Our first encounter with music is the lullaby sung by a parent, a grandparent, an elder sibling or a nanny.
Lullabies across the world and across the ages, regardless of the words, use the same singing tone, accompanied by a rocking motion, in time with the rhythm of the heartbeat and breathing. Perhaps the comforting effect of music throughout life is a memory of that first lullaby.
Brahms composed a lullaby that quickly became popular with mothers putting their babies to sleep. Lullabies follow a 6/8 time signature that many musicians have used, such as Woodie Guthrie’s Hobo’s Lullaby and Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry, Queen’s We are the Champions, Beatles’ Norwegian Woods and Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence.
While lullabies have a soothing melody, very often the lyrics are quite dark and even frightening. They become an outlet for the mother to voice her own fears and concerns. In Iraqi musical tradition, lullabies are commonly composed in wazn al na‘i, or ‘meter of lamentation.’ We come across this contrast between soothing melody and sad or angry lyrics in ballads, blues music and rap songs.
People who enjoy music see it as an emotional experience that may send chills down their spine, move them to tears, awaken feelings they never acknowledged, energise or soothe them. Work songs, war songs and national anthems inspire strength and unity, music concerts or songs shared at social gatherings bind communities together.
The universal love of music is an enigma. Scientists and psychologists have shown how all parts of the brain are engaged in different ways when listening to music, how it lowers the heart rate or improves efficiency. Yet none of it explains the passion and commitment to music and the extensive industry that has developed around it. Music establishes strong memories that never fade, even in patients with Alzheimer’s.
As one of the performing arts, in music performances, the listener and the performer are intrinsically linked. Michael Jackson said, “People ask me how I make music. I tell them I just step into it. It’s like stepping into a river and joining the flow. Every moment in the river has its song.” Beethoven recognised this spiritual nature of music and saw it as a “mediator between the spiritual and sensual life.”
Most religions express devotion through chants or use cadenced intonation. The Sufi sema is described by Abu Hafs Umar Suhrawardi as the realisation of wajd [ecstasy], without shattering inward silence, self-control and contemplative sobriety. Sama demands proper time, place and brethren (zaman, makan and akhwan).
Music has a transformative power, whether it is a simple child’s rhyme or the magnus opus of a composer. Shakespeare speaks of “savage eyes turned to a modest gaze, by the sweet power of music.” During Covid-19 lockdowns, comfort was spread by opera singers serenading the neighbourhood from their balconies, and pop stars sharing songs online.
For young people the world over, music helps them understand their feelings and feel connected to others. A young blogger writes, music “makes me feel whole. It has been what has built me up in most tired moments, given me strength when I could not stand, and taught me to pause and enjoy what is around me.”
The music scores of films such as Doctor Zhivago, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Titanic, The Godfather, Jaws and Star Wars have become iconic, and horror movies would lose their suspense without the accompanying music. The songs of Mughal-e-Azam, Umrao Jan Ada and now the haunting melodies Ertugrul Ghazi are unforgettable.
Film songs, qawwali and contemporary renderings of folk songs and Sufi music permeate South Asian society. Dr Rauf Parekh reminds us of the South Asian tradition of songs composed for every stage of life: songs to put a child to sleep, to wake to, songs for every event of a wedding, pregnancy, the changing seasons, work songs and finally mourning songs for the dead.
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist. She may be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 30th, 2021