In transit: A brief history of PIA’s in-flight music

In-flight music serves as a musical monogram, as essential to an airline as a well-designed logo.

Updated 31 Jul, 2019 05:40pm

From the moment you board the plane till the seatbelt sign comes off, your journey has a soundtrack.

Often punctuated by the collective war cry of all the toddlers on board, some stock sounds include the flight attendant’s polite request to stow away your dasti samaan, fellow passengers saying their goodbyes on speaker phone, and the flurry of newspapers.

However, if you’re lucky, you can hear a glimmer of music adding yet another acoustic layer to your in-flight experience.

Consider, for a moment, that the sonic space taken up by in-flight music serves as a means to establish a specific mood, to elicit a specific emotion.

I remember a ‘PIA sound’ from my childhood just as distinctly as the smell of biryani being warmed up 35,000 feet in the air.

However, in recent years, with debilitating speaker systems and an increase of smartphones and personal listening devices, this sound no longer makes its way to passengers as they prepare to take to the skies.

As of January 2019, Pakistan International Airways replaced its usual “soft” boarding music collection of with a version of Qaseeda Burda Sharif on outbound flights to Jeddah and Madina. This may seem out of place, but it fits well with PIA’s musical track record.

PIA In Flight Music Volume One on cassette
PIA In Flight Music Volume One on cassette

PIA In Flight Music Volume One
PIA In Flight Music Volume One

In-flight music serves as a musical monogram, as essential to an airline as a well-designed logo. It requires careful curation to reflect not just the airline’s identity but also to craft a particular ambience.

In the 1970s, PIA introduced audio programming which included the music played during boarding, take off and landing as well as non-musical options available on the in-flight entertainment systems. The programmes included various radio plays, local playlists and international radio shows.

This 1999 piece by Drekka skims through the audio programmes recorded while his flight was grounded at Karachi airport as Pervez Musharraf carried out a military coup.


Later in the decade, PIA began its contract with EMI (currently EMI Pakistan) in 1976, “after the introduction of the Boeing 747s into the PIA fleet”, states EMI COO, Zeeshan Chaudhry. This led to a long-term partnership which manifested in a multi-volume PIA In Flight Music series with music recorded, curated, produced and distributed exclusively for the national carrier.

In my quest to listen to this music, I scoured the internet and stumbled upon the forums of historyofpia.com where I came across music collector, Kamran Sekha. Based out of London, Sekha boasts a magnificent collection of digitised audio-visual material, from PIA in-flight music to the independent music of the other involved musicians.

Sekha recalls frequenting the London to Karachi PIA route during his teenage years:

“The first time I really noticed the music was on a flight back to Pakistan in 1978. As soon as we boarded the plane, they were playing free on-board music and serving sweets. You had to pay for headphones if you wanted to listen to music during the flight. I was so intrigued by what I had heard while boarding that I paid the money [In the 70s, in-flight entertainment was a luxury with a set of headphones costing up to $2.50] and listened to the audio programme throughout the flight.”

What Sekha had discovered was the first of many noteworthy PIA soundtracks.

M Ashraf's top hits
M Ashraf's top hits

PIA In Flight Music Volume Two on cassette
PIA In Flight Music Volume Two on cassette

It was after this flight that Sekha began collecting not only the music he heard on the flight, but other records by similar artists. “I gathered the songs from various sources — some of the stuff hasn’t even been released. I collected 45 RPM records that were never put onto cassette and converted them to MP3.”

After many years of painstakingly acquiring the music (including sending a cassette of himself humming a missing song to EMI), Sekha generously uploaded his collection of the PIA In-Flight Music series alongside tracks that were previously restricted to vinyl.

The PIA In-Flight Music series sheds light on the ideals that the airline wanted to advocate. It presents a rich, diverse compilation of, what can now be considered, some of the most quintessential sounds of Pakistan.

Through the series we traverse through an assortment of semi-classical pieces, home-grown surf-rock, film instrumentals, and radiant ghazals amongst other genres.

The first volume (1976/7) presents the lush re-imaginations of folk songs and semi-classical instrumentals alongside more modern, synth-based Western ensembles. Highlighting instrumentalists of the alghoza and sarangi, the album is also accented by a younger sound in Pakistan by featuring bands such as the The Aay Jays, Mods and The Panthers taking on traditional songs.

Reflective of the musical trends of music directors of that time, M Ashraf and G.A. Chisti present a blend of Eastern and Western instrumentation with some funky production completing the initial album that created the ‘PIA sound’.

PIA In Flight Music Volume Two
PIA In Flight Music Volume Two
Karim Shahabuddin's instrumental album
Karim Shahabuddin's instrumental album

Honing on a contemporary sound, the second volume of the PIA In-Flight Music series (1978) takes a step away from traditional pieces, focusing more on the music that was distinctive of that decade.

More LPs and records were finding their way into Pakistan which had an impact on the kind of sound developed by the composers and musicians of that time. Simultaneously, musical technology was developing and becoming more accessible, introducing more electronic, experimental soundscapes.

One of my favourite music directors on this series is Karim Shahabuddin. His work on the second album centralises on the theme of travel and destinations, as though his intention was to write a score for the skies.

Happy Landing begins with a bansuri playing over a crackly sample of a plane before it breaks into a sanguine blend of traditional melody lines alongside whimsical synth riffs.

Batik Route brings to mind the open expanse of a sandy beach with its surf-rock structure. Black Gold is an ode to Arabian Nights with generous amounts of dumbek and daff perched on a dark bed of Middle Eastern influences.

Another familiar name on the PIA In-Flight Music series is music director and actor, Arshad Mahmud. Mahmud not only featured as a music director on the series but was also responsible for the supervision of this series after he joined EMI in 1976.

Mahmud tells me that “the prompt from PIA was to create easy-listening songs, similar to the music of James Last” with the intent of making the daunting task of setting sails into the clouds a more pleasant experience. There was also a specific demand for the sitar and other regional instruments.

Speaking of the New York to Pakistan flight, Mahmud chuckles at how people would tell him the “signature sitar sound would transport them to Pakistan as soon as they boarded”.

After the second volume, there was a gap between releases and a change of direction in the series. Including beloved semi-classical standards by Mehdi Hassan, Farida Khanum and Amanat Ali Khan amongst others, volume three (mid-80s) brings with it the first and only instance of vocals on the PIA music series.

It also distinguishes itself from previous releases by not including any bands or music directors. The decision to focus on presenting ghazals, in all their microtonal glory, reflects a reconceptualisation of PIA’s sonic signature at the time.

PIA In Flight Music Volume Three
PIA In Flight Music Volume Three

Volume four (1993) revisits the instrumental form, bringing the focus back onto the music directors and pop/folk music.

There is a clear shift in production styles between the second volume and the fourth. The age of sequencers had eliminated the need for live musicians which can be heard in the songs of Robin Ghosh, Aamir Khan and even in the work of veterans like Nisar Bazmi and Rashid Attre.

The final song on the cassette is a spacey rendition of Dil Dil Pakistan by the Vital Signs, who take over from the likes of The Aay Jays to represent a younger sound.

PIA In Flight Music Volume Four
PIA In Flight Music Volume Four

The final volume seems like a hasty assortment of songs from previous audio programmes barring a few new tracks by Arshad Mahmud.

Notwithstanding, this album is important because it finally features master arranger and instrumentalist, Azhar Hussain. Kala Doria and Jeevay Banra are great selections from his repertoire to showcase his showmanship as a music director.

Azhar Hussain's instrumentals
Azhar Hussain's instrumentals

PIA In Flight Music Volume Five
PIA In Flight Music Volume Five

Jumbo Flight by Shalimar
Jumbo Flight by Shalimar

Everything beyond volume five is garbed. As EMI began transitioning to EMI Pakistan in the early 90s, later iterations of in-flight music were not as organised. Various music directors (primarily Arshad Mahmud) and alternative labels (Shalimar Recording, Geo Production) were commissioned for the task which led to a less cohesive sound.

There were multiple releases till 2013, which continued with the instrumental-rendition model, after which PIA stopped licensing music and contracts from previously commissioned music began to dematerialise. PIA’s auditory logo began to fade out.


To use Qaseedah Burdah Sharif for flights to Jeddah and Medina is not too far from PIA’s musical modus operandi. Part of the essence of in-flight music is to create music that dabbles with notions of transit, preparing passengers for their journey.

However, what is anomalous and what makes this decision potentially fleeting is the limitation the airline has set on itself for using only one naat. I am positive that other renditions of Islamic poetry could have been added onto that specific route that would satisfy the same requirements.

Nevertheless, if this indicates that PIA has course corrected and is, once again, tuned into the thoughtful curation music for transit, there is hope they may consider upgrading and updating other international and domestic soundscapes.

It would be interesting to see how PIA would stand up to the test of plugging into the Pakistani pulse today. I, for one, would not mind boarding a plane to an instrumental version of a Poor Rich Boy song.


Are you listening to the sounds of Pakistan? Share your insights with us at prism@dawn.com

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Natasha Noorani is a musician, festival organiser and music manager currently pursuing a MMus of Ethnomusicology at SOAS.


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (36) Closed

Muhammad Obaidullah
Mar 13, 2019 05:32pm
That was such an amazing read, i will be paying more attention to the in-flight music from now.
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kash
Mar 13, 2019 06:09pm
no inflight musci on my pia flights on 16th feb from London and returning on 3rd march
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Newborn
Mar 13, 2019 06:17pm
PIAC would do much better if it were privately owned.
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Tariq Mehmood
Mar 13, 2019 06:23pm
Memomories of the old time. The sound of welcoming soft music a real beuty from PIA. Good write up.
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AD
Mar 13, 2019 06:44pm
I have taken numerous flights between Toronto and Karachi, not one time there was any music played, more there headphones and in flight entertainment screens does not not work also, always screwed up
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Khan
Mar 13, 2019 07:08pm
Great job natasha.very encouraging and true journalism
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Muhammad Kamran Arain
Mar 13, 2019 07:21pm
I still remember boarding a PIA plane to Moscow in 1991 with Jaan-e-Baharaan sound track playing in the background. That is my only memory of the flight.
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Ali
Mar 13, 2019 07:37pm
Listening to the beautiful audio tapes was flying down memory lane indeed. Nostalgia. Thank you for your extraordinary and amazing effort. If there is no political meddling and the airline managed professionally, PIA can again become "Great People to Fly With".
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SL
Mar 13, 2019 08:30pm
@Newborn, how??? Some of the largest, amazing and successful airlines in the world are run by the state.
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adnan
Mar 13, 2019 09:40pm
WOW after a long time a very well researched and insightful article into PIA and the inflight music before advent of personal inseat entertainment.. This is way Not your ordinary every other day piece which lacks depth and no insight.
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Kelp
Mar 13, 2019 10:41pm
Great work! This is a really good article. I dont think PIA plays any music now.
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Rizwan Rana
Mar 13, 2019 11:57pm
A s a child growing up in England, I had a copy of a PIA inflight music audio cassette. It was my link to my parents country and one i cherished as a child. Spent many, many hours listening to the 'grooves' on the tape. Splendid memories.
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Omar (USA)
Mar 14, 2019 12:32am
Excellent article. Entertaining and visuals are so amazing.
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Rahat
Mar 14, 2019 01:20am
I still remember while traveling in PIA from London to Lahore in 1963 with my grand mother, we had a great trip. Indian songs were available in all PIA flights, we never mixed music with conflict during those days. Today, indian music and cinema are banned
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N. Rahim, Toronto
Mar 14, 2019 01:56am
Can someone come up with the food that used to be and served in the past to the present on PIA? On a Karachi to Dacca flight, before the creation of Bangladesh, I remember eating an omelet for breakfast that I still cannot forget. A good change this one from everyday politics and government bashing articles. Thank you
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tariq
Mar 14, 2019 02:14am
Why is there nothing from Ahmad Rushdi. What a grand singer he was.
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Bakhtiar Ishtiaq
Mar 14, 2019 02:16am
Great effort in preserving a part of the legacy of a once great organization. Thank you.
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mak
Mar 14, 2019 04:12am
I remember after landing, and waiting to get out - the music being streamed sounded not very folk type or classical. It sounded very festive. The gentleman seated next to me mentioned that this was recorded circus music - he was disappointed PIA could not find better landing music than this.
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Andar ki baat
Mar 14, 2019 07:25am
I have travelled over 100 the ones in last 40 years. The music was hardly played or the headphones didn't work. Nice try article though. Sony Walkman stero sci was the go to item for people to rely on
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Maha Qasim
Mar 14, 2019 07:28am
This article brought back so many memories! Thanks for all your hard work tracking PIA’s music through the decades...
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Jawaid Islam
Mar 14, 2019 11:33am
What an incredible research and article!
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Badr Siddiqui
Mar 14, 2019 12:15pm
What a wonderful article exploring the history in-flight music
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Rabishankar Das
Mar 14, 2019 01:02pm
Wondeful work. Although I dont follow the songs but it needs a very good amount of research to write such detailed article
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Saqib
Mar 14, 2019 01:27pm
Good job done, I remember when I was younger in 90s and had a flight from Dubai to Lahore they played Dil Dil Pakistan instumental and it was super.
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Haroon
Mar 14, 2019 02:48pm
I still remember my first work trip. An instrumental cover was playing. And the song was 'Mera dil channa kach di khidona' by Zubeida Khanum.
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Talha
Mar 14, 2019 05:04pm
Thank you for this wonderful insight.
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Abbas Ali
Mar 14, 2019 08:57pm
Excellent article!
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Usman Asif
Mar 14, 2019 09:27pm
This was an enthralling read. I am a hobbyist instrumentalist and love history. This gave me a dose of both. I had no idea so much PIA music was archived in SC and on YT. I will be bookmarking those. Thank you for sharing.
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Shery
Mar 14, 2019 09:29pm
Very interesting but this story will remain incomplete without mentioning the popular film and non film compositions produced on sitar by Ustad Nafis Khan which the PIA would play in its flights as late as 2010.
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Natasha Noorani
Mar 14, 2019 10:37pm
@Shery , oh that sounds lovely! Do you have more information on the compositions you mentioned? Would love to find out more.
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Shoaib Bhatti
Mar 14, 2019 11:19pm
Nostalgic, wonderful effort Natasha. You certainly went the extra mile with this article. Looking forward to seeing more reads from you.
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shaan
Mar 15, 2019 12:27am
Amazing article. Brought back excellent memories. Thank you so much!!
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iSi
Mar 15, 2019 02:52am
Interesting article.
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Shery
Mar 15, 2019 08:09am
@Natasha Noorani During 1998-2010 i was frequently traveling on Islamabad-Karachi route. During boarding and taxing, Ustad Nafis Khan's sitar would play 'Raat pehli hay tayre surmayee anchal ki tarah' and 'Mujhy tum nazar say gira tu rahay hu' and orher instrumentals used to be played in the background. I think there were about a dozen Sitar recordings of Khan sahib with PIA. Later, I got a CD of these recordings from Khan sahib. I think this music was recorded in the private studio of Arshad Mahmood sahib long after he left EMI. If i correctly remember PIA during early 1990s used to sell the audio cassattes of its inflight music on board as well.
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Ahmar Qureshi
Mar 15, 2019 10:38am
We had three volumes that my Mom espacially placed order for purchase. My most favorite was "Happy Landing" in which you can hear a plane landing followed by euphoric flute... :-) Those PIA days...
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Sohail
Mar 15, 2019 07:52pm
Excellent Article.
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