After the storm

August 3, 2014

Research suggests music can make people feel better. But, is Pakistan listening?

After the storm

Pakistan’s citizens have no shortage of incontestable trauma. Right now, a military operation against terrorist forces is ongoing. Thousands of innocent civilians have been rendered homeless. An unforgiving, life-altering disease (polio) is crippling Pakistan’s most vulnerable children and unscrupulous politicians are bickering as usual. Menacing violence plagues streets across cities and villages.

Should you choose to resort to violence, no one will stop you, not for a while, anyway. Should you make the mistake of falling in love, cupid won’t save your life. The infamous Gullu Butt, meanwhile, will make headlines and dominate primetime news because who doesn’t like a real-life Sultan Rahi comparison with theme music and logos?

Is it any wonder then that common mental disorders are on the rise in Pakistan? So what now? Music holds the answer… to some extent. Music has healing properties and it can play a positive role in improving ordinary lives. But music matters get overshadowed in Pakistan as some members of the music and entertainment fraternity, or former members now to be precise, tend to play fast and loose with religious dogma, condemning pop culture one day and embracing it the next minute.

Miraculous though, is the simple fact that despite these contradictions, Pakistan is also home to a rich tradition of music – devotional, regional, classical and folk – some of which predates partition. Contemporary music including rock, pop, and fusion, indie-alternative acts and now electronic music is making its mark, both at home, and abroad.

With nearly 150 million mobile subscribers, as reported by Tech in Asia just a week ago, the format in which music is being consumed is evolving. Music is streamed and downloaded now. Digital music shows have attained a niche following and legitimacy in followers that is unparalleled (Lahooti Live Sessions, Lussun TV) and uncommon in the mainstream scene.

In a global context, music is being used as therapy to ease many a troubled mind, and there’s no reason why such efforts can’t be replicated here. Scientific research is predicated on evidence and so, reducing music to the lowest decibel available for public fixation is naïve at best and irresponsible and thoughtless at worst.


Many parties are guilty for this confused climate. I’m thinking of the Pakistan government, with its failure to include music as a subject in public education across Pakistan. The abysmal attitude towards musicians, particularly many of our folk legends, who are dead and gone as well as alive and struggling, is distasteful and shoddy.

So, Pakistan’s potential dismay aside, here are some facts. Evidently music can improve moods; reduce anxiety and depression in human beings. According to a research study titled Listening to sad music in adverse situations: How music selection strategies relate to self-regulatory goals, listening effects, and mood enhancement published in Psychology of Music, earlier this January, listening to gorgeous albeit sad music has the power to make people feel better.

The study conducted by Dry Annemieke Van den Tol, a lecturer in Social Psychology at University of Kent and Professor Jane Edwards of the University of Limerick, asked 220 participants, aged between 24 to 86 years of age, about the belief in the impact of music when a person is feeling low, depressed or experiencing adverse emotions.

The questions that were posed to determinate the result comprised the following things: (a) if they are inclined to listen to music when they’re feeling bad, (b) If yes, what kind of music do they listen to, i.e: happy or sad and c) if they believe it improves their mood. Researchers call it ‘Self-Identified Sad Music (SISM)’ and paid attention to factors like memory triggers coinciding with a particular event among other things.

Explaining the study, Dr Van den Tol is quoted as saying: “We found in our research that people’s music choice is linked to the individual’s own expectations for listening to music and its effects on them." "The results showed that if an individual has intended to achieve mood enhancement through listening to ‘sad’ music, this was in fact often achieved by first thinking about their situation or being distracted, rather than directly through listening to the music chosen."

"Indeed, where respondents indicated they had chosen music with the intention of triggering memories, this had a negative impact on creating a better mood. The only selection strategy that was found to directly predict mood enhancement was where the music was perceived by the listener to have high aesthetic value," he added.

What does this mean? It means that if you believe in a piece of music to be stunning and listen to it when you’re feeling low, it will, in all likelihood, make you feel good.

If you’re looking for a particular memory, it will come alive if you listen to a piece of music you had heard when this memory was formed.

Another study that dates back to 2011 states that music can reduce anxiety in cancer patients. A Science Daily article featuring the specifics from the study, reported that researchers had scrutinized evidence from 1891 patients spread across 30 trials.

“The evidence suggests that music interventions may be useful as a complementary treatment to people with cancer,” lead researcher Joke Bradt of the Department of Creative Arts Therapies, at Drexel University in Philadelphia US, is quoted saying.

“Music interventions provided by trained music therapists as well as listening to pre-recorded music both have shown positive outcomes in this review, but at this time there is not enough evidence to determine if one intervention is more effective than the other.”

“It should be noted, however, that when patients can’t be blinded to an intervention, there is an opportunity for bias when they are asked to report on subjective measures like anxiety, pain mood and quality of life,” said Bradt.

Further trials on music’s ability to elevate quality of life will surely teach us more, but, for now, this is plenty of proof that shunning music is just not good for your soul. All objections overruled.

Maheen Sabeeh is a freelance contributor to various publications. She tweets at @maheensbh

After the storm