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Kirtan Music: Meaning, Spiritual Practice, History & FAQs

Kirtan music is a form of devotional singing originating in India that is gaining popularity in the Western world. A broad definition of kirtan music is a gathering emphasizing participatory, transformational music. The word “kirtan” comes from Sanskrit and specifically refers to the practice of singing mantras. Kirtan is pronounced KEER-tun. 

Kirtan at Yoga Motion Academy

Kirtan Music Table of Contents

Music Topics with Kathleen Karlsen

What Does Kirtan Mean?

Some define kirtan music as chanting the names of God. Others view kirtan music as a form of mantra meditation. Kirtan is a growing phenomenon in the West, often associated with yoga studios or meditation centers. The value of kirtan music as a form of group singing is being studied scientifically as a powerful antidote to isolation and stress in modern society.

The word “kirtan” means sharing, telling or reciting. Kirtan is a gathering for the purpose of chanting or singing devotional songs in one or more spiritual traditions. There are no particular beliefs required and you do not have to be a musician. 

Chanting or kirtan music is also known as mantra yoga. The word “mantra” is derived from two Sanskrit words. “Man” is from “manas” or mind. “Tra” is from “trai”, meaning to protect or free from. Mantras are formulas with distinct impacts on emotional, mental and spiritual states.

Mantras are used to gain freedom from a limited state of mind. In addition, mantras can be used to revitalize the physical body as well as heal the emotions and the spirit. In kirtan music, mantras are often simple lines repeated in a call and response format between a leader and audience. 

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Kirtan and Culture

What Does Kirtan Music Do?

Kirtan music is a platform for a profound sharing of energy, heart, and soul. A case could be made for the idea that this is the deepest possible level of intimacy. After all, the heart and soul are the deepest places in our beings, and singing a chant is a tangible release from those places.

The process of singing vibrates every cell of each person participating. That sound joins with sound that has been vibrating in every cell of everyone else present. The sounds merge together completely, passing through everyone equally. Chanting together synchronizes breath and heartbeat.

Filling oneself with sacred sound creates a oneness with life and energy and source. This can be profoundly moving. The experience of merging with something more powerful than yourself and with the others in the group is an experience that is both spiritual and tribal.

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Is Kirtan Music Cultural Appropriation?

Kirtan music is quickly becoming a melting pot of cultures and traditions. Some kirtan leaders and participants study Hindu and Buddhist traditions extensively. Others simply love the heart-opening practice and the tremendous sense of community. Sacred group singing can be practiced with music from any tradition.

I believe that the soul or spirit does not possess cultural or national identity. The soul is the inheritor of all traditions that lead back to the Source of life. I feel that utilizing the amazing gifts of multiple traditions in a respectful way honors all cultures in an expression of the highest aspirations of humankind.

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Kirtan Musicians Outdoors

Do I Have to be a Musician to Participate?

How well you sing or whether you are a trained singer is not a pertinent issue in kirtan music. No prior musical experience is required. In fact, kirtan music is ideal if you are self-conscious about singing. Your voice will blend with everyone around you.

In addition, science has shown that group singing changes the chemistry of the brain and body. These changes happen irrespective of skill level. Clearly you do not have to have professional experience as a singer or musician to reap the benefits of chanting and kirtan music.

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Brain and Solar Plexus Chakra
James Hartzell, Ph.D. has discovered that Sanskrit pandits have over ten percent more grey matter across both cerebral hemispheres, a measurement consistent with higher cognitive functioning. The right  hippocampus, connected to long and short-term memory and sensitive to auditory and visual patterns, has also been shown to have more grey matter across nearly seventy-five percent of its structure.

How Does Kirtan Music Affect the Brain?

Group singing brings the individual into harmony with the group as well as the sound itself. There are physiological processes at the root of the sense of connectedness and social flow that happens in group singing and kirtan music. Oxytocin and dopamine (feel good chemicals) are both released, and cortisol (a stress chemical) is reduced.

Oxcytocin means “quick birth,” a reference to the first bonding experience in life between a mother and her infant. Oxytocin also has a broader role in mediating social and emotional behaviors. Professional musical performance can actually have a negative impact on the body chemistry of the performers. The stress of performing can increase levels of cortisol, a chemical associated with anxiety.

In contrast with this, feel-good chemicals are released in kirtan music and other forms of group singing. This positive impact is present for both the leader and kirtan music participants. Singing in a group generally reduces levels of cortisol.

In addition, the sense of elation in group singing may come from the release of endorphins. Endorphins are associated with feelings of pleasure. For this reason, group singing has been studied as a successful antidote for depression.

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How Does Kirtan Music Work?

Although there are variations, kirtan music generally works like this: the kirtan leader begins a chant. The leader also determines the length and pace of the chant. A single chant or mantra can vary from a few minutes to an extended period of time. If there are multiple musicians, a drummer may also be given the responsibility for the pace of the chant.

The leader in kirtan music has the role of keeping in touch with the level of engagement among participants. A typical pattern in kirtan music is for a chant to start slowly, speed up with the repetition of a line or verse, and then slow down again at the conclusion. Alternately, the pace of the chant may remain stable but the volume of the kirtan music may become softer to indicate the end of the chant.

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Finding Synchronicity through Kirtan

Is Kirtan Music Improvisational?

A concept related to the benefits of group singing is referred to as flow. Improvisational music creates a feeling of flow. This is akin to being “in the groove” or being lost in the music. Kirtan music shares this concept with jazz music as well as with other genres such as gospel and blues.

There is also a social aspect to flow. In kirtan, musicians and participants coordinate with each other. For example, the pace varies back and forth within a chant. Everyone has to be cognizant of the shifts that are occurring in this interplay for this to work.

Kirtan in the Mountains

In addition, the same phrases may be repeated with a new melody. Studies indicate that improvised musical experiences elicit higher levels of social flow and bonding than highly structured music.

During kirtan music, instrumentalists may play solos for an interlude and then group chanting resumes. This creates a high level of interdependence among the musicians and the participants. This fosters the sense of being in the moment, similar to the concentration that happens during meditation and other spiritual practices. 

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Kirtan Call and Response Singing

Is Kirtan Music Always Call and Response?

Chanting has been practiced as a call and response format in many spiritual traditions. This is sometimes hierarchical: a priest or guru chants a line and the congregation or devotees respond.

A “wallah” is a Sanskrit term for someone who performs an action. A kirtan wallah is someone who performs or leads kirtan music. This is usually a reference to someone leading in a traditional call and response format.

The traditional style is not always the case for kirtan music in the Western world, which can be done either as call and response or in a sing-along style. In either case, lines are generally repeated twice. This makes kirtan music easy to learn.

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Instruments of Kirtan Harmonium

What Is a Harmonium?

Kirtan music is often played on a harmonium. The harmonium is a small keyboard instrument with a hand-pumped bellow and two sets of internal reeds (treble and bass). The level for each is controlled by metal stops on the front of the instrument. Sound is produced when a key is pressed, allowing air to flow over the reeds.

The harmonium sounds something like a cross between a small organ and a bagpipe, producing a unique eerie, longing tone. The sound is continuous, producing a constant through chords, single held notes or melodies. This is perfectly suited for both kirtan music and some Western hymns. In addition, the harmonium is an acoustic instrument, easy to play in a variety of circumstances. 

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Other Instruments Used in Kirtan Music

The drone of the harmonium establishes the foundation for kirtan music. Some musicians view this as masculine energy. This contrasts with the feminine energy playing melody. The two sounds can move back and forth between dissonance and harmony. This generates a unique sound and interplay.

Kirtan music lends itself to accompaniment by other instruments such as kartals (small hand-held cymbols) or tabla. The tabla is an Indian drum that takes many years of practice to learn. Playing tabla is quite complex rhythmically and tonally.

All kinds of other acoustic and electronic instruments are now being used as part of kirtan music: guitars, cellos, violins, flutes and more. Kirtan music can also be led acapella, simply with voice and without any instruments at all.

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Harmony in Kirtan

The Role of Harmony in Kirtan Music

Another topic related to the format of kirtan music is whether everyone should sing the same melody or include counterparts or harmony. Harmony is the use of multiple tones within a structure such as a chord played or sung simultaneously. Barbershop and choral singing are both examples of vocal harmony.

Harmony is typically a Western approach to group singing. Harmony is also possible with Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or other chants. On the positive side, having some participants or musicians singing in harmony creates a fuller sound with its own beauty.

However, some proponents of kirtan music and chanting advocate singing only in unison. Paramhansa Yogananda, one of the early Indian teachers to introduce chanting to Americans, explains this perspective in his book Autobiography of a Yogi.

The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda

Yogananada states that melody rather than harmony is emphasized in Indian music. Yoganada believed that singing in unison supported an emphasis on the individual’s communion with God. He was concerned that harmonizing with other voices would create a more horizontal focus.

In the Western world, we are accustomed to harmony. This is true in religious or spiritual music as well as popular culture. For example, Gregorian chants are typically sung with several parts. This can create a sense of being transported through the music. Bottom line: both approaches are valuable. Either can be used for kirtan music.

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Does Kirtan Music Have to be in Sanskrit?

Kirtan music repertoires may be specific to unique traditions, such as the chants associated the Vedic mantra tradition or kundalini yoga. Those chants would typically be in Sanskrit or Gurmukhi (a Sikh language). Kirtan music may also include chants from a wide variety of traditions and in a wide variety of languages.

Typically, kirtan music in the West is focused on Hindu or Buddhist traditions in Sanskrit. However, Christian chants in English as well as chants in Hebrew or any other language are possible. In fact, including chants in the native language of participants can be a great comfort for them.

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Sanskrit Vedic Mantras

Are There Advantages to Using Sanskrit?

The rishis of India (Hindu sages) experimented for thousands of years with the effects of chanting and sound. Mantras are believed to be coded compilations of sound designed to stimulate health and longevity as well as to create elevated mental and spiritual states. For example, the sound “uhm” is purported to energize and purify the blood. The sound “aha” is stimulating for the hormonal system.

These sounds are particularly prominent in Sanskrit, the most common language used in kirtan music. The positive impact on the brain of learning mantras is being referred to by neuroscientists as the “Sanskrit effect”. Science is showing that the ancient practice of chanting is akin to yoga and meditation and possess an equivalent or possibly even greater healing power for the body, mind and spirit. 

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Mantra Workshops

Why the Brain Loves Kirtan Music

Our brains are wired for what some scientists call “regular irregularity.” The human eye and ear are designed to notice and pick up small variations in the environment like leaves rustling in the breeze.

One of the wonderful things about kirtan music is the ever-changing nature of singing a mantra or chant. The same simple chant is never exactly the same. There are always slight differences with each repetition that occur naturally. Those small variations keep the brain engaged.

The pitch of one or more of the voices may be slightly different. The rhythm may vary a little bit. This creates variation within given parameters that allows for ongoing interest while maintaining comfort and stability participating in kirtan music.

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Kirtan and World Religions

Is Kirtan Music a Religion or Cult?

Kirtan music is not part of any specific religion or spiritual lineage, although specific leaders or groups may have a guru or shared tradition. Kirtan music is quite diverse. Some forms are meditative. Other kirtan music events are more like a dance party accompanied by Eastern music.

Kirtan may be held in a yoga studio, in a private living room, at a music festival or out in nature. There are workshops and holistic retreats held all over the world that include mantras and kirtan. Kirtan music is not centralized in one place or within one organization.

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What are Bhajans and Mantras?

Bhajans are devotional songs or chants usually based on longer forms of Sanskrit poetry. The word “bhajan” means “singing to glorify God.” Bhajans are typically lyrical and descriptive, relaying various stories or aspects of a divine being. Bhajans are often lively and danceable.

Mantras tend to be shorter and may not address a particular deity or aspect of the divine. Mantras are often less melodic than bhajans. A bhajan may have a complex melody with repeated choruses. Mantras are often one or two lines repeated with only a few notes.

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Archangel Michael Spiritual Protection

Transformation and Spiritual Protection

Spiritual practices including kirtan music are designed for self-transformation. Most traditions recognize that we have an inherent resistance to change. Even positive change can be disruptive in our lives. There may be forces or energies within or without that would interfere with progress towards greater harmony and well-being at any level.

For this reason, a discussion of any spiritual practice would be incomplete without mention of the principle of spiritual protection. The concept of spiritual protection afforded by guides, angels, deities, devas or other benevolent beings is a key tenet in nearly every religious tradition.

In Christianity, angels may serve as personal protectors (guardian angels) or as powerful beings who battle evil and defeat devils and demons. Many depictions of Archangel Michael, for example, show him wearing military-style armor, brandishing a sword and standing on the head of the devil.

Kali Deity Art

In the Hindu tradition, the goddesses Kali and Durga are known as fierce warriors. Both are depicted with many arms and many weapons to protect those on a spiritual path. Based on your own traditions and beliefs, you may want to surround yourself with light or with some type of guardian spirit as part of your practice of mantras, chanting and kirtan music.

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What is Kirtan Kriya?

Kirtan kriya is a specific meditation technique in Kundalini yoga. This technique involves combining finger movements with specific mantras. This practice has been studied with positive impacts on Alzheimer’s patients. Utilizing finger movements with the syllables of a mantra stimulates the blood flow to the motor-sensory areas of the brain. Clinical research has shown that 12 minutes a day of Kirtan Kriya can improve cognition and memory. You can learn more at Alzheimer’s Prevention.

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What is Kirtan Sohila?

Kirtan Sohila is a specific prayer or set of prayers sung in the evening in the Sikh tradition. The name means “Song of Praise.” One or more of these hymns are also used at funerals. The collection of hymns includes a song by Guru Nanak, one by Gurua Ram Das and on by Guru Arjan.

The word Sohila is derived from the Punjabi language and means ” the time for sleep.” The Sohila is set to a musical form called a raga. The words translate as a poem of praise.

A sample of the lines are as follows, “Yes, sing praises of the Lord, the fearless One of all. I would give my life for that song, which imparts the peace eternal.”

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Kirtan Music and Community

One of the great joys of kirtan music is the sense of community. This is a shared practice with deep roots in  our psychological and biological wiring. Singing together in kirtan can create positive relationships with others. Deep connections and friendships can be formed through this practice.

The practice of kirtan music is also grounding. However, music cannot be held the way that a child or a treasured object can be held. Every chant is different, every time. You are in the present. You are in the moment, sharing the joy of sacred music. This can take place in varying formats and circumstances. Kirtan music is both an ancient art and an evolving practice.

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About the Author

Kathleen Karlsen is a musician, artist, writer and speaker. She is the author of two books (Flower Symbols and Vocal Medicine) and over 200 articles. Kathleen, her husband Andrew and their five children live in Bozeman, Montana. More about Kathleen Karlsen.

Kathleen Karlsen

Kathleen’s Books

Vocal Medicine reveals Kathleen Karlsen’s personal journey and years of research into mantras, chanting and kirtan. Learn more about using mantras and singing to invigorate your life! Explore the chakras and the impact of sound in every area of your life. 

Flower Symbols by Kathleen Karlsen features fascinating information about the folklore of the world’s most beloved flowers. Flowers accompany us in nearly every major event in life. This book is a perfect gift for every flower lover in your life! 

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KIRTAN MUSIC ARTICLE SUMMARY 

This article on kirtan covers covers a wide array of topics: the meaning of kirtan music, how kirtan music affects the brain, what instruments are used in kirtan music, how Sanskrit relates to kirtan music, how kirtan music affects the brain, how kirtan music works and much more! Includes videos with examples of kirtan music.

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