A Modern Introduction to Music – 2

By Anjum Altaf

Thanks to the readers I am beginning to enjoy myself and I am not in any hurry. So I am going to take the time refining what I am trying to do and locating the audience I am doing it for. I am going to take full advantage of the interactive format in order to avoid ending up with a product for which there is no market.

I intend to carry the audience with me and to interweave its ideas and suggestions into the text as it evolves. With that in mind, here is a recap of what I am trying to do, why I think it is worth doing, and who I am doing it for.

We started with the proposition that understanding music would heighten its enjoyment. This notion quickly ran into healthy skepticism and the misgivings of some and the explications of others have helped to fine tune the premise in my mind. Let me try and explain this with the sorts of examples we had used earlier.

At one end of the spectrum there is chess, the ultimate mind game, which offers a spectator no enjoyment without an understanding of its rules. There can be something like gymnastics at the other, where the enjoyment requires very little or no knowledge of the underlying principles. Where does music fall on this spectrum? And what is the relationship between understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment?

The distinction between forms of enjoyment, sensory and intellectual, is of great help here. There is no sensory enjoyment in chess and there need be very little intellectual enjoyment in gymnastics. One appeals to reason, the other to emotions. But for things falling between these extremes (is music one of them?), can we assume that there is an overlap between the two, that there exists a positive feedback loop between the intellectual and sensory enjoyments? In the commentary on the last post I had mentioned the example of American football: how South Asians in the US start off finding the game bizarre but get hooked as they learn its rules and objectives – you should see them at Superbowl time.

I thought about this and I feel I have a useful analogy to illustrate this point. Imagine yourself as a spectator at a magic show. If the magician is good, there are likely to be two broad categories of reactions from the audience. “Wow! That was neat,” would be one. Within that subset there could be a reaction that follows upon the first: “Gee! How did he do it?” The first represents the sensory enjoyment; the second, the intellectual curiosity.

It doesn’t follow that the intellectual curiosity would necessarily have a positive impact on the sensory enjoyment. Finding out the secret of a trick is quite likely to diminish its impact for the future. At the same time, it is quite possible that the knowledge would spur one to anticipate or imagine new tricks or even to invent some on one’s own. (Parents with young children should beware. More seriously, do children who take apart mechanical devices tend to become inventors?)

A few other reactions are possible. There could be some who determine they don’t like magic at all; others, who appreciate the skill involved but don’t care much for the art form; yet others, who are interested but not sufficiently impressed with the magician.

In my mind, this series of posts on music is for the “Gee! How did he do it?” crowd with the belief that if we appreciate how it is done we might well conclude: “Wow! That was neat.” Thus the causality is reversed: It is not our sensory enjoyment that is motivating our intellectual curiosity; rather, we are venturing into the intellectual arena because we hope it would help both our appreciation and our sensory enjoyment. This is a path that should make sense to all who, like me, are frustrated at their inability to fully enjoy classical music, a part of our cultural heritage that has lasted thousands of years and is something we feel we should find a way to appreciate. This constitutes the “What the hell is he doing?” subset of the magician’s audience.

In this process we might also learn to tell one magician/musician from another. When the performer  knows we know, he/she would avoid passing off noise as music and feel the need to work on his or her skills. This should set off another positive feedback to our shared advantage.

More soon.


  • Arpita Chatterjee
    Posted at 04:29h, 24 July Reply

    What I find wonderful about this entire exercise is that it embodies much of what I have been doing all my life! Learning traditional music is undoubtedly a difficult thing, more so in this day and age, when everyone seems to be in such a hurry to get to the so-called ‘top’. What is even more interesting and somewhat challenging about learning music is that there seems to be no end to it!
    After all, the end aim is perfection and sometimes the standards you set yourself merely depend on previous exposure. So what happens when you suddenly find people turning to you for advice, when you feel you have a lot left to learn? In my experience, you gain confidence and look for ways in which you can enrich yourself while at the same time spreading the knowledge that you have already acquired! That I think is why I have been teaching music for over 20 years now. Funny part is, the more I’ve taught, the more I’ve learnt! since I haven’t taught any other subject, I don’t know if that’s the way it works with other disciplines!
    Somewhere along the way, I too began realising that knowledgable appreciation of music is on the decline, so I began music appreciation courses for lay audiences, which is why I am really eager to see how this blog develops. Let’s hope it will continue to be as interactive as it has been so far, if not even more participative! I will certainly look forward to every post!

  • coolkarni
    Posted at 08:39h, 24 July Reply

    Where does music fall on this spectrum? And what is the relationship between understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment?
    Here is a track where a Carnatic singer – Madurai Somu – is singing Raga Mohana.
    At 3.08 he looks like having finished his small alapana. But Wait!! He pauses and is heard telling the audience (in tamil)
    “You all must listen to Iyer singing this” (an obvious reference to Maharajapuram Viswantha Iyer who was famous for Mohana ) and takes on a expansive approach thereafter. Pushing himself to the limits.
    Now here is the legend himself in a 70 second piece of stardust here.

    And Somu’s attempt can be seen in a new light. If one were to get back to the original track again, the interface between art and science is now a glorious fuzzy rainbow …..
    Such a delicate oral tradition passed on from generation to generation ….

  • coolkarni
    Posted at 11:39h, 24 July Reply


    another beautiful example on how ears in carnatic are trained so differently from the ears in hindusthani – snip from a recent lecture – even while dealing with the same notes – and all this from a teacher who played and taught a violin all his life . What was the exclusive of domain of a practitioner is nowing getting accessible to all of us. I have sat through several lecdems of this genius and I always get the goosebumps.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:03h, 24 July Reply

      Coolkarni: Your comments present a dilemma for me. I am loath to temper the enthusiasm of readers but remain conscious of the fact that we can easily run too far ahead of our audience. There are no doubt a number of highly trained musicians in the group but the audience that this material is being written for has not yet been introduced to the concepts needed to appreciate the fine points that are the subject of your comments. We might need to be patient and I would request knowledgeable participants like you to help the target audience get to the point where they could truly appreciate the advanced material. One way for doing so would be to restrict comments to the material in the post and provide feedback on whether the proposed building blocks make sense or not. I hope you would agree with this approach.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 13:50h, 24 July Reply

    I am not convinced at all. It is not true that I do not enjoy classical Indian (both Hindustani and Carnatic style) even though I do not even know what sa re ga ma …. represent. In fact I even enjoy Western classical, closing my eyes and experiencing waves of snow settling down on face. I often go into trance listening to these pieces whereas sometime experts are actually distractions showing off there knowledge during the performance. How can you say that they enjoy more than I do?

    I agree that they have the advantage of salivating over the performance by discussing it thread bare with other experts but that would be extending the pleasure not enhancing it. Well, I can go watch movie and extend my pleasure…….

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:22h, 25 July Reply

      Anil: I feel this aspect has been addressed in the revised framework. The distinction between sensory enjoyment and technical appreciation helps in the resolution. The argument is not about comparing the level of sensory enjoyment. In fact, there is no way to compare these across individuals unless neuroscientists prove it otherwise. Your enjoyment can be as much or more than that of anyone else.

      The point being made is that there is also a dimension of technical appreciation that enables people to discuss, describe or dissect a performance. One is at liberty to say that one is content with sensory enjoyment and does not desire technical knowledge. There is nothing wrong with that choice. At the same time aspiring for such knowledge is also a legitimate choice that need not be equated with snobbery or showing off.

      We leave open the question of what kind of impact (good or bad), if any, technical knowledge has on sensory enjoyment. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We can only find out by discussing the subject with people involved in music and perhaps by designing some robust before and after learning interviews.

      Your last point takes us away from the issue. The objective is not to extend the quantum of pleasure by seeking it from various sources (e.g., from music and from a movie) but to see how much pleasure can be derived from one source (in our case, music). If one thinks of music as a source of pleasure the quest is to see how much pleasure can be derived from it just as some people wished to see how much water could be squeezed out of a stone. For myself, I feel that music has a lot more that it can give me if I were to make the effort. I guess I am looking for like-minded souls.

  • Coolkarni
    Posted at 16:11h, 24 July Reply

    And I was under the opinion that you had started from the top ….
    For, isn’t it only at the highest levels that one tries to see the reason for happiness. I was just trying to illustrate a few simple-bottom of the pyramid- issues in the context of enjoyment. Anyway I now get the full picture.Thanks.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 04:58h, 25 July Reply

      Coolkarni: Thanks for understanding. It will take us a while to get to the bottom of your pyramid. You have had the advantage of growing up with music.

  • DT
    Posted at 01:38h, 25 July Reply

    Why do you say:

    “………are frustrated at their inability to fully enjoy classical music, a part of our cultural heritage that has lasted thousands of years and is something we feel we should find a way to appreciate……”

    Do you know you are not enjoying classical music fully, or do you feel you are not doing so? What keeps you from the full enjoyment?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:48h, 25 July Reply

      DT: I believe I am not enjoying music fully because I do not have the necessary knowledge. My feelings, in turn, are affected by my sense of ignorance. One can never know these things for sure.

      An example might help explain what I am trying to convey. When I hear a particularly good verse of poetry, I enjoy it tremendously. But if I can’t recall whether the verse belonged to Gahlib or Mir, or the context in which it was composed, I feel a twinge of regret. If, in addition, I don’t comprehend some words or allusions in the verse, I feel a sense of loss. And these regrets and feelings of loss take something out of my enjoyment. I guess I should be able to keep the two things apart but I am afraid I can’t.

      This erosion of pleasure is accentuated in music simply because the stock of knowledge is so meager – if I can’t tell raagas A from B what is it that I am enjoying? Am I only pretending to enjoy something I don’t understand? These are existential questions and perhaps they define a personality type. Perhaps, the source of my enjoyment is mostly in unraveling the technical issues and I am imposing that bias on everyone else. Let’s see if people join in or fall away as this caravan proceeds on its quixotic quest.

  • DT
    Posted at 11:16h, 25 July Reply

    What if the technical issues are all unravelled in this lifetime and then memory starts to fail? And what about the up-close-and-personal reactions a person has when gazing at an abstract painting, often far from what the artist may have tried to convey (if indeed there was intent of content)?

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 15:21h, 25 July Reply

    DT: An individual has a finite span of time in life but life itself is not so limited. We channel our individual learning into the collective pool of knowledge which enriches our lives. That was the essence of the gharana tradition – now the opportunities are much greater. Recall what Sakuntala Narasimhan mentioned about BGAKs explication of Pahari. I also liked the way Arpita Chatterjee put it: “look for ways in which you can enrich yourself while at the same time spreading the knowledge that you have already acquired!”

    I have nothing against the up-close-and-personal reactions – far from it. But then the reactions are modified by additional knowledge – I have nothing against that either.

  • DT
    Posted at 16:20h, 25 July Reply

    So you KNOW you are not enjoying the music fully. And that knowledge influences your feeling? Hopelessly doomed then, to frustration, no?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:12h, 25 July Reply

      DT: One enters the world of music knowing well that a lifetime is not enough to fathom its depths. So the frustration is not in the negative sense of the term; rather, it is in the form of an endless striving, a journey in which one amazing discovery follows another. The thrill is in the discoveries – a feeling that Sakuntala Narasimhan has captured very well with the phrase “Achcha, yeh baat hai.”

  • DT
    Posted at 17:27h, 25 July Reply

    The same with physics. Good to know its all positive frustration which is the driver of this energy that you share – more lives or more of life (depending on one’s philosophical disposition), no matter the frustration. The magic of growth (for me) lies in that frustration and that longing and the endless striving.

  • Umair
    Posted at 12:46h, 26 July Reply

    “In this process we might also learn to tell one magician/musician from another. When the performer knows we know, he/she would avoid passing off noise as music and feel the need to work on his or her skills.”

    In my opinion this is one of the main reasons why the quality of music and musicians have declined in Pakistan. I also believe that such low quality musicians have given a bad impression to several first time listeners and discouraged them from the classical and folk traditions.

    Therefore, “knowledgeable listeners” will play a key role in the revival of quality music and musicians. This series can be very valuable to train a group of listeners as long as it remains user friendly.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 15:36h, 26 July Reply

      Umair: I will count on you to let me know as soon as the series deviates from its goal of user friendliness.

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