A Modern Introduction to Music – 5

By Anjum Altaf

It is time now to venture gingerly to the next stage in this modern introduction to music. I hope by the end of this post it would be clearer why the term ‘modern’ has been employed in the title.

Just as painting is the art of color, music is the art of sound. Painting is a visual art form; it is seen by the eyes. Music is an aural art form; it is heard by the ears. Music and sound are intertwined and so the first step in understanding music is to understand sound.

One thing should be obvious: While all music is sound, not all sound is music. In fact, most sound is not music; it is noise. So, our first question should be to ask: What is that turns some sounds into music so that they are pleasant to the ear while turning other sounds into noise that are unpleasant to the ear? I would like you to reflect on this question to which we shall return later in the series.

A second thing is a little less obvious: It is not that all pleasant sounds qualify as music. For example, the ringing of a bell is not unpleasant but it is not music. Try whistling something holding the breath steady; this is a pleasant enough sound but it is not music either. Now vary the pressure of the breath up and down and the sound might start approaching the quality of music. So, the second observation is that it is not just sound but variations in sound that go into the making of music. This is also something we shall return to later in the series.

Let us just stick to constant sounds for the moment to illustrate the key principle that lies beneath a very obvious fact – that you can identify the difference between two constant sounds, say between the constant ring of a bell and the constant hum of your whistling. You can also recognize the difference between the rings of two different types of bells. What is it that enables you to do so?

There is one attribute of sound with which we are very familiar and that is volume. We use the dial on the radio or TV to turn the volume up or down. The music we would be hearing would remain exactly the same only we would be hearing it louder or softer depending on the direction we rotate the dial.

But clearly, volume alone is not sufficient to distinguish between constant sounds. There must be some other attribute on which we rely to make the distinction. Let us illustrate this with an experiment. Suppose you have two friends of the same age and the same sex. They call you within a few minutes of each other and only say “hello.” Nine times out of ten you would be able to tell them apart. But you have not relied on volume to do so. They could say “hello” at exactly the same volume and you would still be able to tell them apart. What is the attribute of sound that you rely on to make this distinction?

Our musicians know this intuitively but they can’t explain it precisely because they have not studied the underlying theory. Listeners who have studied the physics of sound can also do it easily if they remember what they have studied. But the vast majority of listeners can tell different sounds apart without being able to understand or explain how they do so. It is to this end that I shall now devote my attention with careful subtlety, needless to say.

Let us carry this line of thought forward with a more elaborate experiment just to drive home the point I wish to make. Imagine you have seven children and they have the following names B21, G18, B14, G12, B9, G6 and B3. The alphabet refers to the gender of the child and the numbers to the age. Thus B14 is a fourteen year old boy. Now let all these children stand behind a curtain so that they are invisible to you but can be heard clearly. These children will only be allowed to make one sound (resembling the ‘aaaa’ that one is required to produce when a doctor is examining the throat) and they will make it at the same volume. Your task would be to identify a randomly selected child by this sound.

Let us begin with the easiest cases. First, you are told that the sound would be produced by either B21 or B3. There is no doubt you will be able to tell them apart because the sound produced by a 21 year old and a 3 year old are quite distinct even though they are both males. But what exactly is the difference?

Next, the pair would be B21 and G18. Again, this would be easy because although the age difference is small a male voice is typically quite different from that of a female. This is obvious but, once again, what is the difference?

We can progressively move to more difficult cases, say, separating the sounds produced by the pair (B21, B15) or the pair (G18, G12). You will conclude that there is something distinct about every sound and the question now is to figure out exactly how that difference comes about.

Let us consider how we describe the difference between a male and a female voice in everyday language. We use terms like gruff and shrill or low and high or flat and sharp to convey the difference. Thus, while volume is characterized by a spectrum between soft and loud, this second attribute is characterized by a spectrum between low and high or flat and sharp. Now all that remains is to describe this spectrum with more precision which we shall in a forthcoming post.

I would like you to do one more experiment before we conclude this post. This experiment is needed to illustrate the point that different sounds are not just produced by different individuals; you can also produce different sounds. You will see this intuitively if you are a male trying to fool a friend on the phone by pretending to be a female. You would have produced a sound quite different than your normal one. It would be a little more formal when you try and produce the sound ‘aaaa’ by breathing, in turn, from your diaphragm (or near the navel), from the throat, from the lips, and through the nose. If you do this right, every sound would be distinct. Our task remains to identify and describe the reason for these differences.

I hope it is now clear why I have called this a ‘modern’ introduction to music. It is because you would be approaching music via an understanding of sound and you would be entering the world of sound through the doorway of the physics of sound. Once you enter music through this portal you will have no problem understanding and answering all the questions that were posed at the end of the last installment and that are left unaddressed in traditional texts on Indian music.

More soon.


  • Sohail Kizilbash
    Posted at 15:08h, 31 July Reply

    Excellent approach Anjum. You have clarified some of the foggy notions. Rest will hopefully get clarified in the future.

  • Umair
    Posted at 05:52h, 03 August Reply

    Very interesting

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