x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Music is the best medicine

What is it about music that stirs the deepest emotions and whose choice expresses the feelings of the moment?

As an enthusiastically amateur DJ, I'm often asked what kind of music I like. It's a hard question; it would be easier to ask what I don't like. Don't ask me to name a genre, though, because even within those styles towards which I feel no natural inclination - orchestral music of the Classical era, techno, country and western - there are so many fantastic exceptions that it is impossible to dismiss the whole movement. I consume music like I consume those packs of chocolate-covered almonds at Jones the Grocer: fast, luxuriantly and with a long-lasting effect. (Luckily, music, while just as expensive, is not calorific.)

It's funny, though, because this is not the way I grew up with music. For my parents, and many of their generation who loved music but were not obsessive record collectors, the radio was for news, comedy and documentaries, and putting on an LP was an occasion. My dad's music choices in the late 1970s seemed to be a direct expression of what he was feeling at that exact moment. He'd have a youthful moment and blast out Cream or the Rolling Stones, or he'd be in a gloom and play the dark second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

Those contented summer days were acknowledged with some quintessentially British Elgar, his favourite composer. It has always seemed to me that, though not a musician, he feels the power of music very strongly and deploys this power sparingly. I remember, as a very small child, the thrill when my older brother would yell: "Gemma, Gemma, Dad's putting the Rolling Stones on!" and we'd run in and revel together in the perceived rebellion of listening to this amazing, loud, bluesy rock.

I was terminally uncool at school - the moment I admitted, in the playground, that I hadn't realised that Kylie Minogue and Charlene from the Australian soap Neighbours were the same person was a milestone in my own history of cluelessness, having neither heard a Kylie song nor watched Neighbours. My main musical outlet was through playing in orchestra and piano lessons. By the time I was 16 I was a very middle-class mix of musically obsessed (I went on to study music history at university) and completely ignorant of almost all of the major popular movements of the 20th century. I didn't even get a CD player until I moved to London in 1999.

Winning an iPod in a competition in about 2003 changed everything for me. A whole world opened up and I'll continue exploring it for the rest of my life. I'm still often embarrassed when someone mentions an apparently seminal musician of whom I know nothing, but nowadays I can find the artist on Wikipedia, watch old footage on YouTube, buy the back catalogue and listen to them on the way to work. The "kidz" take all this for granted, of course, but it's still new and revelatory to me.

Yet the one thing I hope has not changed from those ancient days of LPs is the designation of certain music as "special". There are songs and works that, like Dad's Beethoven, I can only listen to in certain moments. The difference is that, like the reputed 1,000 Arabic words for camel, I have a hundred songs for sadness, or hope, or joy, each a perfect expression of a specific aspect of the mood. Music is more healing to me than any medicine. It's penicillin for the soul.