You’re sitting by a window; tiny dewdrops form at the edges of the iron rods on the windows.
It’s pouring outside, and the smell of crispy, fried pakoras wafts out of the kitchen. Your ears
can hear the slight humming of Farida Khanum from the radio amidst the white noise. The smell
of the earth makes your toes curl as you watch your mother walk towards you from the corner of
Now, I’m sure everyone had a very different version of events picturing this scenario, even
though I described it to be the same. Maybe the colour of the walls was different, or the scent
was different, perhaps you superimposed the memory of another scenario onto this one. If I had
asked you to imagine this scenario without the music, would you have had a different setting in
mind? Speculative or not, science has a lot to speak about how music affects our memories and
our sense of perception. Whether you listen to Qawwali, Pop, Rock, Metal, Sufi, or Indie, there
will always be certain harbingers that trigger a specific memory, and thus, a particular emotion.
Let’s look at the two main components that make up music. We have lyrics, and then we have a
melody. Although they both work hand in hand, one can easily overpower the other to convey a
message. Qawwalis, for instance, are the parent genre for Ghazals, which is a form of poetry that
places dire significance in the longing and anguish one feels when they are in love. Although
most Pop music focuses on relatively straightforward lyrics, Ghazals provide a unique
perspective of love.
The first time I heard a Qawwali, I judged it solely based on its musical production, which was
quite harsh. I later realized the intensity of the words through repetition and their placement. For
instance, Mehdi Hassan’s Ranjish Hi Sahi is about love, but it has been magnified in emotion
because the lover explores this very love through the themes of pain and distance. Farida
Khanum’s Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo, being quite self-explanatory from the title, follows the
same principle. Combining these heart-wrenching lyrics with a minor key on the harmonium
(hint: minor keys are the sadder ones), you’ve got a recipe for a very emotionally stirring
composition. Perhaps it is the sorrow in a painting or song about love that hints the strongest
emotions in humans.
This style is resonant in almost all genres, Jazz being kindred. Jazz music has its focus more on
the melody and was one of the first of its kind to popularize improvisation. Ella Fitzgerald, the
Queen of Jazz, was known for her phrasing of words and syllabus, placing them at every
unpredictable semitone, much like the music itself. This slight musical technique of hers would
charge the entire performance to be theatrical, with a sense of drama, humour, tragedy, and
excitement. Although quite different from the genre discussed prior, it carries its own set of
unique overpowering emotions with the haunting vocals of the dead and everlasting sounds
frozen in time.
It seems as if improvisation struck a chord, literally, with the human psyche. You don’t
particularly enjoy knowing which chord is coming next in a song, but the suspense and subtle
excitement of unpredictability does. Improvisation is like handwriting – unique and very specific
to each individual. Signature art styles exist as a form of self-expression and emotions. Even
though all of the musical theory is the same, every song has a unique sound to it. Whether it be
the vocal technique, or a sick riff, or even vaporwave synth, similar chords can produce different
sounds. Humans tend to associate with musical compositions that closely resonate with their self-
Bach’s Goldberg variations are famed for making your brain feel like it’s on drugs, and rightfully
so. Imagine being given a set of letters and an endless roll of paper. Oops, maybe I’m describing
writing. But Bach’s maniacal composition of trying to fit in every sequence of harmonics,
tempos, polonaise, and aria into a well-enclosed piece of music with a start and finish is what
appeals to the ‘drug’ aspect of your brain. It’s more of a challenge of ‘how many different
sounds can you identify in this piece?’ The answer is: endless. Not literally, but it feels like it. It
is quite like the logarithmic expansion of a single property and the infinite replication of the
probabilities and possibilities of a note.
You could say, science and music do have a lot in common, not just in compositions, but in
feeling the music. Every musical piece carries a wave of emotions, whether explicable or not and
sits in some part of our resting subconscious. That is why music, even unwillingly, takes us on a
nostalgic journey sometimes. The nostalgia of what you have lived through, the nostalgia of the
dead, the nostalgia of an era, or even the nostalgia of something you cannot explain. We
reminisce it all – something we humans cannot resist. That is what makes music subjective,
everyone has their own encounters and recollection of feelings, and music is the stage where they
come to dance and play.
Music, at its essence, is what builds our memories. And the longer a song has existed in our
lives, the more memories we have of it, as said by Stevie Wonder. Some food for thought.