Tuning Out trolls

Tuning Out trolls

M Hariharan has put together a CD designed to help journalists calm down, ignore the trolls, focus on their stories, and make the words flow, writes Margot Cohen

M Hariharan

Sinister trolls afflict journalists worldwide. Vile comments and images clutter Twitter feeds, especially those of women reporters. It’s not just a matter of death by meme. Hard-working reporters across the globe are racing to funnel facts into the relentless online news cycle.

Combine that frenetic schedule with the droning threat of media lay-offs. It all makes for a heap of frazzled nerves and disturbed sleep. So perhaps it’s time to ask an offbeat question: has anyone heard of music therapy for
journalists? Probably not.

Music to ears

Although most humans love some form of music, it’s fair to say that music therapy remains a niche subject. In fact, thousands of practitioners are developing therapies that rely on music to enhance the lives of people with schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, autism, cerebral palsy, and addictions to drugs and alcohol. The study of music and its soothing potential escalated in the US and Europe in the aftermath of World War I and World War II, when musicians played for the wounded. Medical professionals began using melody and rhythm to treat what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The stressed-out
footsoldiers of the international and local media never received much attention. But desperate times call for more music. And it turns out that music therapy for journalists has already surfaced in the unlikely town of Puducherry, India — where a prolific composer put together a CD designed to help journalists calm down, ignore the trolls, focus on their stories,
and make the words flow. 

M Hariharan, a 68-year-old composer, calls himself a sound healer.  His favourite sounds are drawn from Carnatic music, the south Indian classical tradition that first entranced him at age 16. He learned vocal music and the veena, becoming a fond disciple of noted Carnatic musician Gowri Kuppuswamy in Mysore.  Hariharan says that he decided to go to the US in the 1980s to pursue his pet project: researching the effect of Carnatic music on animals.

Sounds relevant

He played Carnatic ragas for dogs, cats, fish, and cows. After he returned to India, he eventually produced two CDs of music therapy for pets. Why take the leap from animals to journalists? (Admittedly, some media-haters might not see that as such a great leap.) Hariharan recounts that in the late 1990s, he felt discouraged by the lukewarm response to a talk he delivered in Washington, DC, where he attempted to explain the “healing powers” of Indian music. He wondered how he could make the music appear more relevant to people’s lives. When he came home, he set his mind to providing music for a series of CDs that would target specific occupations, including IT workers, athletes, policemen, politicians, and journalists. By 2005 Hariharan produced nearly two dozen different CDs, which he displayed on a website. 

Hariharan had never met any journalists — let alone treated any gloomy, stressed-out scribes — but he thought he had a good idea of the challenges they faced. Compared to freelancers, staff reporters grapple with a particular form of stress, Hariharan says. “They have no freedom. They have to cover (the assignment). They need focus. Your mind has to be calm. You need to have insight. A small thing from a conversation can provide a lede for the story. To get the right lede, you need that intuition. That lede is possible through musical meditation.”

With this in mind, he assembled a CD with nine instrumental tracks. He chose the Raga Bageshri at the outset, for “settling down your focus,” employing a sitar, violin and flute, all of which slowly pick up the pace. Next comes the Raga Mohanam, which moves a bit faster but omits
rhythm to avoid disturbing concentration. Then it’s time for Raga Yaman, played on the sitar, violin, and santoor, together with rhythm produced by the tabla and kanjira: “Once you are settled, this is faster, more energised,” he says.


A turning point comes with Raga Durga: “This is like giving you a feeling of freedom. You are literally free to do whatever you want.” That’s followed by Raag Shahana, played on the flute, violin, mrindangam and veena. “This is bringing you back on track,” Hariharan explains. “If you fly, you have to come back to your nest. It’s a very melodic tune. It gives you the feeling that you have done something great.”

For the final track, Hariharan relied exclusively on rhythm, provided by mridangam, tabla, kanjira and morsing. “It gives you the feeling that you have finished your work. That means you have summed up everything.” 
Hariharan claims that journalists who work while listening to these ragas will produce better stories than their colleagues. That hypothesis has yet to be tested in scientific research.

So what’s the difference between Hariharan’s compositions for journalists and pets? Hariharan explains that music for cats, fish and cows must be very soft. It should contain a limited number of instruments. “If you give too many varieties, you don’t know if you are disturbing their mood,” he says. “Just like a pet can’t have too many masters.”

In contrast, journalists crave variety. “There are progressive segments. First you settle down, then you find a release, and then you conclude your work.” According to Hariharan, the music for pets would sound monotonous to a journalist — or any human, for that matter.  During the recording sessions, Hariharan did not dare tell his musicians that they were playing for pets.

“They would not have liked the idea. They may have even ridiculed it. I didn’t want to get unnecessary comments.” While proud of his work, the composer has begun to question the efficacy of marketing music therapy by occupation.

Over the last decade, demand was less than anticipated. “It was not a successful venture,” he avers. Instead, he has created new CDs with the aim of alleviating stress among the broader public. Pointing to 60 clients slated to attend his upcoming workshops in the US in November 2020, Hariharan sees no need to chase after particular professionals.

So he decided to remove ‘Music Therapy for Journalists’ from his website, along with the CDs targeting athletes, policemen, and politicians. But with more and more politicians bashing journalists, is the therapy still worthwhile? “It’s very, very relevant,” says Hariharan. 

In that case, there may be no alternative for those frazzled nerves other than DIY treatment — whether in the form of Carnatic ragas, a Kishore Kumar medley, or Despacito

(The author is a writer from New York)

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