming common knowledge now. Closer home, we can think of what kind of music we would prefer to have in private buses when they get blocked in the early morning rush hour - or when we boil in an immobile car at five minutes to nine!Perhaps the findings of research such as this can be put to good use, specially in hectic societies that are found at present. There is not much we can do about changing the pace of the world, but there is something that can be done about adjusting our reaction to it by controlling the environment in ways that are possible to us. So, remember the music.

Continue to Plus page 8 - On the path of pandals

Return to the Plus contents page

Read Letters to the Editor

Go to the Plus Archive


Home Page Front Page OP/ED News Business

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to or to