Music therapy: Songs that jingle through states of mind

The magic of music has long enthralled us, but some numbers are special: they are hard-wired into the system, you can never have enough of them, even after decades they can come back in vivid detail.

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Fri 25 Feb 2022, 7:08 AM

If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got. That adage may be true of several situations but fits perfectly in the world of running, as I realised recently. After some years of the hard grind of daily running, I reached a certain level and gained health benefits, only to reach a plateau, where there are no further gains. I was stuck on the various parameters that show whether you have improved or not over a period of time. For months, there was no overall improvement beyond what I had achieved, with little signs of any uptick in terms of time, pace, distance or stamina — until one blustery evening last week.

I did not make any extra effort on the day, but at the end of the run I was less tired than usual, and the watch showed a faster pace and much less time taken to cover the same usual distance, which was a pleasant surprise. The only bit different from the routine was music: while driving to the spot by the Thames where I run, the car radio happened to play an old fun song with a catchy beat from my teenage years, one that I had not heard for decades: Lorna Cordeiro’s Yeo bailey yeo. I don’t carry earphones, but the delightful number revived many memories and played on a loop in the mind throughout the 105-minute run, diverting the mind from fatigue and other distractions, and without, realising it, I had completed the day’s target of kilometres with better results. I later tried running with other songs that are hard-wired in the mind, making new gains, and wondered how the link between music and running could be used during a marathon — different songs to get over different stages of pain and fatigue?

The link was a welcome discovery for me, but it is well known in the world of medicine. Music’s effect on the human brain and body at various levels has been the subject of much research, and music therapy is now a distinct sub-discipline to deal with a range of health issues. Since music is a key element of most of our lives, it provides a route to access areas and aspects of the mind and body in ways that medicines and other interventions may not influence easily.

Elena Mannes, the award-winning director-producer, writes in The Power of Music: “Scientists have found that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function…We humans know instinctively that music has primal power. Historians and anthropologists have yet to discover a culture without music. Music predates agriculture — and perhaps even language. The elements of music — time, pitch, and volume — echo our pulse, our breath, our movement, and our vocal range. At our emotional core, we experience these elements as joy, sadness, exhilaration, and countless other feelings. Anyone who has been transported by Bach or Mozart, moved to weep by a national anthem or hymn, stirred to dance by a rock rhythm, or transported in time by the notes of a pop tune from the past knows the power of music…Not only can music be found in every known human society, but there are also surprising common threads that run through all the world’s music.”

Of the tens of thousands of songs that one comes across during a lifetime, some songs and genres become special for a host of reasons that are subjective and specific to individuals: they could be special because of the time they were heard and enjoyed (childhood, teenage years, adulthood) or the context, or for the quality of words, beats, composition, singers or bands. Over the years, they evolve to represent the comfort of home, a kind of heimat, that you return to every now and then for what they do to you and your state of mind. As American musician Billy Joel says, “I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.”

Songs that never go out of tune

A friend in Sheffield insists on putting on a two-hour programme called Awaaz De Kahan Hai on television every morning, comprising old Bollywood songs, which, she says, provides a feel-good start to the day. Music nostalgia, or the ‘oldies’, have a particular attraction because, as experts say, our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers more tightly than anything we hear as adults, a link that does not weaken in later life. A lot goes on at the hormonal and other levels during teenage years, when the brain also goes through many changes, so when you hear a song you love, it is likely to retain to its hold during most of the lifetime.

Some numbers and artistes feature regularly, naturally, during my long YouTube-driven listening mehfils that usually go into the wee hours: the magic of Lata Mangeshkar-Madan Mohan-Rais Khan, Kumar Gandharva (guess his incredible life’s sole purpose was to spread Kabir’s message), Jitendra Abhisheki, Fareed Ayaz & Abu Mohammad, Ramdas Kamat, Vasantrao Deshpande, Bhupen Hazarika, Hridaynath Mangeshkar-Asha Bhosle’s Marathi songs, Shafi Faqeer, the many versions of Kesariya Balam (particularly Mehdi Hasan’s), Jagjit Singh, Bengali songs sung by RD Burman, Coke Studio Pakistan, Bob Marley — my list of hard-wired songs keeps growing over the decades.

Which is the earliest song you heard that you still remember, hum, love listening to, never get bored of, and retains a powerful hold on you?

For many, songs with political overtones resonate more and remain a favourite. Mike Jempson, director of media ethics charity MediaWise based in Bristol, fondly recalls the Irish song, Kevin Barry: “A poignant Irish ‘rebel’ song which reminds me of my mum. It takes me back to her singing it beside the fire while ironing. I was very young. The lyrics are very sad and the tune equally mournful, but it is also a very stirring reminder of the cruelty of British rule in Ireland and the fight for freedom which is not over yet. I am also a great fan of the Rolling Stones, and listen to so many of their songs so many times, it would be difficult to choose. But this one — Mick Jagger and ‘Memo from Turner’ — is very different. The Stones have performed it, but this original version is from my favourite film Performance [I must have seen it at least two dozen times]. It features some fantastic musicians including Ry Cooder on slide guitar, Randy Newman on piano, and Gene Parsons, the Byrds’ drummer. But Jagger is at the helm. I first saw Performance in the West End on the second day after its release in August 1970. It was a 23rd birthday gift from a friend, an American-Dominican friar! Jimi Hendrix was in the audience.”

For anyone growing up or living in the Indian subcontinent, there is a vast pool of music and genres to draw from and create special playlists that resonate through various moods, emotions and situations — so many that you may not have the space to look at Western or other genres. The repertoire in various languages and dialects — filmi, non-filmi, semi-classical, classical, folk, Indipop, devotional — is so diverse, rich and resounding that its appeal has gone global, influencing generations across the Middle East, Asia, Europe and beyond. Thanks to the globalisation of media, diaspora communities pick up the latest from Bollywood, folk and other genres, run away with them and create their own versions. The global circulation of music also enables new audiences beyond national borders: the great and the good in Western music have long found fans in the subcontinent.

Says New Delhi-based senior journalist Askari Zaidi: “Bob Dylan’s Masters of War: this is one of those songs that I don’t get tired of listening to again and again. There are many anti-war songs but this one is special because of the very powerful lyrics and expressive voice of Bob. The song brings forth the role of governments in creating armaments that cause large scale destruction and spilling blood of millions. The song encourages one to root for disarmament, raise one’s voice against war. Another favourite is ‘Yeh raat yeh chandni phir kahan, sun ja dil ki dastan’ from Jaal (1952), not only because it is written by one of India’s best lyricists, Sahir Ludhianvi, composed by SD Burman, and sung in a soulful voice by Hemant Kumar. What makes this song endearing is the use of nature by Sahir in such a beautiful way that one tends to just keep listening to the song again and again. On one hand, it is a simple love song composed in Raga Kafi, but on the other, it is a heady mixture of love and nature’s beauty. Sahir’s imagery has made this song immortal.”

The science of neuromusicology

Studies show that music has been scientifically proven to have a powerful effect on the brain, that music can help in many aspects, including pain reduction, stress relief, memory, and brain injuries. Music improves brain health and function in many ways, and expert say it can make you smarter, happier, and more productive at any age: listening is good, playing is better. Advances in neuroscience mean that researchers can now measure exactly how music affects the brain, producing a new field of research called neuromusicology, which explores how the nervous system reacts to music.

Andrew E Budson, lecturer in neurology at the Harvard Medical School, writes: “Music has been shown to activate some of the broadest and most diverse networks of the brain…Music also activates a variety of memory regions. And, interestingly, music activates the motor system. In fact, it has been theorised that it is the activation of the brain’s motor system that allows us to pick out the beat of the music even before we start tapping our foot to it! So just how does music promote well-being, enhance learning, stimulate cognitive function, improve quality of life, and even induce happiness? The answer is, because music can activate almost all brain regions and networks, it can help to keep a myriad of brain pathways and networks strong, including those networks that are involved in well-being, learning, cognitive function, quality of life, and happiness. In fact, there is only one other situation in which you can activate so many brain networks all at once, and that is when you participate in social activities.”

In fact, a major study involving over 36,000 people at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland has shown that music taste and personality type are closely related, suggesting that classical

music fans may be shy, while heavy metal aficionados are gentle and at ease with themselves. The widely-cited study by academic Adrian North included participants from all over the world, who were asked to rate 104 musical styles, along with questions about aspects of their personality.

Describing the research as significant and surprising, North says: “We have always suspected a link between music taste and personality. This is the first time that we’ve been able to look at it in real detail. No one has ever done this on this scale before. There are obvious implications for the music industry who are worried about declining CD sales. One of the most surprising things is the similarities between fans of classical music and heavy metal. They’re both creative and at ease but not outgoing.”

The study suggested the following links between genres and personalities:

Blues fans: have high self-esteem, are outgoing, creative, gentle and mostly at ease.

Jazz fans: have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing and at ease.

Classic music fans: have high self-esteem, are creative, introverted and at ease.

Rap fans: have high self-esteem and are outgoing.

Opera fans: have high self-esteem, are creative and gentle.

Country and Western fans: hardworking and outgoing.

Reggae fans: have high self-esteem, are creative, outgoing, gentle and at ease, but not hardworking.

Dance fans: creative and outgoing, but not gentle.

Bollywood music fans: creative and outgoing.

Chart pop fans: have high self-esteem, are hardworking, outgoing and gentle, but not at ease or creative.

Soul fans: have high self-esteem, are outgoing, creative, gentle and at ease.

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