Music with Medicine - An Interview with Dr. Tara Rajendran

Tara Rajendran is a physician-Indian classical Musician (‘Saraswati Veena’) and a TEDx speaker. She is the leading advocate of inculcating music into India’s healthcare infrastructure. With her first of a kind lecture-concert-series called ‘Oncology & Strings’, she is trying to fuse medicine with music and make people aware of how classical music can be used with medical science. Understanding musical therapy is very difficult for the general audience but in short, Tara is advocating the importance of introducing music into India’s palliative cancer care infrastructure.


Since we wanted to know more about Music Therapy and the vision behind Dr. Rajendran’s initiative we asked her a couple of questions. That will surely help you understand how Dr. Tara is challenging or changing the modern ways of healing to save people and making their lives better.

How did the journey start for you? Also, can you give a brief description of who you are in your own words?

I am a physician-musician living at the intersection of music and oncology, and my story began in the late 90s. Twenty years ago, on a beautiful spring morning, I woke up to a gorgeous ‘Saraswati Veena’ brought home from Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. I was only a couple of days into the Veena lessons and two years into south Indian classical/Carnatic vocal training. It’s not the enticing beauty of the carvings on the jackfruit wood that dazzled me the most but the sense of the ‘break of dawn’ (that’s how I imagine) invoked by the mere plucking of the second main string/anusarani followed by the first/sarani! That enigmatic and entrancing music became an intimate part of my life in no time. I was 13 when I gave my solo maiden Veena recital, and I gave several invited solo concerts at prestigious national music festivals as a child artist.


I took a sabbatical from public performance during my medical school training. However, I did my bachelor’s (BA) and masters (MFA) in ‘Veena’ along with medical school. This was mostly restricted to the ‘academic’ part of classical music which consisted of complex musical grammar and the history of Indian classical music.

During my final medical school year, I faced physician burnouts while rotating through the labor theatre (Obstetrics and gynecology). I vividly remember that night. Our labor room had 11 beds, and all were occupied that night. Patients went into labor one after another. Few failed labors, and we were shuttling between the operating room and labor theatre. When I returned to the hostel after an emotionally intense and endlessly exhausting night at the hospital, I lay down on the floor without even changing the scrubs, which had splattered blood and amniotic fluid. Half ptosed eyes wandered around and eventually laid on the old dusted Veena in the corner of that tiny room. I played for 10 minutes, my most favorite scale, Raag Brindavani’, and I found it cathartic!

It was during my stint at Harvard medical school as an international visiting medical student in Hematology/Oncology, I was introduced to the extensive research that’s been going on exploring the psycho-neuro-endocrinology of music. My mentor, the advisory dean of Harvard Medical School, suggested that I delve into the intersection of music and oncology. That is how I founded the self-initiative lecture-concert series, ‘Oncology & Strings’, to advocate the importance of inculcating instrumental music therapy into India’s palliative cancer care infrastructure. I am also pursuing a Ph.D. in Indian classical music and my dissertation focuses on the evolution of the use of Indian classical music in medicine.


What exactly is music therapy and what are the kinds of diseases that it can help us with?

Music Therapy is supportive care, and it does not replace the standard treatment course. The field of music therapy traces its beginnings to World War II when veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were treated with music. Last year, the United States celebrated 60 years of incorporating music therapy into academic curriculum. We have yet not done that in India. In the last decade, there has been burgeoning clinical evidence on the positive impact of music therapy over a broad spectrum of disorders ranging from epilepsy to depression. The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) defines Music Therapy as the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program. Music Therapy is classified into two, clinical and therapeutic.

Within a therapeutic relationship, music is used to address people’s physical, emotional, cognitive, and social requirements. Following the assessment of the individual’s strengths and needs, a board-certified music therapist provides the indicated (evidence-based) intervention. This comprises creating, singing, moving to/clapping/tapping/playing a musical instrument, or listening to music. Music therapy could help those who find it difficult to express themselves in words, e.g., selective mutism. The randomized controlled trials report that music therapy supports overall physical rehabilitation, increasing people’s motivation to become engaged in their treatment, providing emotional support for patients and their families, and providing an outlet for expressing feelings. It has also been shown to reduce stress and anxiety.

Can you tell us about your Lecture concert series ‘Oncology & Strings’ and what is the vision behind this project?

Oncology and Strings is globally the first lecture-concert series that advocates the importance of inculcating music therapy into palliative oncology. It takes birth from two separate personal experiences. One, music was cathartic while I was coping with physician burnout during my final medical school year. Two, the psychological stress and pain the cancer patients under our care went through. In India, we neither have National Medical Commission (NMC) accredited music therapy training programs nor is it incorporated into academic curriculums. We do not have large randomized controlled trials that back the positive impact of using musical interventions that are tailored to the Indian population.

That’s when I thought of working towards bridging these gaps. I do understand inculcating music into India’s healthcare infrastructure is challenging in terms of time, funding, and research avenues. It’s imperative that medical students, oncologists, and palliative care physicians recognize where we stand and how could we achieve this, and that’s what I am aiming to accomplish through ‘Oncology and Strings’. Until NMC accredits and designs a music therapy training curriculum, medical students with the help of oncologists could conduct randomized controlled trials and palliative care physicians could play music passively (therapeutic music therapy) in their inpatients floors and outpatients waiting areas. I am hopeful that slowly and steadily, we move towards a day where patients could have access to the expertise of a music therapist as part of the treatment course.

Talking about music now. For how long have been making music and practicing? And why did you choose Veena over other instruments?

I began my vocal training at age five and Veena at age 7. I have been creating music since 2019. My parents chose Veena for me, and I was too young to construe the instrument’s complexities. In retrospect I am profoundly grateful to my parents for that. They even stayed with me throughout the class, enjoying the musical lessons. The long hours of training were overwhelming for my tiny fingers. My mother gave me lukewarm water in the night to dip my sore fingertips until I developed callus, but the practice sessions never paused.

Do you feel in the future we are going to see a lot of music therapy taking place in modern hospitals? Also, effective is it against the viruses (considering the current situation)?

I am confident that, India, sooner or later, will have a fraternity of Physicians, Physician-Musicians and Musicians who would lay down definitions and guidelines for NMC accredited Music therapy training programs following which our treatment teams in most of the specialities will have the services of a music therapist available.

We have no evidence currently that support the effect of music in treating infectious diseases. In these precarious and tumultuous times, both the patients, and caregivers are facing stress, and anxiety. Burnout in healthcare professionals is a significant mental health issue, particularly in an extra-ordinarily grim and challenging phase like this. Frontline healthcare staff, grappling with SARS-CoV-2 to stem it’s spread against an exponentially increasing workload, are going through extreme burnout. Perhaps music would be helpful in reducing stress and anxiety from physician exhaustion and isolation.

Why did you choose classical music over other types/styles of music? What’s your take on modern music and is not helpful for healing?

My parents dropped me at a music class when I was five years old, and hence, I did not choose it. In retrospect, I am thankful to my parents. While I was captivated by classical music’s inherent charm, complexity, and expressivity, I often enjoy energetic playback tracks from films, soulful jazz, and soothing Iranian classical music. Since I am trained academically and otherwise in Indian classical music, I could easily demonstrate using that in my lecture-concerts. However, I add that some studies report the effectiveness of ‘patient preferred music’. Furthermore, the patient must connect with the music emotionally. Any music that the individual is able to enjoy and resonate with will be helpful.

Do you feel eventually the community will grow and classical music will be accepted by a huge population in the future?

In 2018, I attended a concert by the exceptional vocalist, T.M Krishna, and contrary to the popular beliefs that classical music is chased to extinction, the packed house was occupied mostly by millennials and generation Z. The legacy of classical music is being embraced by the young audience, as they are intrigued by it’s complexity and ingenuity. I am assured that as far as there are people, who are curious and fascinated by discovering the intricacies of classical music, we will evolve forward.

Any tips for the modern music producers and composers out there?

Globally, in the last 25 years, music has evolved extensively. In the past, artists refrained from stepping out of the frames of their genres. Only a handful of artists were all right with experimenting. Today, the audience has changed. We have to admit that social media has played an impactful role in this. The technologies have advanced. Music is not esoteric anymore; it is more abstract and eclectic. Audiences are accepting inter-genre collaborations and experiments. These evolutions are fast-paced too. Therefore, never lose authenticity in the process. Being yourself will never go out of style.

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