0 8 min 2 yrs

May 17th, 2018

An African-American man sits on the stage, with braided hair wearing oversized shades indoors, holding a phone to his face and singing a song. In a beautiful voice, he describes the beauty of the world. Someone nearby whispers in my ear with an awed voice that the man is blind. This was my first introduction to Stevie Wonder’s song I just called to say I love you and the world of music in general. I cannot describe how overwhelmed I was. Loss of sight was the only true fear my young mind had at the time. When the world goes dark, for good. And here was a man, a celebrity no less, playing on the irony, battling on, with a wonderful voice and imagination far superior to any of us blessed with eyesight. There must be something miraculous about music. This link between blindness and music was to grow as I came across the music of Ray Charles and others. I was to learn much later that the brain’s visual cortex can be redeployed to enhance musical abilities in the absence of visual input.

Music touches all our lives whether we acknowledge it or not. It is there to embrace us when we feel down. It connects us with disparate groups of people with hardly anything else relatable. And yet we seldom stop and care to take a look under the hood. In the age of streaming music we select or reject someone’s labour of months, even years, in a matter of seconds. Who has the time to stop and wonder what instruments were used in a particular song? And what was on the mind of its creator when the work was being composed? In our fast-paced lives people hardly have a second to spare for the finer things in music like, say, Western classical compositions that we often dismiss as boring.

But there are reasons to take music seriously. In his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks, the neuro-psychologist and author of Awakenings that was later made into that beloved Academy Award-nominated film, lists the benefits of music. It is used for speech therapy and to provide relief from the effects of Parkinson’s and Tourette’s diseases. And lest you forget the lesson from Awakenings, it can help in regaining mobility, though not always as dramatically as Robert De Niro’s movement in the film. But there is more. If you can enjoy music you should because not everyone can. There is tone deafness that affects a substantial part of the population. Then there is such a thing as rhythm deafness. Che Guevara suffered from this disorder and couldn’t understand which dance steps go with which rhythm. Then there is the condition where music has no discernable effect on you. Famous examples include Charles Darwin and Freud. In patients of epilepsy music can in some cases trigger seizures. So if you can enjoy music, my friends, you should be grateful and put it to good use.

As Daniel Levitin, psychologist and Stevie Wonder’s music consultant, highlights in his book, “This is your brain on music, the parts of brain that process music also process memories. So that is an important reason why you feel nostalgia so strongly when you listen to old numbers. But that is not all. The same parts are also partly responsible for your emotions which are linked to your motor capabilities.” That is why music is so helpful in workouts.

Recently, we have witnessed some attempts to popularise classical Western music. If you have seen the television series Mozart in the jungle you’d know that it is at least partly working. But if it is not considered the great company you’ll enjoy if you develop taste for it. I am sure you are familiar with Edward Said’s Orientalism or other works on identity. But not many people know that he also wrote a book called Musical Elaborations. Not only that. He was also music critic for the Nation. Reading his writings on music brings home one crucial fact: there is too much information packed in the meticulously arranged notes of classical symphonies. While writing these lines I am painfully aware that there is an air of Frasier-like snobbery about them. But so what? You don’t stop eating good, healthier food if people judge you for snobbery. Why should it stop you from learning about and listening to great music? If you do you might be surprised not just by touch of the divine but occasionally even by the vulgarly mundane. For example, did you know the fourth movement of Beethoven’s symphony number 2 was about disorders of his own digestive tract. Look it up on the internet and listen. Within a few minutes you’ll know how he is describing stomach problems, his nausea, hiccups and other issues here. Surprised? A maestro can have some sense of humour, too.

But it is not just about Western classical music. Our own classical music is quite rich. In music it makes little difference if your education method is solfege (Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do) or Sa Re Ga Ma. It is there to help you enjoy and be a better, happier person. And it is not as if modern music doesn’t count. It does. Any music is better than no music.

And what happens if you live in a Muslim society where some conservative sections consider music a sin. If I am stuck in such a situation my first attempt is to draw attention to the last letter in Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s book Ghubar-e-Khatir where he confides how on moonlit nights he would go to Taj Mahal, sit on the bank of Yamuna and play the sitar. If a religious scholar of such stature could do that why should I be judged? But if that line of argument didn’t work here is more.

Levitin explains music or symphony’s building blocks which are pitch, rhythm, tempo, contour, timbre, loudness and reverberation. These elements are found not just in what few clerics dub music but also in anthems, naats and hamds. In fact, when Junaid Jamshed was learning to be a preacher I had a brief truck with him and he told me which naatkhwan and which qari used this, that or the other raag during recital. So whatever works for you is good. I find it quite a useful and rewarding escape from the rigours of reality.

First published in The Express Tribune, May 17th, 2018.

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