A Modern Introduction to Music – 1

By Anjum Altaf

This is the first in a series of posts about understanding music. Understanding music is different from learning to become a performer. This is a distinction whose importance is often missed.

But why should one bother to understand music if one can enjoy it without understanding it?

Let me try and provide an answer via an analogy. Would you enjoy watching chess or cricket if you did not know the rules of the games? In all likelihood the answer would be in the negative. Music is obviously much more powerful in its impact compared to chess or cricket because it can be enjoyed without any knowledge of its rules. But the point to ponder is this: How much more does music have to offer? How much more would the enjoyment increase with greater familiarity with its principles, vocabulary, and grammar?

Think of another analogy. No one who can help it confines himself or herself to a lifetime of consuming plain food. Human beings enjoy making their meals tastier and rave about the special dishes they have had the pleasure of sampling. An ordinary meal would do the job of providing the daily requirement of calories but those who know the difference between a well-made dish and a not-so-well-made one are willing to make the effort to enjoy the former. This requires learning the rules of good cooking or at least being able to appreciate them.

Music is like that, too. There is a difference between good music and not-so-good music and it is difficult to pick up the difference without an understanding of the underlying rules. But a heightened musical experience is not the only reason to invest in learning its rules. There is another more mundane but equally important reason for doing so that pertains to the simple law of supply and demand. It is only the demand for good music based on the existence of discerning listeners that can ensure a supply a supply of good performers. Without a discerning audience, bad performers would drive out the good – only noise shall remain and by that time it might be too late to reverse the tide.

How difficult is to learn about music? Here the distinction mentioned in the first paragraph becomes relevant. It is indeed hard work becoming a good cricketer or chess player but it is not all that difficult to understand the rules of chess or cricket. It is the same with music. It is relatively quite easy to acquire the essential knowledge required to enhance the appreciation of music.

That, however, has not been the focus of our musical tradition which is oriented primarily to the training of performers. Students learn how to become good performers by long apprenticeships with teachers imbibing the skill through emulation. If they do pick up any theoretical knowledge it is a by-product and a function of their own curiosity. Often the best of the teachers are not able to explicate the essential aspects of music theory.

Thus the only route to music appreciation or music criticism is the prohibitively daunting one of first becoming a performer and even that does not guarantee the outcome. Is there an easier way of achieving the objective of producing a discerning listener? It is the premise of this series that there is and we shall devote our effort to that end in the posts that follow in this series.


  • Shreekant Gupta
    Posted at 03:57h, 19 July Reply

    Thank you for this interesting post. SPICMACAY in India is doing a commendable job in this regard.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:49h, 19 July

      Shreekant: SPIC-MACAY is indeed an exceptional initiative. My objective is to try and fill what I see as a gap. There are a significant number of people who self-select themselves into music, either by going to a teacher to learn or by attending lecture-demonstrations of the sort provided by SPIC-MACAY, or by listening or attending performances on their own accord. My interest is in people who are outside this set.

      There is no shortage of good knowledge or material on music. The teachers have a wealth of knowledge but till very recently they were not good at transferring it to people outside their physical circle. This is changing now with the new generation of literate and tech-savvy musicians. Still, I find the available texts assuming a certain prior knowledge as a starting point. I have often had people ask me: How does Indian music work? and I am trying to answer that question in a modern way starting from ground zero assuming no familiarity with any principles of music, Indian or otherwise. I am not sure how well I will succeed in a written format even though the results of one-on-one interactions are encouraging. Guidance and feedback from readers like you would be a critical input in the experiment.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 08:02h, 19 July Reply

    How much more would the enjoyment increase with greater familiarity with its principles, vocabulary, and grammar?

    I attended a 2.5 hour carnatic performance recently. I thought I’d feel it through my muslces and learn to appreciate it. I did, for 45 seconds. The rest of the time was like a hot iron rod thrust into my ears and poking at my skull. I then thought that I should try to wrap my intellect around it. I tried very hard. I only managed to hurt my head even more. I’m on the verge of giving up ever appreciating Indian classical music.

    Then I attended another musical art form – an acapella show. It was around 2 hours and I enjoyed about 1 hour of it. There were moments when my hair stood on end. At other times, I managed to distinguish the components of the performance and see how it came together. That intellectual pleasure made me stay.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 14:04h, 19 July

      Vinod: How realistic is the expectation that one should be able to feel music through the muscles and thereby appreciate it? Both music and dance cover the entire gamut from the informal to the very formal. We can all enjoy folk music or dance but the enjoyment decreases as we move across the spectrum to what are termed the classical forms. The reason is that the art forms become more and more rule-bound as we move across the spectrum. We have to know the rules in order to maintain the level of our enjoyment.

      Even performers of less rule-bound music (e.g., singing film songs or ghazals) do better if they know the rules and how and where they can relax them to advantage. That is why good and innovative performers invariably need training in the classical forms.

      My objective in this experiment is to see if I can communicate some sense of the basics of music and of the rules that would make a listener say: Aha! I see what the performer is trying to do here – just as a knowledgeable cricket fan sees a change in field placement and can anticipate the kind of ball the bowler is thinking of bowling (a good batsman should certainly know that). That level of involvement yields a very different kind of pleasure.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 01:49h, 20 July

      How realistic is the expectation that one should be able to feel music through the muscles and thereby appreciate it?

      It was Neitzche who said that music is heard through the muscles. Cognitive neuroscience has shown that to be somewhat true. The areas of the brain that control motor skills are also involved in the capacity to appreciate music. If I recall correctly, the same goes for language skills.


    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 06:01h, 20 July

      Vinod: This is partly correct but with an important caveat. The part of the brain that is involved in learning the first language is different from the one involved in learning new languages in adulthood. That is why learning foreign languages after childhood is so much more difficult than learning native languages that surround one in childhood.

      I would argue the same holds for music. The proof would be that children belonging to families of professional musicians invariably pick up a lot more than a control group of children in families without music. This is simply because they hear and talk about music all through their early years.

      You have anticipated some of the aspects of music I plan to discuss in this series, i.e., the extent to which music is a language akin to any other language. The interesting issues pertain to exploring the special features of the language of music.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 09:06h, 20 July

      The proof would be that children belonging to families of professional musicians invariably pick up a lot more than a control group of children in families without music.

      Fyi, this has already been established. I came across it in a research presentation by a neuroscientist. I wish I could get you the link for it. Can’t seem to find it now.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 09:26h, 20 July

      Vinod: I agree. The empirical evidence is so strong that additional proof is not required. What is required, perhaps, is an explanation although, for the moment, I am quite satisfied with the explanation we have offered.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 09:14h, 20 July

      Do you also notice a certain snobbishness creeping into the classicalists as they start to dismiss folk music or pop music? I wish I could approach one of them and tell them what a pain Indian classical music was to me. But then, their snobbishness gets in the way again and I’m dismissed with a “you are an uneducated fool unfit for the classical form”. At that moment, I helplessly feel like giving them the middle finger and walking off.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 09:38h, 20 July

      Vinod: Yes, the snobbishness is very clearly present. It is no different from the snobbishness of all those who feel they know more than others. The error is to presume that folk or pop are lesser forms of music. They are different genres but it is a fact that, in general, a performer with training in the rules of music (which in the Indian tradition are not taught independent of training in classical music although theoretically they can be) will be better in any genre than one without training. You can note this by comparing ghazal singers – the ones who are classically trained have greater longevity. Personally, I believe it needs more skills to sing a ghazal well than it does to sing a classical raaga.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 05:07h, 20 July Reply


    I notice evangelistic zeal in you to hammer home the idea of learning music to fully enjoy it. While I agree that learning music is desirable but disagree that it is necessary to enjoy music. I don’t subscribe to the view that not learning it deprives you of some high class pleasure. Both Chess and cricket are bad examples for comparison nevertheless you are wrong that basic knowledge of the game deprives pleasure of watching it. A game of chess at basic level where without strategy the players simply knock off each others pieces will give same degree of pleasure to the uninitiated as an accomplished player will draw from high a level game. The give and take is equal i.e. an expert will draw no pleasure from a basic game and similarly novice will find the exchange at high level incomprehensible. Learning also has some negatives.

    How can you quantify pleasure? Do you think pleasure derived by a connoisseur of music from a classical rendition of raga is more than the pleasure derived by the uninitiated instinctively from Lata Manghskar’s

    ‘aap ki nazron ne samjha……”

    If learning increases your horizon then it also deprives you of enjoying base music. There are some people who find it very hard to understand classical music. It is similar to the exasperation you get from a dyslexia child having difficulty in reading.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 06:37h, 20 July

      Anil: I started the post by making the point that music had the power to be enjoyed without knowing any of its rules – we know that babies begin to sway to its rhythm. The point I am making is that the enjoyment can increase with knowledge of the rules.

      You have misapplied the examples of chess and cricket. I am not comparing the levels of enjoyment of a novice and a professional. I am arguing that the level of understanding, and therefore of appreciation, of a novice, say in the game of chess, can increase with knowledge of the rules of the game.

      Your point about about music suffers from the same mistake of categories. I am not comparing the pleasure derived by a connoisseur with that of an uninitiated listener. I am interested in the degrees of pleasure derived by the uninitiated listener. Measuring such advances in appreciation should not present insurmountable hurdles. One can have a person who knows nothing about the game of chess watch a game and record his level of interest. One could then explain the rules, have him watch another game, and again record his level of interest. This is not as far-fetched as it seems – we have seen innumerable students from South Asia start off considering American football a bizarre sport and then get hooked on to it as they begin to understand its rules and strategies.

      If one fears losing the ability of enjoying the base level of anything, one should just forsake all learning. I don’t find your comparison valid: the inability to understand classical music, in the majority of cases, is a function of lack of knowledge; dyslexia is a learning disability affecting a minority.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 15:53h, 21 July

      First and foremost I am not disputing that learning to understand music is highly desirable. If we don’t make effort to learn it then it will be the end of not only evolution of music but beginning of its decline.

      Music is a lot more complex art form than a game of chess. Every individual has a threshold for understanding music. I have no statistics but none of my few acquaintances are familiar with the nitty-gritty of music and many including myself have seriously tried to understand at least the basics, without success. Yet we are all passionate lovers of music and I believe I enjoy it as much as anyone with deep knowledge of music. I have often seen experts forgetting the objective of their learning i.e. to appreciate it better and indulging in bitter debate over technicalities. If this is enjoyment then good luck to them!

      As a student I was average in all subjects but had the ability to visualize objects in three dimensions. I found it amazing that in engineering drawing even the best students and on one occasion even our instructor couldn’t visualize the object in three dimensions from its front and side views. You are lucky that understanding of music comes to you naturally, it is a gift.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 01:52h, 22 July

      Anil: Some of your arguments I don’t understand, some I disagree with, and some I find not relevant to the point under discussion. Nevertheless, I find your contribution valuable.

      You agree that “music is a lot more complex art form than a game of chess.” Yet we cannot fully appreciate something as simple as chess if we don’t know its rules. So, how can we do so for something that is much more complex? I presume what you intend (and with which I agree) is that music exerts a much more powerful sensory impact than chess so that one can enjoy it without knowing its rules. This does not mean that everyone’s appreciation of music would be at the same level irrespective of his/her level of knowledge. Passionate love is fine and much to be commended but it would not help much in describing a performance to one who was not physically present at a concert. I am not saying that everyone needs to do so but just citing this as something that can be a measure of different levels of appreciation.

      I disagree there every individual has has some fixed, immutable threshold for understanding music, a kind of quota that he/she was allocated at birth. This doesn’t hold true for anything else so why should it for music? And even if it is true, most people are well below their thresholds so that the room for increasing their understanding remains considerable.

      You have set up the straw man of the expert indulging in bitter debate over technicalities and then demolished it by equating this to enjoyment. I condemn it just as much as you and have nowhere said that the measure of enjoyment is bitter debate over technicalities.

      It is ironic that you have written “You are lucky that understanding of music comes to you naturally, it is a gift” immediately following the last comment in which an ethnomusicologist debunked the myth that musicality is a gift. I can cite both scientific evidence and personal experience in support. First, if musicality were indeed a divine gift one would expect to see it distributed randomly in the population. That is manifestly not the case – individuals born in families of professional musicians are much more adept at music which suggests that familiarity and early exposure are central to learning (as they are for native languages). Second, music did not come naturally to me and I had no gift for it – this was pointed out more often than I care to remember. Whatever little I know I have taught myself driven by the frustration of knowing so little and being so unmusical. I still don’t know much but it is a whole lot more than what I knew when I started.

      This myth of the natural divine gift is one of the most dangerous ones in South Asian society and one that stands in the way of self-learning. Even elsewhere there was once the prevalent belief that girls did not have a natural gift for science and maths. Luckily, that is being dispelled. It would go the same way in the case of the arts. I suppose some kind of genetic endowment or rare talent might separate the truly greats from the rest but, in general, it is possible to learn a great deal through application.

      In light of this useful discussion, I am going to modify the objective of the series. I am now going to stress the proposition that knowledge of the fundamentals helps increase the appreciation of music. This increased appreciation may or may not lead to increased enjoyment. I would leave the latter as a verdict to be delivered by those who follow this series to the end. This is a useful distinction and I thank you for pushing the argument – appreciation is a technical dimension while enjoyment is an emotional one and learning can have much more impact on the former compared to the latter.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 07:47h, 22 July

      psst…Anil. I was among those students who did very well in all subjects but barely cleared graphics.

      appreciation is a technical dimension while enjoyment is an emotional one

      I tend to think there is an overlap to an extent between the two, even conceptually.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 09:09h, 20 July

      I checked with other friends of mine who have no knowledge of classical music like me. One of them said that he can still enjoy it. He didn’t explain though. Another said that she can enjoy it because of familiarity with the sounds while growing up. A third non-Indian friend of mine mentioned a Western composer whose music is awful to hear (like the way I expereinced Carnatic music) but is greatly appreciated with awareness of the theory behind it.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 09:34h, 20 July

      This excerpt on the philosophy of aesthetics may interest you and Anil, as it did me. It is from the work ‘Principles of Psychology’ of William James, psychologist and philosopher. He believed the emotions were the minds perception of physiological conditions that result from some stimulus (one of the theories of emotions).

      Extract –

      [W]e must immediately insist that aesthetic emotion, pure and simple, the pleasure given us by certain lines and masses, and combinations of colors and sounds, is an absolutely sensational experience, an optical or auricular feeling that is primary, and not due to the repercussion backwards of other sensations elsewhere consecutively aroused. To this simple primary and immediate pleasure in certain pure sensations and harmonious combinations of them, there may, it is true, be added secondary pleasures; and in the practical enjoyment of works of art by the masses of mankind these secondary pleasures play a great part. The more classic one’s taste is, however, the less relatively important are the secondary pleasures felt to be, in comparison with those of the primary sensation as it comes in. Classicism and romanticism have their battles over this point. Complex suggestiveness, the awakening of vistas of memory and association, and the stirring of our flesh with picturesque mystery and gloom, make a work of art romantic. The classic taste brands these effects as coarse and tawdry, and prefers the naked beauty of the optical and auditory sensations, unadorned with frippery or foliage. To the romantic mind, on the contrary, the immediate beauty of these sensations seems dry and thin. I am of course not discussing which view is right, but only showing that the discrimination between the primary feeling of beauty, as a pure incoming sensible quality, and the secondary emotions which are grafted thereupon, is one that must be made.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 09:46h, 20 July

      Vinod: In the North Indian tradition this is a distinction that can be applied to the debate over the pristine purity of dhrupad compared to the adornments and embellishments that characterize khyaal.

  • Kabir
    Posted at 12:53h, 20 July Reply

    As someone who has studied both Hindustani and Western Music, I feel I can contribute something to the discussion.

    I grew up in the US and although I was always very interested in singing, Hindustani music did not immediately resonate with me. My parents used to take me to classical concerts and I used to fall asleep. In particular, I thought that the taans sounded like gargling. It was only after beginning to learn Hindustani classical that I began to appreciate the beauty of khayal. Once you realize how much technique goes into producing the taans, you begin to appreciate them better and even come to love them.

    The same applies to Western Music. Just as khayal is often boring and difficult for the uninitiated, opera often seems foreign and bizarre to people who aren’t used to it. Opera singers produce a very specific type of sound which doesn’t seem natural to most ears. It is only after learning the style that one can appreciate the technique behind it.

    The difference between Western Countries and the Subcontinent is that here all school children are exposed to some form of the arts. For example, to graduate from my high school, students had to complete one year of fine arts, whether painting, choir, orchestra, theatre, etc. Every high school has a band, choir, etc. Of course, most students who take these courses are not going to end up being musicians, but they will appreciate music and become the future audience.

    In the subcontinent, music training is not a regular part of the curriculum and is something that has to be sought out by those who are particularly interested in it. This contributes to a sense among the general public that music, particularly classical music, is somehow beyond them and not worth listening to.

  • Asad
    Posted at 13:35h, 21 July Reply

    On a different note, can someone tell me how I can subscribe to this series of articles? I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the text and the discussion that has followed, and would like to be up-to-date with the new articles as they come.

    From the Moderator: Asad, Welcome to the blog. You can join the blog on Facebook and track new articles as they are posted. I will also add you to the mailing list at thesouthasianidea@gmail.com.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 15:00h, 21 July Reply

    This is somewhat tangential to our series but still an interesting article to link here – Why Music is Good for You. Among other quotes, these are most relevant to our discussion:

    As neuroscientists Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, point out in a review published today in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, there is good evidence that music training reshapes the brain in ways that convey broader cognitive benefits.

    Yet all these benefits of music education have done rather little to alter a common perception that music is an optional extra to be offered only if children have the time and inclination. Ethnomusicologist John Blacking put it more damningly: we insist that musicality is a rare gift, so that music is to be created by a tiny minority for the passive consumption of the majority. Having spent years among African cultures that recognized no such distinctions, Blacking was appalled at the way this elitism labelled most people ‘unmusical’.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 04:13h, 22 July Reply

    In my view, enjoyment of music (as of other things) has several dimensions. It is partly sensory and physical – we tap our hands or feet and our bodies move in response to music. It also evokes various deep emotions in us. This can be extremely fulfilling and satisfying. But this is not all. Enjoyment can also have an intellectual component. This involves a deeper understanding of the rules and structure of music. This component can add substantially to our enjoyment just as with other things.

    An analogy might help. When we observe an ice skater who is rotating fold her arms in and suddenly start rotating much faster, it can be a thing of beauty to watch and it creates emotions of wonder and awe. But if we also realize that this is due to the conservation of angular momentum, this intellectual component can add quite a bit to our enjoyment.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 06:11h, 22 July

      Arun: You have put this well. For me, a large part of the enjoyment is in the anticipation. In billiards, or even in something as simple as carrom, the angle the player is going to use to get at an awkwardly placed target; in squash, the use of the walls; in chess, to think three or four moves ahead with the players; in music to wonder what combination of notes the performer would use to enunciate the same word for the nth time. And then to figure out why one missed something obvious if that turns out to be the case as it most often does.

      One of the major thrills for me is to recognize the raaga in which a film song or ghazal is composed. I invariably get pipped by my son who got an early start on music unlike me who only commenced his struggle late in adulthood. At one time, performers of classical music did not announce the raaga they were initiating and the audience used to compete to be among the first to pick it out. Now, audience discernment has decreased to such an extent that the practice has died – performers announce the raaga before starting.

  • Lavika Bhagat Singh
    Posted at 07:23h, 22 July Reply

    I really appreciate reading various points of view as they arise in the discussion initiated by you. Thanks!

  • Vinod
    Posted at 09:12h, 22 July Reply

    According to this research piece there are neural correlates in humans and macaques to dissonance and consonance in music.


    Good luck understanding it.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:12h, 22 July

      Vinod: Have you seen the Snowball videos on YouTube?

  • Sakuntala Narasimhan
    Posted at 09:26h, 22 July Reply


    I read your introductory comments and the discussions that followed. Here are my comments:

    1. Sure, one who understands the intricacies of music will enjoy it better — but there are two kinds of enjoyment, the purely aural and the intellectual (just as in cooking — there is the simple enjoyment of good food without bothering about what goes into it, and the other one of realising the intricacies involved in a complicated recipe, and appreciating this additional dimension).

    2. Apart from SPICMACAY, there is (at least in cities like Bangalore) a trend where lec-dems are proliferating, to produce what my ustad used to call “kaansens” (along with the performing Tansens). My book “All You Wanted to Know About Indian Classical Music – but didn’t know whom to ask,” was the result of a clamour (especially from Indians in the US) for a simple book for lay persons, to understand the intricacies, without jargon, for better appreciation. It has gone into three editions and is a best seller. “Achcha, yeh baath hai,” many lay audiences have said, after I have explained some technical point…

    3. I noticed the comment about Carnatic music — yes, it can seem like furious noises for the uninitiated, but that is why I have been asked so many times (including on radio and TV) to do self-jugalbandis, to show differences/similarities between the two systems…. so a certain amount of explanation does help widen the audiences for technically complicated music…

    4. Chess? For someone who understands nothing of the game, there can be NO enjoyment. Perhaps, that is not so, in football or gymnastics or high jump, but chess is different, there are no physical feats to admire sans the technicalities….

    5. Re: snootiness among classical musicians — there are artistes who are not snooty. I have with me a snippet of a recording where the late Bade Ghulam Ali Khan has explained about Pahadi raga, by first singing like a real rustic goatherd (fantastic!) and then singing the same phrases with classical touches, to show how raga Pahadi evolved from rustic mountain tunes. In a biography of Lata Mangeshkar, there is a description of how Khan saheb appreciated her film songs (without dismissing them as ‘light’).

    Ultimately, it all boils down to the need for ‘dialogue,’ and a genuine interest in understanding — whether it is music, or settling border disputes — a healthy interest in setting dialogues in motion, offers better chances of greater understanding and appreciation (and enrichment — let’s not forget that classical and light music enrich each other, it is not just a one-way traffic…)

    • Vinod
      Posted at 10:11h, 22 July

      Your book is going into my reading list. I’ve been hankering for an idiot’s Guide to Indian Classical music. I hope it’ll save Indian classical music for me.

  • coolkarni
    Posted at 07:34h, 24 July Reply

    Discerning Listener …. That is what Sakunthalaji has been trying to target through all her works i guess – these Kansens like me.
    I have always argued that while there are so many stories of performing artists being prodigies – starting at the age of two or three I have never come across a listener who could grasp it all at the age of two or three. I mean a prodigy of a listener.
    And have always wondered about it.
    I myself started listening, as a kid. Heard the likes of Rajaguru, Bhimsen Joshi, Lalgudi before I was 10. But I also once walked away from a concert of Doreswamy Iyengar because I did not like it then. It took me another 10 years to develop a taste for the likes of his music or MDR or say a Jagdeesh Prasad.
    And I have narrowed it down to one simple fact: There are artists who dazzle a whole spectrum of listeners and there are artists who appeal to a niche spectrum.
    Memory is a funny thing but for all the 30 years I had been thinking about a tape I had lost with Sakunthala Narasimhan’s Yaman on side A and Malkauns on Side B. I had never lost the effect she had created on my young mind.
    Public perception is yet another thing. I have argued time and again that we have moved from the era of amazing performers to the era of the exponent/interpreter. Lecdems in Chennai and Bangalore generally have a more consistent audience than the regular concerts. In the process of moving up from just being a Kansen, I am trying to be a performer myself, even if I can’t sing or play. But we do have the tools today to move up the ladder of appreciation, like never before in history.

  • Clarence Maloney
    Posted at 15:48h, 26 July Reply

    Can you ever imagine 100 Indians performing anything so intricate and complex and harmonious and exactly in rhythm as 100 members of a European orchestra, and repeating it with exactly the same subtlties again and again? You won’t like that harmony unless you have learned it. On the other hand, have you seen a German who could sing or play a stringed instrument with the subtlty and intricate variation and emotion of an Indian musician, with ever so subtle movement around a basic tone (which makes most harmony impossible)? Yes, there may be a few individuals, but on the whole the style of both European and Indian music evolved within and exactly fit the society and culture. Of course it has to be learned- which is why many Indian’s can’t stand Bach’s harmony and the harmonic progression, and most Westerners do not catch and appreciate the subtle human qualities of Indian music without long exposure.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 06:20h, 27 July

      Clarence Maloney: Thanks for the comment with which I agree completely. There is absolutely no doubt that a performer cannot acquire a different musical tradition without considerable learning and training. The discussion in this series, for the moment, is focused on whether a listener has to undergo similar training to enjoy the music of a tradition different from his or her own. My position is the same as yours and seems obvious to me. However, it is being disputed by some participants and we have to try and get a sense of the reasons for their misgivings.

      When I read the history of British India, I repeatedly come across personal accounts that mention how strange the writers found Indian music at the outset and how many of them got to like and enjoy it over time. This is a process of familiarization or what you term “long exposure” and while familiarization is not the same as formal training it is still a variant in which one picks up the logic and ethos of an alien tradition over time. In one of the posts, I had given the example of the familiarization of South Asians with American football; it is exactly the same process.

      On the blog there is an exploration (albeit informal) of the differences between the Western and the Indian traditions of music and it would be great if you could add your insights there. The series (still incomplete) comprises the first five posts listed under ‘Music’ here.

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