An Idiot’s Guide to Music – 1

By Anjum Altaf

I call architecture frozen music – Goethe

I stumbled upon this quote as a teenager and fell in love with it without understanding it at all, a phenomenon not uncommon as I learnt later when I fell in love with a human being – loving and hating comes so much easier than understanding.

The quote stayed with me for years – stuck in diaries, propped up on desks, hanging from walls, scribbled in notes to people I loved but did not understand – without yielding its mystery. The only thing I can claim credit for is that I did not stop searching for an answer.

An answer suggested itself, at least I think it did, decades later in a piece of writing by Yehudi Menuhin. Why did it take so long? I guess I was an untypical South Asian teenager who read a lot by virtue of being born in a house overflowing with books (but with no music). Within this set of untypical teenagers I was quite typical in that almost all my reading was in English and virtually none in any South Asian language. So there I was, familiar with Western literature but completely ignorant of Western music; familiar with the sounds of South Asian music but ignorant of South Asian literature.

Imagine Macaulay’s child, a babu-in-the-making, staring at a quote by Goethe: I call architecture frozen music.

To give the devil its due, there is some mileage in reading as I learnt from reading Yehudi Menuhin. Menuhin must have loved and understood Indian music because it was he who introduced it to the West in the person of Ali Akbar Khan calling him one of the great musicians, if not the greatest musician, of his times.

There is no way a babu-in-the-making can solve the mystery of Goethe’s quote without being extraordinarily lucky or knowing both Western and Indian music. This was the clue I found in Menuhin’s writing on classical music: Western music is on the notes; Indian music is between the notes. Not enough, but something to work with, something to build on.

That something came accidentally in a performance by Wasifuddin Dagar. Perhaps sensing a nonplussed audience, he stopped, spread out his palm, touched the tips of his digits and said: “These are the notes.” Then he pointed to the gaps between the digits: “And these are the spaces between the notes.” Dramatic pause. “The notes are of no importance – they are just resting places for the music. All the music is made in the spaces between the notes.”

Yehudi Menuhin: “Western classical music is on the notes.”
Wasifuddin Dagar: “Indian classical music is between the notes.”

What could I make of this? In my mind I configured two ways to work with this information: first to think in mechanical terms how the music might actually be made; second, to try and get a visual sense of that process.

Think of the primary instrument in Western classical music as belonging to the keyboard family – the organ or the piano. (South Asians can think of the harmonium; and no, the harmonium is not a South Asian instrument.) Now think how you can go from one note to an adjacent note on a keyboard instrument. You play one note and then you play the next note. You can vary the speed at which you go from one to the other, you can vary the loudness with which you play either note, and you can skip notes. That just about exhausts the possibilities (at least from the base of ignorance from where I was starting).

Now think of the human body as the primary instrument in Indian classical music (or of the sarangi which comes closest to mimicking the human voice). If the music is made in going from one note to the next, the number of possible paths is infinite (imagine joining two points on a sheet of paper by a line). In how many ways can you land on the next note? You can approach it directly (the shortest path), from above, from below, you can do a cartwheel before you descend – the human voice is so incredibly malleable.

I tried to picture this music making by visualizing the movement between two points, one higher than the other. Imagine a high diving board. The diver can dive straight into the water or show his or her mastery by doing twists and turns on the way. Indian music is not about the straight dive – it is all about the twists and turns in the journey between the two points; the better the artist, the more intricate the dive.

Now imagine the same two points connected by a staircase. One can do an intricate dance going from the top to the bottom; back and forth on the first two steps, a leap to the fourth, back to the second, a quick jump to the fifth, and so on. This was my visual image of Western music making; the better the music, the more intricate the dance.

But we are not done yet. Remember the keyboard player has two hands and ten digits; he or she can play more than one note at the same time. The human body has only one throat; it can produce only one note at a time. This is an essential difference between Western and Indian classical music.

And now I can go back to Goethe via Yehudi Menuhin, Wasifuddin Dagar, and the convoluted images. Western music is played on the notes but many notes can be played at the same time, some loudly, some softly, some rapidly, some slowly. Think of the amplitude of a note in terms of the height of a column of bricks on that note and the choice of notes played at any moment as the crossbars between the columns – you might be able to imagine a building with a number of blocks of varying heights. If you freeze the music at any instant you might visualize a building of a particular shape and form, perhaps with soaring columns and artistic cantilevers if you give the imagination sufficient leeway.

Indian music is played between the notes but only one intricate path can be traced at any one time. If you stop the music you might visualize a delicate string frozen in a unique pattern rather like an abstract line on a canvas.

I call architecture frozen music was not about all music; it was about Goethe’s music. If Tansen had said something similar he might have said: I call painting frozen music. And that might have made more sense to a South Asian.

How many other things there must be that we love or hate without understanding? How desperately do we need the tools to understand so that we may fathom the roots of our emotions?

The second post in this series is here.


  • William Harvey
    Posted at 01:14h, 03 August Reply

    A brilliant assessment of the difference between Western and Indian music. I particularly like the contrast in two metaphors for “frozen music”: architecture vs. painting. Thank you for this.

  • Taimur Khan
    Posted at 08:09h, 03 August Reply

    Thanks for sharing this very nice article. Between the notes makes sense, and Parrikar says something similar: “sur is the tonal space around a note”.

    This quote by Goethe has also been my favorite. I can relate to it, and for someone who has been through the desi learning process, sangeet has a lot to do with phrases, time measures, and proportions – take time out and it would become petrified, in a manner of speaking. So, the quote is not irrelevant for any sort of music.

    The fluidity of transitions amusingly reminds me of this verse:

    nah puuchh be-;xvudii-e ((aish-e maqdam-e sailaab
    kih naachte hai;N pa;Re sar bah sar dar-o-diivaar

    1) don’t ask about the self-lessness of the enjoyment of the coming of the flood
    2) for/since they dance, fallen, end to end– doors and walls

    Hating or loving (facets of each other) without understanding is a natural phenomenon which Buddha tried to remedy in his own way. It is the narrowness of either that suffocates or destroys – as you say, we must try to understand the roots of our emotions. Otherwise, there are certain aspects of decency and sympathy which bring the world together at large, and then there are certain differences that separate us into smaller groups who share specific interests. Commonalities are morally important and differences aesthetically. Our likes and dislikes portray us. For instance, I could remorselessly realize that I hate my neighbor – based on certain reasons and feelings which will also reflect my character and win me sympathy of one individual or cost the disappointment of another – but I must not harm her on that account or state that she is worthy of universal hatred.

    Warm regards,


    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 21:21h, 04 August

      Taimur: In your comment I found the following sentence critical: “Commonalities are morally important and differences aesthetically.” The implication is that there is a genuine place for differences and we need not always strive to eliminate them – to compel the ‘Other’ to become like ‘Us’ because we are either right or superior.

      Music exmplifies this: the Western and Indian classical music traditions are very different but they are both incredibly rich and beautiful. It would be a great loss if either one of them were to disappear. It would be silly to argue that one is better or more complex or more pleasing than the other. Here we would separate judgement (to which we are entitled) from criticism (and the urge to alter the Other). This is the subtle point that Gandhi advocated in his conception of non-violence.

      The analogy should hold for people as well, shouldn’t it? And it should seem equally silly to argue the contrary, but it doesn’t. We share a commonality as human beings and our diveristy is important and to be celebrated. The urge to always think of the ‘Other’ in some rank ordering of purity needs to be resisted. This does not come easily. But from our example of music we can see that it is the only sensible position to adopt.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 08:11h, 03 August Reply

    I get the impression that when talking about Western music you have the instruments in mind and when talking about Indian music you have singing in mind. Are you making a complete or even a proper apples-to-apples comparison?

    Now imagine the same two points connected by a staircase. One can do an intricate dance going from the top to the bottom; back and forth on the first two steps, a leap to the fourth, back to the second, a quick jump to the fifth, and so on. This was my visual image of Western music making; the better the music, the more intricate the dance.

    But we are not done yet. Remember the keyboard player has two hands and ten digits; he or she can play more than one note at the same time. The human body has only one throat; it can produce only one note at a time. This is an essential difference between Western and Indian classical music.

    I wish you could have constructed an allegory for Indian music as well. That would have brought out the differnce with Western music with more clarity.

  • Hajikulkul
    Posted at 09:17h, 03 August Reply

    Excellent. Man this is so WOW. They way you have explained the words of Goethe makes it so easy to understand for an idiot like me who has little taste of music or architecture.

    I am certain you will find time to enlighten us with your views on the saying; “Dance Aazaa Ki Shairi Hay”

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 02:32h, 04 August

      Haji: I am glad the post made some sense. The reason I like these interactions is that most of the time its a win-win proposition. I really felt there must be a similar saying in South Asia given that the culture is suffused with poetry, music, and dance. Thanks for filling the gap with “Raqs aazaa ki shairi hay” (dance is the poetry of the limbs). Do you know who is supposed to have said that? It seems very much in the spirit of Josh Maleehabadi. If not, it could be from Wajid Ali Shah in Oudh.

      I like the dance that goes with the poetics of the ghazal, i.e., one that is bound by rhyme and meter. Such a dance reflects balance and symmetry above all – most of our classical dances seem that way to me. Modern dance, on the other hand, would go better with free verse where one line could be much longer than the other. Often when a modern dancer starts running in one direction it seems as if she/he won’t turn back. And I often wish for that to happen. As you might guess, I am not much for contemporary dance.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 09:32h, 03 August Reply

    Vinod: I don’t know much about music but am sharing my ignorance so that others can help me learn. The reason for my choices was that when you think of Western music the names that are legends are all of composers – Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, etc. You can rarely put the name of a vocalist in the same category (barring a few from opera). When you think of Indian music the names of the legends are all of vocalists – Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, Fayyaz Khan. You can rarely put the name of a composer in the same category. This suggests to me that voice has primacy in Indian music – instruments only accompany the voice and try to be second-best imitations. I know this is changing but I am talking of the tradition. The tradition of Western music is very different – it seems instrument- and not voice-based to me. Music is composed for particular instruments. The ethos of Western and Indian music seems quite different but both are inspirational at their best.

    On the analogy, I tried to think of Indian music in terms of the high-board diver executing intricate patterns (flips, loops, somersaults, twists, turns) on the smooth slide down (the octave). This is different from the leaps from one step to the other. To my (untrained) ear Indian music slides while Western music jumps. Listen to this old song based on Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and you will get a sense of what I mean. Its popularity stemmed from the fact that the music was so unfamiliar and yet so beautiful.

    • Shailendra
      Posted at 21:59h, 16 January

      In an oversimplified sense, Western Classical music is largely based upon harmonic (two or more notes played at the same time) movement and counterpoint (two or more different melodies playing simultaneously). Hence the multiple voices (of instruments, or of the choir) are given independence from one another, yet they work in cohesion. The music is often rehearsed, very rarely improvised, hence the compositions are written in ink (or frozen in time, so to speak), and are uniquely credited to said composers.

      Indian Classical music, on the other hand, is mostly improvised and spontaneous. It is in some ways, similar to Jazz, where each performance is improvised based on the chord ‘changes’ of some standard tune. In Indian music, the “standard” could be a specific composition in a raga, or just the raga itself. No two performances on the same raga would ever sound identical. Indian music is mostly melodic and rhythmic, with almost a total absence of harmony. Since much of the music is improvised, composers, if any, are rarely remembered by name.

      I would disagree that one finds the mention of mostly vocalists in Indian classical; in fact there are far too many popular instrumentalists who have become household names, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Allahrakha, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ustad Bismillah Khan, to name a few.
      Western classical too has famous performers; more recently like Yehudi Menuhin and Itzhak Perlman. However, great composers tend to be “immortalized”, and that is why we get to hear compositions of Pachelbel, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Paganini, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy etc, etc. played with the same instruction and respect even today.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 22:19h, 03 August Reply

    I do not understand either Indian or Western music much but my impression is that two basic differences have to do with the scale and the notes.

    Regarding the scale, the Western scale is equally spaced between notes: if the frequency of the lower “sa” is n, then the frequency of the next upper “sa” is 2n, and since the spaces have to be equal, the following equation follows from the seven notes in between – n.x.x.x.x.x.x.x = 2n. That is, x is the constant ratio between successive notes: re/sa = ga/re = ma/ga = pa/ma = dha/pn = ni/dha = sa/ni = x. So if the lower sa is n, the re following it will be nx, the ga following it will be nxx etc. This results in the spacing between two successive notes being an irrational number (x = the 7th root of 2). The Indian scale has different spacings between successive notes so the ratio is always rational. I believe this change was made in the Western scale around the time of Bach. So the first difference is that the notes are not identical in the two scales though one has to be an expert to tell.

    A second important difference is in the notes themselves: the Indian scale is divided into 22 “srutis” or microtones whereas the Western scale is divided into 12 notes. My understanding is that both systems of music rely on notes or tones but because the Indian system is more finely divided it is more fluid (e.g. “meend” in the sitar or similar instrument which can touch upon intermediate srutis that occur between two successive frets – just as the voice can of course). I don’t think the music is “between the tones” so I was surprised to hear what Wasifuddin Dagar said. Maybe he just meant to refer to the microtones some of which do occur between the main tones (sa-re-ga-ma etc.) of the scale.

    Of course, this is just my impression. And there are obviously many other differences like that of chords vs. single notes and so on.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 18:07h, 05 August

      Arun: First a preamble for those who might find it odd (or unbecoming) for the musically semi-literate to be engaging in discussions like these. One can be embarrassed at one’s ignorance or prefer to seek knowledge; the knowledgeable can be annoyed at the prattle of the ignorant or seek to bring them up to their own standard. These are personal choices and mine is dictated by my limitations. I missed out acquiring this knowledge at school and I can’t get it from textbooks on Indian music because they presume too high a starting point. I can’t get it from the Ustads either because there is no tradition of teaching theory – one just learns by doing. So, there is no other way to learn except from others who know more and are generous with their knowledge and tolerant of those who lack it.

      Now to the points you have raised and the state of my knowledge regarding them. You are right in the technical differences but the point I was making was a different one. My point was that the nature of the transition from one note to the other is different in Western and Indian music. That remains the case whether the scale is divided into 12 or 22 intervals and whether the intervals are equally spaced or not. The violin can be tuned in either way but the playing of Pandit VG Jog would sound very different from that of Yehudi Menuhin. My feeling is that the difference arises from the nature of the transitions – the slide is an integral part of Indian music but is only used for special effect in Western music. This is also a reason (it seems to me) that Western music can be written but Indian music can’t. In the former the transition is fairly standardized varying only in amplitude (loud or soft) and tempo (fast or slow). In the latter, it can loop around in many ways at the discretion of the artist.

      It is worth noting that there is no keyboard instrument in the Indian tradition while the piano and its predecessors have such a central role in Western music. The keyboard effectively turns a continuous frequency spectrum into discrete notes thus limiting what can be accomplished in the transition from one note to the other.

      Regarding the technical points, the standard Western scale now is the chromatic equal tempered scale – 12 notes each at an equal interval from the other so that x is the 12th root of 2. The equal tempered scale is convenient because one can transpose the key and the intervals remain the same although it does sacrifice some purity of sound by deviating from frequencies generated by the ratios of rational numbers which sound better to the ear. Any other scale would require the instrument to be tuned afresh when the key is transposed.

      These days almost all Hindustani classical music is accompanied by the harmonium which has twelve keys per octave. It is possible for the harmonium to be tuned to the rational intervals but I doubt that is the case because I see the same harmonium being used by performers using different keys as the tonic. The only performers who don’t use the harmonium (or even the sarangi) are the Dhrupad singers who rely only on the drone for accompaniment – they could well be the purists as far as the delineation of intervals is concerned. Carnatic music also avoids the harmonium relying much more on the violin which is very flexible as far as variations in tuning are concerned. Input from those familiar with the tradition is needed.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:06h, 05 August

      Independence Day is drawing close and we are also talking of the mix of Indian and Western music. This tribute is most appropriate. I have heard Saskia Rao live on the modified cello and it was without doubt a musically moving experience. You can read about the instrument and hear some clips here.

      Aakar Patel has sent this link to the Hindustani Piano – a very pleasant surprise. More details are here.

  • Aakar Patel
    Posted at 07:38h, 04 August Reply
  • Sheema Kermani
    Posted at 16:54h, 04 August Reply

    I have often thought of the relationship of dance with architecture – the moment of pause or freeze in the dance and then the movement in space, how the body changes the space around all of this is so connected to concepts in architecture. Besides this the classical repertoire is designed in a sense in a way where each item follows as a build up to a crescendo – very gothic imagery perhaps. The quotation that you are talking about also reminds me of what Josh Maleehabadi said about dance “Raqs Aaza ki shairi hae!”

    As a student I was looking at temples and churches and mosques with their architectural sweep upwards and I always felt a link in my dance movements, the arms reaching above the head as if framing an arch.

    Recently I had a student from NED studying architecture asked me to supervise her thesis on the relationship of dance with architecture and she came up with some very interesting ideas.

    Sheema Kermani

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 19:20h, 05 August

      There is a comment on this post by Sheema Kermani which means a lot. Sheema Kermani is iconic – for those who know, she symbolizes the last quarter century in Pakistan almost in the same way as the dancing girl symbolizes the Indus Valley civilization. Her devotion to the arts and courage in adversity are legendary. You can find more about her on Youtube. Many thanks, Sheema.

  • yayaver
    Posted at 17:23h, 04 August Reply

    You can find collection of weblinks about classical Indian music.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 03:24h, 05 August Reply

    A point to note – South India has Carnatic music which I’m told is quite different from Hindustani music of the north, which is what many of the commentators here seem to have in mind.

    I personally despise both.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 16:40h, 05 August


  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 23:16h, 05 August Reply

    Reflecting some more on this based on your detailed discussion, I am left with the following question. But before I state it, I want to reiterate that this is a technical area and I know very little about it.

    The question that arises is as follows. I agree that Indian music is more “continuous” and “fluid” than Western music. But this fluidity can be understood in either of two ways:

    1. If a singer or sitarist wants to express a “sa”, then Indian music unlike Western music offers a range of ways to do it other than amplitude or tempo. For example, one can go from the lower ni to sa (by pulling on the string at ni or go from the upper re to the lower sa by releasing the pulled string from re to sa. This so-called meend in sitar and similar moves in vocal music can be done slowly or fast or loudly or softly, but it remains a transition from one note to another, (and if one takes microtones into account, then one can go from microtone to microtone rather than from tone to tone as I have described). This is the meend or “slide”. In this description, there is no further degree of freedom to loop or do other things between the notes: it is a move from one note to another at some speed and amplitude.

    2. The other way is to describe it as you have that between two notes there are a variety of “paths” – loops and flips and so on. Hence your analogy with painting – there are a variety of ways to go from point A to point B.

    It would be very interesting to find out which of the two descriptions is correct. What you are seeing as a loop may simply be a sequence like ga-ma-ga-re-sa (through pulling the string rather than played directly on the frets) where the transition between any two notes is linear rather than looped. I don’t know if I am expressing myself clearly. In other words, what I am trying to say is that if one breaks down the loop or the flip or some other curve into its component notes, one just gets linear transitions between notes rather than some curved path between two notes. It isn’t clear to me what such a curved path would be musically unless one really allows the sound space to be treated as literally continuous. Of course, the human voice or the meend go through a continuous space but I suspect it might be impossible to hear such fine differences.

    Incidentally, the fillmmaker Mani Kaul who was a student of Ziauddin Dagar made a film “Dhrupad” which was shot with many scenes of medieval Indian architecture with music by Tansen and others playing. This wasn’t accidental and I think it was a way of applying Goethe’s saying about architecture and music to Indian music.

    But all this is speculation rather than founded on knowledge so I am happy to be informed about it.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 16:06h, 06 August

      Arun: You have provided the opportunity to quote a line I like from Macbeth:

      I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more,
      Returning were as tedious as go o’er

      So let me give your question a shot:

      What might help would be to think of two notes as origins and destinations (resting points for the music as I remember Wasifuddin Dagar describing them). Let’s take Ni (N) and Sa (S) and suppose we want to go from N to S. Now we can take the straightforward shortest path between the two – NS. Or we could be creative in the following ways:

      We could loop back from N, brush against Dha (D), and then arrive at S – N(D)S. Or we could loop forward, brush against Re (R), and then arrive at S – N(R)S. This is what is called kan in Indian music.

      You can take an engineering perspective and linearize the arcs treating these as the composite of two transitions N-D and D-S or N-R and R-S. But that would not be right because our destination is S and not D or R; we are just passing by those stations to give a different ambience to the journey.

      If you accept this then you can see that many other paths are equally possible. You can sway on N before getting to S (~NS) or you could get to S and sway on S (NS~). This would be what is called andolan or sur jhulaana.

      Or you could stress N (reaching out towards S) before getting to S (^NS) or stress S once you get there (NS^) – gamak.

      You could linger on N before making a dash to S (….NS) or dash close to S and then do a parachute landing on S (NS….).

      What I am trying to describe in words is much more convincing if you can listen to demonstrations. A book (Enlightening the Listener) by Prabha Atre comes with an audio cassette (much more useful than the book) that demonstrates these features. Incidentally Prabha Atre’s doctoral dissertation was on the sargam and why its mnemonics are verbalized in Indian music but not in Western music. This should also suggest the intricacies involved in this subject whose surface we are helplessly trying to scratch.

      All these musical paths that I have tried to articulate are quite distinct and very difficult to execute on a keyboard instrument. But there is no reason why they can’t be performed on a string instrument in the West. The reason they are not is because they are not considered beautiful in the ethos of Western music. The really interesting discussion pertains to why that might be the case and I intend to venture into that territory in a separate post.

  • kabir
    Posted at 09:07h, 06 August Reply

    “meend” is a major part of Hindustani music, and one could argue perhaps one of it’s most beautiful features. In contrast, sliding is really frowned upon in classical Western music, though it is used stylistically in jazz and gospel. I remember my choir teacher and voice teachers always telling me not to slide, while my ustaad for Hindustani vocal was always trying to get me to do more slides and loops.

    Western classical music also has some of these ornamental features, such as trills and tremolos (rapid movement from one note to the one directly above it). Operatic and art song repertoire would sound really boring if the singer didn’t put in the ornaments at the appropriate times. But of course, these are qualitatively different from their Hindustani counterparts.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 17:15h, 06 August Reply

    Anjum: We are saying the same thing although I find your description in your last post better and more accurate. The example of a loop I gave in my previous post was of the same kind as your examples: ga-ma-ga-re-sa where the idea is to express sa but via a path traced through ga-ma-ga-re with meend.

    However, I still find myself uncomfortable describing Indian music as occurring “between the notes.” I thought the whole idea in an alap was to develop each note of the particular raga one by one by approaching it via various paths. So In a raga like Bhupali where the notes I think are sa-re-ga-pa-dha-sa going both up and down, one would develop each of these six notes in the alap one by one but by approaching it via the other permitted notes – not any other notes nor any “non-notes.” So the different ways of approaching a note – like “kan”, “sur jhulana” “gamak” – terms I did not know or have forgotten (I used to play the sitar when young but never learned it well, either its theory or its practice) – as well as others, are constrained by the aroha/avaroha of the raga, if I remember the terms correctly. When playing Bhupali, one cannot venture outside these six notes (and there could be further constraints as well on particular sequences within these notes that may be forbidden though I think Bhupali itself is less constrained).

    This is why I find the description “between the notes” metaphorical at best. There is literally nothing *between* the notes that is of interest. I don’t think my description was an “engineering” one but it lacked the specification of the goal (e.g. to express sa via some path). It also lacked the nuances you described with the special terms you used – kan, gamak etc.

    I also agree that Western music does not have such paths as kabir and you have pointed out. I would be very interested in finding out why you think that is the case. I think it is the presence of things like meend that make all Indian music meditative in a way that Western music is not. Of course, Western music can also be meditative but not all of it is so.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 21:07h, 06 August Reply

    Arun: In researching my hypotheses on the Internet to answer your questions, I found the following quote from Alain Danielou which articulates much more clearly the subject of my original post (i.e., Why Goethe called architecture frozen music). It is from his book The Situation of Music in the Countries of the Orient.

    In the West, we construct solid blocks of music. After having carved out geometrically, in large sections, like building stones, the seven degrees of the diatonic scale, lined them up and placed them on top of each other according to cleverly worked out architectural laws which are called counterpoint and harmony. In this way we erected splendid edifices in sound. In the East, no one dreamed of dividing sound into blocks; instead they refined it to a wire-thin thread. They strove meticulously to stretch out the sound, to refine it to the point of extreme delicacy… No standardised materials, no building of two or six or ten floors; rather a simple variegated silk thread which unwinds and rises and falls imperceptibly, but which in every tiniest portion evokes a world of feelings and sensations.

    And then there was the following which I think is from O Goswami’s book The Story of Indian Music:

    The Indian system is horizontal, one note following the other, while the European is vertical -several notes at a time.

    And finally the following from Yehudi Menuhin:

    To appreciate Indian music, one has to adopt a completely different sense of values… one must orientate oneself and at least for the period concerned, forget there is a time-clock ticking away and merely sink into a kind of subjective, almost hypnotic trance. In that condition, the repetitive features of Indian music, both rhythmic and melodic, acquire an extraordinary fascination and charm.

    If you put the three together, you can see why in a horizontal system the transitions would be so much more important; why with a silk thread which unwinds and rises and falls imperceptibly, the patterns would constitute the music; and why in a repetitive framework, many different patterns would be needed for the same transition transporting the listeners with endless improvisational variations till finally the mastery is acknowledged with the involuntary wah, kya baat hai. That’s when the artist comes up with yet one more pattern when you think that all possible patterns had been exhausted.

    In my library (which has been in storage for many years) I don’t have anything by Menuhin but I do have Goswami’s book and not this one by Danielou but his The Ragas of North Indian Music. So it is quite possible that the question that agitated my mind was something my brain cells were recalling from readings of many years ago.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 03:40h, 07 August Reply

    Anjum: I’m sorry to go on about this. All the three quotes are nice but to my mind tangential. Danielou’s text is highly metaphorical, Goswami seems to be referring to individual notes vs. chords, and Menuhin is talking about the psychological reception of Indian music.

    I don’t think there is any difference in our perception of the phenomenon of gliding etc. in Indian music. That is something everyone accepts. The question is how best should this phenomenon be described from a musicological point of view? I don’t find Danielou’s description helpful *musicologically* though it is quite evocative and conveys what one feels upon hearing Indian music.

    Let me ask a couple of people about this and see if they have anything helpful to say about this.

  • kabir
    Posted at 06:05h, 07 August Reply

    I think what we are trying to express when we talk about Indian music being “between the notes” is that the aesthetic places much less value on discrete transitions between two notes and favors “meend”. The belief in “shrutis” or microtones is also important here. Whereas in Western Music, it is understood that between C and D (sa and re), there is only own other note (C# or komal re), in Hindustani music, there is more than one note between sa and komal re, which is why a note can be referred to as being “ati-komal” or super flat. In Western Music theory the smallest interval between two notes is the “halfstep” (C to C#, sa to komal re). In Indian Music, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, as we acknowledge that there are pitches between these two notes.

    Of course, the patterns and variations are constrained by the particular raga, as Arun points out. Any loops one does while singing Bhupali have to be within notes or pitches that are allowed in that raga, otherwise it will sound unpleasant and “off-pitch”.

    I think that Anjum is right when he argues that possibly one reason for the Western emphasis on discrete transitions between notes is the importance of keyboard instruments. On a piano or an organ, one can only go discretely from one note to the one next to it. A trained Hindustani vocalist on the other hand would know how to express shrutis.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 06:24h, 07 August Reply

    To me listening to a raga is like floating in a river. Some times rapids, some times wavy and sometimes deep water hardly moving. That’s it. I don’t understand music at all but love it. The experience with western classical is the same. What you are saying is western classical music is digital and Indian analogue.

    So music is melting painting! Really, it is quite unimportant to define music.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 13:33h, 07 August Reply

    I think it is possible to simplify the question we are asking based on what kabir has said above. The question is: how exactly should “meend” (or its equivalent in vocal music) be understood? One answer is to say it is “between the notes” which I find helpful but metaphorical because I think musical space is discrete not continuous. It is the kind of answer an ustad may give in explaining the music. But a musicologist may prefer a different kind of answer that is less metaphorical. I do not know. What I do know is that Western music does attempt precise answers: see “The Aesthetics of Music” by Roger Scruton, which I have only glanced at and would love to find the time to read. Whether Indian musicologists also attempt such answers I do not know.

    Anil Kala raises an important question: is it worth trying to understand music or is it best simply to use metaphors and float away on a river? One can ask the same question of other entities – art in general, politics, nature etc.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 19:54h, 07 August Reply

    Kabir: I did think that the varying emphasis on the glide (meend) in the two traditions had to do with the primacy of keyboard instruments in Western music and of string instruments (or the voice) in Indian music. But this discussion has triggered another thought in my mind.

    Remember that Western concert music has a written score and Indian music does not. In Indian music the listener gets to wah, kya baat hai only when the performer comes up with something uniquely beautiful, a pattern that wasn’t expected or didn’t seem possible. There is no way to do something similar with a written score. Even if an intricate pattern is written into the score, its mere repetition in every performance would make it uninteresting – just as Indian performers who have memorized paltas are no match for those who can improvise. Of course, this just pushes back the question to one that asks why the music is written in the Western tradition and not in the Indian one. I hope to explore this in a subsequent post.

    On the issue of “between the notes,” I don’t think the answer lies in the number of divisions in the octave. It is not the case that between C and D there is only one other note in Western music while there is more than one in Indian music. The notes don’t have any physical or objective existence (you can’t see them on a sarangi string) – these are just intervals that you can mark with reference to the tonic on the frequency spectrum where the harmonics are pleasing to the ear. Even if you mark 22 notes in the octave (you can design a piano with 22 keys per octave), there is still a transition from one note to its neighboring note simply because the spectrum is continuous in an octave. In any case these additional notes are more relevant for tuning than for playing, i.e., a performer might choose to tune the Re not to the komal Re but to the ati-komal Re in order to heighten a particular mood in a particular raaga.

    I think Taimur put it right when he said that “sur is the tonal space around a note.” It is how you depart from one note and approach another that is the essence of what we are grappling with. Indian music, which squeezes its entirety into melody, relies on variations and explorations in such transitions. Western music, that creates its beauty through harmony, has to reign in the spontaneity and unpredictability that goes with such improvisations. This also provides a clue why Western music needs a written score.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 14:12h, 08 August Reply

    I have a slightly unrelated question to ask.

    When I had no knowledge of modern art I felt a sense of exhilaration on seeing Raja Ravi Varma kind of direct paintings and modern geometric simplifications seemed awfully bizarre, gave me no pleasure. With knowledge and much more understanding of art and its evolution, direct art does not excite me any more as magic of Salvador Dali, Paul Klee or Cezanne does. Same is with music though initially classical music was quite unbearable but now even without the understanding of its intricacies I am at peace with it. I draw pleasure from both ‘sugam sangeet’ and rendition of ragas.

    Is sense of bliss we experience on encounter with art more when we are able to dissect it?

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 15:01h, 08 August Reply

    Anil: Let me stay away from art but I will excerpt a few paragraphs I wrote on this subject with reference to music on behalf of FAME (Foundation for the Advancement of Music Education). The aim was to motivate young people to to go beyond passive enjoyment and explore how much more there was on offer.

    “Would you enjoy watching chess or cricket if you did not know the rules of the game? Probably not.

    Music is much more powerful than chess and cricket – you can enjoy it without knowing anything about its rules. But can you imagine how much your enjoyment would increase if you were familiar with its vocabulary and grammar? Or how much your performance would improve if you were an aspiring performer? Don’t take our word for it – ask the great ghazal singers.

    Is music very difficult to learn? Think again. It is hard work becoming a good cricketer or chess player. It is not all difficult to understand the rules of chess or cricket. It is the same with music. It is very easy to acquire the essential knowledge that would enhance your appreciation of music.

    Think of music as a language. If you can learn English with its 26-letter alphabet and complicated grammar you can learn the language of music that has only 7 letters in its alphabet. Yes, just 7 – Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni (or Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti, it doesn’t really matter which you learn).

    In five minutes you can tell the difference between Sa and Re and in one hour you will be able to explain the difference between Malkauns and Kaushik Dhani. It is plain sailing from there on – the more you learn, the more you will enjoy.

    You don’t punish your stomach with a lifetime of plain food – a gourmet meal once in a while is a great treat. Don’t punish your ears with a lifetime of plain music – try gourmet music for a change. Once you have tasted it you will realize what you have been missing. Think Nihari, think Sri Pai, think Purya Kalyan. You are not born liking them – all of them take time to grow on you.”

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 15:48h, 08 August Reply

    I am not advocating ignorance. I am just curious.

    Aren’t you talking about the lingering after taste? The apt analogy will not be cricket but food. Does a connoisseur of food enjoys a certain kind food more than say an ordinary guy enjoys food of “his liking”? My question is about real time encounter with art and what you are talking about the fringe benefits of discussing it long after the actual occurrence. It is true that knowledge of art allows us to salivate over the act while for an ignorant, termination of event is the end of story.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 18:26h, 08 August Reply

    Anil: You will enjoy this recent article from the New York Times that asks what we are looking for when we look at art. The line I liked and that would appeal to you was “slow looking, like slow cooking, may yet become the new radical chic.”

    The point I wanted to make was that knowledge should help in appreciation. If one knows the context of Guernica one would see it in a slightly different manner. If one is aware of the impact on WW1 on art and connect Guernica to what came before and after, it would place the work in a tradition. If one knew why there were so many great artists from Spain in a short interval of time (Picasso, Miro, Dali) one might link back from art to social conditions. I suppose this is why people study art history and art appreciation at college.

    Of course, ignorance can be a two-edged sword. It could be terrible in terms of foregone pleasure but it could also be bliss – whatever Mowgli ate or did must have been the best for him. In one of his op-eds, Aakar Patel mentions that Rahat Fateh Ali Khan (nephew of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) is often off key and that it is surprising his bluff has not been called in India or Pakistan. Those who recall Nusrat through Rahat must be going away immensely pleased and knowledge of pitch would only cause them immense disappointment. Perhaps we should let them eat bread thinking it is cake.

    Coming back to food, it seems to me that the person who knows something about ingredients would be able to deduce that all it needs is a pinch of X that could transform what he or she is eating into a memorable dish. I am sure there would be general agreement that is a great ability to have even though one doesn’t need it to survive.

    [On the earlier discussion, I want to record here a suggestive observation by Aakar on a joint performance by the two violinists, Yehudi Menuhin and L. Subramaniam: “Menuhin plays his bits as a European would, straight lines and right angles. Subramaniam plays his more emotionally, in rounded curves.”

    For those who might link to Aakar’s op-ed, I am not sure I agree with his argument that one needs perfect pitch to be a great composer or performer. Relative pitch can take one a long way – the drone is always there in Indian music to provide the external reference.]

  • Humaira
    Posted at 18:54h, 27 August Reply

    Great article, as Indian Classical music student and lover, I learnt a lot. Thanks for sharing. Cheers!

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