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Taking Notes

Jun/07/2024 / by Elizabeth Marglin

How music therapy can reconnect your roots

Growing up in Southern Illinois, Sangeeta Swamy, a second-generation South Asian whose parents hail from Tamil Nadu, found the lack of racial diversity a big challenge. She faced microaggressions on a regular basis, felt excluded, and was one of only a few children of color in her school. But she only realized in grad school the true cost—that she had rejected aspects of her Indian heritage. As she struggled to find a way to reconnect it, on her own terms and that could still support her bisexuality, she found music to be a surprising, and surprisingly potent, pathway. 

Now an associate professor and co-chair of the Integral Psychology Counseling program at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Swamy is an award-winning violinist, licensed psychotherapist, and board-certified music therapist. She’s devoted one branch of her work to focus on the intersection of identity and music, especially for those from marginalized groups. Her method, she says, “relies on culturally responsive frameworks to provide insight for those facing discrimination, oppression, minoritized stress, or identity exploration through music listening and creative consciousness exploration.” 

As a child, Swamy played European classical music and American folk songs on the violin, wore jeans and t-shirts, and spoke with an American accent. She refused to speak Tamil, her family’s native language, or learn Karnatic music, an elaborate South Indian classical genre. But when she was in grad school, performing in a string quartet, she began to wonder about the Indian part of herself. Her PhD was devoted to finding the connections between personal identity and ancestral music. In her twenties, she went to India by herself to study Karnatic music and found it to be a reclamation of her heritage in a way that felt nourishing and inclusive.

The experience intrigued her—and she wanted to see if it would translate for others. “It’s not cut and dried that just listening to ancestral music will help people necessarily connect more to their identity,” she says. But music is a key aspect of ethnic identity development. As she explored therapy in the context of South Asians, she found that some people responded to hearing Indian music on a mythological level, while for others it was more about ancestry or aesthetics or exploring identity conflicts. 

“We, as music therapists, choose the music very carefully. We analyze it deeply, the musical elements, the pitches, the ragas, the rhythms, and the range,” she says. “Music actually plays a powerful role in getting people into a deeper state of consciousness.”

A Sample Session

Curious what a music therapy session with Swamy might entail? Swamy’s methodology is influenced by the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music, which offers a detailed exploration of what happens during a music therapy session. 

  • A typical session begins with a conversation during which Swamy tunes into the mood of her client and selects the music program. Swamy, who specializes in a trauma-informed approach, selects different kinds of music according to what is most useful for the client to explore.
  • The client reclines as Swamy offers suggestions for relaxing the body and focusing the mind in preparation for the music.
  • Once the music begins, the client takes the therapist along on his/her journey by describing the experience as it unfolds. The therapist’s role is one of facilitator and witness, to support the client’s engagement with whatever experience may come.
  • After the 35-45 minute period of music, the therapist facilitates a return to waking consciousness, and the client and therapist engage in a collaborative discussion directed toward facilitating integration.

Recommended Playlist 

Find these on Spotify or YouTube

Pi’s Lullaby, the intro song to the film Life of Pi, with lyrics by Bombay Jayashri

Khwaab, an Indian Lounge song by Niraj Chag: 

Hindustani selection by N. Rajam in Raga Desh

Swamy offers this prompt for listening deeper: What do you experience in your mind’s eye and your emotions as you listen to the music?

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