A Modern Introduction to Music – 14

By Anjum Altaf

We have completed two stages in this series – the physics of sound in general and the technical foundation of musical sound in particular. These give us an understanding of the fundamental building blocks of music (the swaras) and of how they fit together according to the principle of intervals or ‘musical distance’. With this understanding we are ready to explore how music is constructed.

Many more good textbooks are available in this domain although I find them heavy on content and information and a bit light on communicating the intuition and concepts. I will therefore continue this somewhat off-beat introduction that seeks to reproduce my personal struggles and discoveries and the ways in which I pieced them together. Readers should keep in mind that my interest was primarily in understanding and not in learning music. All I can say in defense of the approach is that such understanding need not come in the way of learning if the latter is the objective.

The first thing I want to stress is that music is about sound. This seems like a statement of the obvious but I find enough confusion to decide to use this as a starting point in discussing the edifice of music. The obviousness of the statement should be evident from our experience of instrumental music that comprises of nothing beyond syllables of pure sound combined in various ways.

The confusion stems from our perception of vocal music that remains the dominant genre in Indian music. One of our popular vernacular equivalents for music is the term ‘gaana’ which also translates back into the English word ‘song’. This confusion is most marked in Pakistan where the decline in musical knowledge has been the steepest. I have often heard the ghazal singing of Mehdi Hasan referred to as classical music.

Mehdi Hasan does sing ghazals in a classical style but that does not transform the singing of ghazal into classical music. The distinction between words and music is important to grasp. Any set of words, be it a ghazal or a nazm or a geet, can be set to music but the two remain distinct entities even as they combine to yield a pleasurable experience.

I conceptualize this distinction by thinking of a spectrum with pure sound syllables (the aakaar, ‘aaa’, at different frequencies) at one end and pure words of any language at the other. Let us consider a ghazal again at the latter end of the spectrum. We can engage with the ghazal in many ways – we can look at it on a printed page, we can read it in our mind without verbalizing it, we can read it under the breath or aloud, we can declaim it as in a musha’ira, we can sing it without any accompanying instrumental sound (as in the singing of religious na’ats in Islam or chanting in other religions), or we can set it to music.

Irrespective of what we do, the goodness or badness of the ghazal resides in its meaning and the elegance of the language used. The music is intended to enhance the listening pleasure but good music cannot transform a poor ghazal into a good one (just as clothes do not make a man or jewels a woman) – the text has to stand on its own strength.

We thus need to distinguish between the essential and the auxiliary: What is the core and what is the adornment that is intended to enhance the attractiveness of the core? With this in mind we can reinterpret the two ends of the spectrum mentioned above. At one end the syllables of pure sound are the core elements; the words, if any, are the adornments that serve a limited function. At the other end, the words are the core and the music the adornment that is not essential to an understanding of the meaning of the words. As we move along the spectrum, from one end to the other, words gain in importance and become more and more integral to the output being produced.

I put classical music at the end where words are inessential and mostly for ornamental purpose (we will discuss their limited functions later). As we move along the spectrum, the music gets ‘lighter’ as it becomes increasingly weighted with words. In this perspective ‘light’ music is not any less important or interesting than classical music; it differs in the sense that the words are essential to its enjoyment. Thus, it is difficult to imagine the ‘light classical’ genre without words, let alone a geet or a ghazal. It is just as difficult to imagine the ‘light classical’ genre without the accompaniment of musical sound although it is easy to do so for geets and ghazals.

Thus, the spectrum has pure classical music at one end where words are ornaments, light-classical genres in the middle where both the words and the musical sounds have a role, and pure text-based genres at the other end where musical sound serves an ornamental purpose. Based on this perspective, I will later make several provocative counter-intuitive claims to invite a discussion that should serve to strengthen our understanding: that it might actually be more difficult to sing a ghazal well than to render a classical piece; that classical music is primarily skill-based while the lighter genres incorporate elements of art and interpretation; that the quality of voice, as we generally understand it, might be much more important for singing ghazals than for rendering classical music; and that, paradoxically, notwithstanding the above, it is training in classical music that provides the foundation for good singing of the light classical genres.

Having gotten this out of the way, we will explore next how classical music is constructed with syllables of pure sound and the way simple and often meaningless words are used for embellishment. At this point I have a request. I want readers to watch a seemingly unrelated video clip on YouTube (turn the music off). I will be using this to motivate an understanding of the nature of classical music. You can think about the analogies I might wish to draw and try and anticipate the direction in which we might be headed.

More soon.

Listen to the first 2 minutes of this clip of Rashid Khan and the first 3 minutes of this clip by Parween Sultana to get a sense of music comprising only syllables of pure sound with no word accompaniment. There are some excellent extended recordings of this part (alaap) of a performance of classical music but unfortunately they are not uploaded on YouTube. Is this an indication that the primary interest of listeners is in words?


  • Vinod
    Posted at 08:17h, 30 August Reply

    I can’t wait till you explain the theory further. I still have no aesthetic liking for the Parveen Sultanas and the Khans. I still despise it. But your theory is quite interestingly awakening the aesthetic sense in me. And I’m losing patience. Faster Anjum, faster. Bring on the next parts.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:01h, 30 August

      Vinod: Only for you, since you are so keen, I am jumping ahead to give you a preview of what is in store. Watch this clip on YouTube and many of the questions you posed in the earlier comment would be answered. If you have questions remaining or new questions after watching, we will address them later.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 08:44h, 30 August Reply

    Another thing I’m hoping to discover is why I so strongly dislike the sound of the tabla. I cant stand old Hindi songs because of that obnoxious instrument. I hope to be able to either have a theoretical understanding of this and even better to be able to start to like it.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 23:53h, 30 August

      Vinod: You would have noted that I have not mentioned the tabla yet although most introductions begin with sur and taal. At some point I will give my perspective on why the tabla is needed. At that time you might begin to appreciate it although you may still not like it. There are quite a few things we appreciate but don’t necessarily like.

  • Clarence Maloney
    Posted at 11:49h, 31 August Reply

    Best analysis of the difference between classical and “popular” music that I have read. I will convey it to my children. Thanks.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 11:41h, 01 September

      Clarence: That is an exceedingly generous comment – thanks. I have long been interested in the stylization of popular genres into classical forms. Clearly the process involves shedding everything that is superfluous till only an essential core is left. In the Indian context, words are deemed the most expendable. In the popular genre one needs to tell the story to tell a story. In a classical dance, like Bharatnatyam, the story is all in the movement – the mere arch of the eyebrow will suffice for the narrative. Classical music, likewise, is all sound and the emotion is to be derived from the particular combinations of notes. In this process, the popular story gets immensely enriched because the arch of the eyebrow and the appeal of the notes can be interpreted variously by different viewers – they embed many stories or possibilities. I presume Kabuki and Noh must be similar though I am not conversant with the traditions.

      An analogy that comes to mind is that the Buddha migrated from the popular to the classical when he gave up everything that one associates with the popular – home, family, comfort, power, etc. – and embarked on the search for the essence of life. The concept of ‘atman’ in Hindu philosophy or the Sufi ideal in Islamic thought reflect similar quests.

      One implication, at least for me, is that the classical forms are not intended for entertainment. Many people turn away from the classical arts because they are mistaken in their expectations. It is more a quest for some ideal of perfection that engages the mind and invites the effort to discern.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:10h, 02 September

      One implication, at least for me, is that the classical forms are not intended for entertainment.

      I couldn’t agree more. This was my impression of classical music as well. That is why when I was asked at the end of a classical concert (the Carnatic type) on whether I enjoyed it I had the right answer – “I am not educated enough in this to appreciate it”. And that is why I am sceptical of the head-shaking that the audience displays. Do they really understand it or are they putting up a pretense?

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 17:31h, 01 September Reply


    How do you analyze certain types of rock music where there is basically a lot of noise and shouting and where it is almost impossible to discern the words? I doubt anyone is able to tell what words are being sung. On the other hand, in opera the translation of the words is made available. Does this mean the issue of words is different or just less straightforward in Western music?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 19:29h, 01 September

      Arun: My interest is in the stylization that occurs in the transformation of popular genres to classical forms. Since rock remains at the popular end of the spectrum, it doesn’t figure in this discussion. Opera, on the other hand, presents a very clear mode of stylization. It is different from the kind of stylization familiar to us because there seems no equivalent in the Western tradition of vocalization in which words serve merely as ornaments or are inessential (as in the tarana). In its own right it remains a unique and very interesting mode of stylization. I hope someone with more knowledge of the Western tradition can add to this discussion.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:13h, 02 September


      My 2 cents take on rock music, particulary the heavy metal sub-genre:

      Rock music does have words and some people (not me) can discern them. Rock music, I think, is based on distorting classical rules of music. In a sense it is meant to be dystopic and destructive in mood. Music is to be discerned by the titillation, not of the good and constructive side of human nature, but of the darker sides.

      If one can maintain an emotional disconnect from rock music one can appreciate how music can occur in our darker natures as well. That is the beauty of rock.

      And yes, it is risky business getting into it. The immatures can get easily sucked into it emotionally and commit illicit acts.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 23:37h, 02 September

      Vinod: I am reluctant to endorse the position that rock music is based on distorting classical rules of music because that is liable to cause confusion. It is indeed a valid perspective that the popular genres are the least rule-bound. The rules get tighter till one gets to the classical end of the spectrum where they are almost sacrosanct. In this framework, it is simpler and more accurate to think of rock as a popular form that is not overly constrained by rules rather than as a deviation or distortion of a classical form. This characterization has no bearing on whether one likes rock or not.

  • Reshma Hingorani
    Posted at 22:23h, 30 November Reply

    dear anjum,

    this series is too valuable for me to have links which don’t work anymore because i feel i’m missing important connections between different parts in the series. please replace them or at least give the title so i may search the web for alternatives. there are several but one such is:

    “At this point I have a request. I want readers to watch a seemingly unrelated video clip on YouTube (turn the music off)”.


    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 03:34h, 01 December

      Reshma: This series was written quite some years back so it is not surprising if some of the links are broken. I will go through the posts again and see how many I can fix. Meanwhile, thanks for your interest.

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