Campus & Community

Mohan Sundararaj of HSPH harnesses the power of music to heal

4 min read

It was 1998 and Mohan Sundararaj was frustrated. A medical student at India’s Sri Ramachandra Medical College and the child of two physicians, Sundararaj was committed to his medical education but frustrated by the demands that kept him from his other passion: the piano.

“I was a concert-oriented pianist. I felt stuck in medical school because I was not able to indulge in my passion,” Sundararaj recalls.

He spoke about his feelings with his grandfather, who commented that maybe one day Sundararaj, who had been playing piano since age 4, would be able to use his music as therapy.

Sundararaj thought that was a great idea. He began to research music therapy, finding, to his surprise, the existence of an entire field that he knew little about. He picked up a book on the subject and hasn’t looked back since.

When he finished his medical studies, Sundararaj came to Boston to study at the Berklee College of Music, which has a music therapy program. As a Berklee intern, he worked with terminally ill patients at a hospice in Florida. He graduated in 2004.

After graduation, he returned to India to do his medical residency. He went to Calcutta, where he worked with street kids and orphans for four years. As he worked, he began to look for fields in which he could integrate his medical and musical interests. He became interested in public health as an alternative, enrolled in the Harvard School of Public Health, and is graduating with a master’s degree in health policy and management.

At the Harvard School of Public Health, Sundararaj has worked with other musically minded students to put on benefit concerts to raise money for pediatric cancer patients. Called “Rhythm Therapy,” the group has put on two events, one in the fall and one in May, drawing audiences of more than 100 to each.

The field of music therapy got its start after the world wars, according to the American Music Therapy Association. Veterans Hospitals around the country would invite community musicians in to play. The patients’ responses, both emotional and physical, prompted the hospitals to hire the musicians and then to begin to train them. The first music therapy degree program in the world was founded at Michigan State University in 1944.

The therapy is useful in a wide variety of settings with a wide variety of patients. Children with special needs, the elderly, psychiatric patients, and others all can benefit from music therapy. The therapy is used as a complement to more typical medical or psychiatric interventions.

“Music reaches what the medicine does not,” Sundararaj said.

Though patients do participate in the therapy, the point is not to teach them to sing or play an instrument, Sundararaj said. They may write words to a song that Sundararaj puts to music, but the product — the song itself — isn’t the purpose. Rather, Sundararaj said, it is the writing of the song, the listening and engagement with the music, that provides the therapy.

“The outcome is always nonmusical,” Sundararaj said. “It’s not the product that matters, it’s the process.”

Being a music therapist doesn’t mean always listening to music he enjoys; rather, it means being adaptable, Sundararaj said. Selections depend on the individual tastes and needs of the patient, regardless of what Sundararaj likes — or how many times he’s heard the chosen piece.

After graduation from Harvard, Sundararaj plans to return to India to start a nonprofit that fosters music therapy outside the United States, where it remains little-known. He’d like to find and promote clinical and research opportunities for U.S. music therapists to travel to the developing world, benefiting patients but also exposing others to the field.