A Modern Introduction to Music – 3

By Anjum Altaf

This is turning into a quirky introduction to music. Readers are keeping me pegged and, to be honest, I am quite happy to dally. This post too is part of the preamble in which I wish to dispel one myth and talk about one aspect of our musical culture that makes me particularly unhappy.

First, the myth. I hear again and again that music is a divine gift, that musicians are born not made, that good musicians come around once in centuries, and that the focus on knowledge and training is misplaced. I wonder why people are so averse to looking at the evidence. Do we belong to a culture that discounts facts, that believes more in providence and less in science, that is high on rhetoric and low on proof?
One look at the family tree of any musical gharana would show that good artists are not born once in many centuries but, given the right conditions, have followed one another with regularity. And, that there is an institutional structure, guru-shishya parampara, that enables the reproduction of skills based on a regimen of rigorous training.

Just this fact should be enough to dispel the misperception that artists are not created but are born with a divine gift from heaven. If this were indeed true, would one not find such artists randomly distributed throughout the population? This is obviously not the case. In fact, artists of merit have continued to emerge disproportionately out of the same families that adopted music as a profession, benefiting from early exposure and the systematic transfer of skills from one generation to another.

The bottom line is that good music can be learnt. For further evidence just look at regions and countries outside South Asia, say in Europe, the Americas and East Asia. Almost every school there has both a choir and a band, there are regular music competitions, and a network of conservatories exists for private training outside schools for the specially committed and talented. Out of these come a steady stream of outstanding musicians and the discriminating and knowledgeable pool of listeners and critics that demands a high quality of performance from the former. It is an interesting fact that almost half the students at Juilliard, the most prestigious academy of Western music in the US, are from China which has quite a different native tradition of music.

I hope you are semi-convinced that there is a place for learning for both performers and listeners. And I am going to argue later that the foundation of such learning is the language of classical music even if the performers and listeners are primarily interested in non-classical genres.

This brings me to the aspect of our musical culture that I am unhappy about. Do we have a language in which lay listeners can talk about music, classical or otherwise? Or are we just at the stage where we can attend a musical performance, enjoy it immensely, and be utterly unable to describe what we have heard? If we were to be asked by a friend about the performance would we be able to say something beyond the verdict that it was awesome or terrible? How far can we get in understanding something if we don’t have a vocabulary to talk about it?

Let me illustrate this with an example that I have tested time and again. I ask a lay audience of music lovers to tell me the difference between the voices of Lata and Noorjehan. Invariably I get told who is better and (surprise, surprise) this preference overlaps overwhelmingly with nationality. I tell the audience I am not testing for patriotism, I am not asking who is better; I am asking: What is the difference in their voices? If I give you the same song sung by the two would you be able to tell me how to distinguish one from the other?

Just to drive home the point, I ask the audience to describe the difference between a PC and a Mac. This too starts off with a polarization of those who think the one is better than the other. But here we make more progress when I push and ask why they think one is better than the other. We emerge with a set of attributes that pertain to things like functionality, user-friendliness, battery life, propensity to crash, availability of applications, etc., etc. The issue is not whether the loyalists are right or wrong; the point is that there is a vocabulary to talk sensibly about the subject.

I hope I have made the point. Without a language and a vocabulary that most people understand we cannot talk sensibly about music and I will concentrate my attention with careful subtlety to this end.

More later.

Just so readers have a sense of what I mean by vocabulary and attributes of music, I am linking a piece where the writer does precisely what I don’t really like – asking who is the better singer. Note that even in a popularity contest the judgment is based on a technical comparison of attributes and note the richness of the language in which these comparisons are made.

Re the concluding resolve to “concentrate my attention with careful subtlety to this end,” please direct your attention to this poem in prose by Eliot and note the language employed to describe a laugh. Read it aloud and see if you can imagine the scene from its brief description?


  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 15:30h, 28 July Reply

    What is talent then?

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:53h, 28 July

      Anil: This is a very general question but here is my take on it.

      I find it useful to discuss this separately for performers and spectators.

      For performers, there is little doubt that ability is distributed widely across individuals. Perhaps talent separates the very great from the just greats. But for the majority of the population ability has a relationship with application. A performer with less ability but more application can well end up a better performer than one with more ability and less application. Most of the time we just look at the outcomes and attribute them to inborn talent. Here ‘talent’ becomes just a lazy explanation because the hard work is not visible to us. There are many ways in which this reality has been expressed. For example, the saying: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Even Zola, who no doubt believed in talent, had this to say: “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without the work.”

      For spectators, I have yet to see someone born with the talent to understand the basics of any skill, sport, or game. All these have to be learned; some just learn faster than others but this more a function of interest than of talent. Children born to families of musicians learn it fastest simply because it is like their mother tongue; this is more a case of nurture than of nature.

      ‘Talent’ is grossly oversold.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 04:07h, 29 July Reply

    “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

    Clichés are alright but hard facts tell a different story. There are cases of six year old child beating masters in Chess, their family having nothing to do with Chess, Master Madan died at the age of 14 but sang with the maturity of a sixty year old, his Sikh family had nothing to with music


    Sachin Tendulkar played Test at the age of Sixteen, S Ramanujam died at the age of 32, Shankaracharya died at the age 33 how much time these greats got to work hard?

    There is the case of Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe one a naturally talented player and one who worked very hard to reach the top. Lendl’s game was boring, McEnroe’s magical.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:19h, 29 July

      Anil: I am not quarreling with that; I already said that there is something that separates the very greats from the just greats. How many more aberrations like these can you list? Every normal distribution has a tail with a handful of outliers. I am interested in the vast majority of the people and there it is the application that makes the difference.

      An interesting account of this phenomenon is in the book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers. Gladwell has popularized what is now called the 10,000 hour rule – that is the amount of practice hours one needs to put in to excel at anything and he has many anecdotes about people we think of as natural geniuses who had put in that time at a very early age.

  • Umair
    Posted at 09:02h, 29 July Reply

    You mentioned the “guru-shishya parampara”, will you be going into more details in such side note topics? Or maybe you can reference some other reading material on them.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 09:41h, 29 July

      Umair: The basic information, facts and history are available in many places and some are of very high order. But most of these assume some basic knowledge of music. What I have found missing in my own search is the first building block that enables one to take advantage easily of the many online resources. I had to create it for myself and am now experimenting with sharing it.

      The guru-shishya parampara and the history of the Indian oral tradition are very well explained on the ITC Sangeet Research Academy site which is one of the very best of its kind and one I recommend. Similarly, for those who have the basic knowledge and are impatient to learn about the various ragas, the ITC provides it in its Know Your Raga section. You will also find a glossary on this site.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 15:33h, 30 July Reply

    Are you suggesting that anyone with two good arms, two legs and average head can, with proper guidance and hard work, become great artist in any field he/she chooses?

    I think anyone can learn to become a good draftsman, musician or an actor etc. They will be able to copy any work of art but no one can be taught to create original piece of high standard. I think the creative inspiration comes instinctively.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 17:37h, 30 July

      Anil: I have two observations on your comment:

      1. This is the classic case of the counterfactual. How can your claim ever be proved false? Whenever you come across a great artist you will claim the creativity was instinctive.

      2. The emphasis on ‘greatness’ takes us away from the focus of this series. I am making the modest point that the majority of people (with two good arms, two legs and average head) can (with proper guidance and hard work) improve considerably from their existing levels in the fields of their interest.

      Let me add here a description from a recent book of Ghagge Khuda Baksh, one of the very greats of the Agra Gharana:

      The youngest son of Shyamrang (Quayam Khan), Ghagge Khuda Baksh, was a giant of musicians…. All the four sons of Shyamrang…. received a very sound talim of Dhrupad-Dhamar. As Khuda Baksh was born with an unmusical gruff voice, he was called ‘Ghagge’ and had become the laughing stock of the family. But he had great potential and will power. One day he left home and went to Gwalior. He received his training from Natthan Pir Baksh of the Gwalior Gharana, the great vocalist and court musician of Daulat Ram Scindhia, for about fourteen years. The Gwalior Gharana’s excellent training made him a famous musician with a resonant musical voice. He acquired such a mystic and amazing musical voice that his recitals often brought tears in the eyes of his listeners.

      Now, if the laughing stock of the family with the gruff unmusical voice had quit at that time no one would ever have heard of him again. But because he put in the time and the effort to overcome his handicaps, he can, in retrospect, be called a great whose creativity came instinctively.

  • Reshma Hingorani
    Posted at 17:15h, 30 November Reply

    I am linking a piece where… this link is corrupt…

  • Reshma Hingorani
    Posted at 17:40h, 30 November Reply

    some links are virus-infested – another one: “Outliers” in

    “An interesting account of this phenomenon is in the book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers. Gladwell has popularized what is now called the 10,000 hour rule”

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