An Idiot’s Guide to Music – 3

By Anjum Altaf 

In the second post in this series I had proposed looking at the organization of music to see what it revealed about the organization of society. This enquiry was motivated by the very stark differences in the organization of classical music in the Western and Hindustani traditions that are immediately obvious on attending concerts in the two traditions.

I am going to rely almost entirely on the description provided by Yehudi Menuhin in his autobiography Unfinished Journey (Chapter 12) because being a musician he has a deep insight into the subject. Later I will come back to the issues that Menuhin does not address.

What the Indian music has not, and Western music richly has, is, of course, harmony. This is not fortuitous. Just because the Indian would unite himself with the infinite rather than with his neighbour, so his music assists the venture. Its purpose is to refine one’s soul and discipline one’s body, to make one sensitive to the infinite within one, to unite one’s breath with the breath of space, one’s vibrations with the vibrations of the cosmos. Outside the family, the Indian’s concern does not easily fasten on the group. Europe’s genius, on the other hand, has been to form individuals into communities, each accepting loss of freedom in the interests of the whole. Hence collective worship, hence armies and industries and parliamentary democracy, and hence chorales in which each voice has a certain independence but is nonetheless severely constrained by other voices.

When I was invited in 1965 to collaborate in the Commonwealth Arts Festival held in several British cities that autumn, I was granted a first close view of the music of yet another culture which added perspective to the links between social and musical organization. If Indian melody and Western harmony had seemed to provide matter for comparison, Indian individualism and African collectivism set the poles of the issue further apart. The African music was tribal, the music of a society which worked, worshipped, celebrated, mourned, and brought up its children together, without any European compromise between the one and the whole, and without need of a harmonic structure. Complexity of rhythm, equally a mark of Indian and African music, is based in an African ensemble on the division of labor, different players keeping their own beat against each other, and contriving to pull off this difficult feat by playing in a kind of hypnotic trance. The sum of the divisions is a subtlety of rhythm, which so far not even jazz has reproduced.

In contrast, Indian rhythmic complexity is primarily one man’s doing. Before beginning to play, the Indian group – consisting of some combination of three solo players providing drone, melody and rhythm (in order of sound) – chooses a raga and a tala, the warf and woof of the fabric about to be created…. It becomes a game in which each tries to put the other off his stroke, a sort of intellectual motor race…. Indian music thus accommodates the group, but the individuals within it remain soloists, never coalescing into a harmonic statement. To form orchestras of Indian musicians would be to run counter to nature.

The bottom line of all this is that one can infer from the organization of music that Western society is group oriented in which one begins with collaborating with a neighbor and graduates to the formation of communities in which each individual yields something to advance the interest of the group.

Hindustani music, on the other hand, reveals that Indian society is individualistic and even when Indians work in groups they do so as individuals remaining more competitive than cooperative. Menuhin adds to this his inference about African tribal organization that is more collective than Indian society but not in the same way as Western society in which the interest of the group takes precedence over that of individuals.

These are very profound observations that leave us much to think about. But, of course, the causality does not run from music to society. Rather, it is the reverse – the organization of society is reflected in the organization of music and, by extension, of other activities like business and politics (Menuhin hints at this with his reference to industries and parliamentary democracy).

So, a prior question remains to be answered: Why is Western society group oriented while Indian society is much more individualistic? Menuhin does not delve further into this aspect. We will do so in the next post in this series and in doing so link back to another series on this blog that explores the determinants of cooperative and individualistic behavior.

It is a coincidence that these two series of posts have converged in this interesting manner.

The text in italics is from Unfinished Journey by Yehudi Menuhin.


  • kabir
    Posted at 03:39h, 21 August Reply

    Menuhin’s remarks are very provocative, but I don’t think I agree entirely with his conclusion that Indian society is not group-oriented. What about the joint-family system, the caste group, etc? I also don’t feel like Europe is (or was always) especially group-oriented. So there must be an alternative explanation for the differences between Western and Hindustani music.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 03:51h, 21 August

      Kabir: Menuhin takes care of the family when he (correctly?) notes that “Outside the family, the Indian’s concern does not easily fasten on the group.” About caste, one can argue that it is a group (in the sense of a category) to which people belong; it does not mean that they work collectively as a team. On Europe, what makes you feel that it was not always group oriented? Note that these are broad generalizations and as generalizations they do seem to reflect some essential features. We will not try and explain everything about the societies using this tool. The bottom line of the argument is that Western society is (relatively) more group oriented than Indian society and this is reflected in the organization of their music. We still need to figure out why Western society is relatively more group oriented than Indian society.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 04:41h, 21 August

      SA, I share Kabir’s trepidition in accepting the high level generalizations by Menuhin about Indian and western societies. From all the human behavioural phenomena it is hard to glean a single dominant orientation.

  • kabir
    Posted at 05:31h, 21 August Reply

    SA: I still feel hesitant to call Western society group-oriented. As we’ve discussed on other posts (particularly the Imran Khan posts), there is a feel that the West is much more individualistic and OK with everyone doing their own thing, while in South Asia there is much more pressure to conform to family and societal expectations. That said, I concede that in the past, European society was also very group-oriented and that choral singing for example arose out of collective worship.

    Even in a Hindustani music performance, I wouldn’t call the performers individualistic. Yes, there is a main performer (a singer for example) and the others are accompanists. But they have to work together to create the artistic product. There is what Menuhin calls “competitiveness” between say the singer and the tabla nawaz but this competitiveness is also in the larger interests of creating beautiful art. In that way, it’s like a jazz group where each person gets a chance to solo in turn. But they are all working together otherwise the product would fail.

    I feel there is yet another more cogent explanation for the emphasis on harmony in Western music vs. melody in Indian music.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:17h, 21 August

      Kabir, is it possible that since the models of music we have in mind in these discussions is that of classical music, of the western and Indian kind, we’re unable to relate them to what we see of these societies today? Classical music emerged from classical societies. Was Western soceity more group oriented in classical times?
      Or am I just getting it all plain wrong?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:07h, 21 August

      Vinod: Since Kabir has not answered, let me volunteer. I don’t know enough but I don’t mind trying because in doing so I learn a little bit more. In the case of classical music we need to get a number of things sorted out especially one source of major confusion.

      In the tradition of Western music there is a specific time period (1730-1830) which is known as the classical period. This terminology distinguishes styles of music within the Western tradition. For example, the period before is known as Baroque and the period after as Romantic.

      However, in our discussion we are not using the term ‘classical’ in terms of a periodization like this. In our discussion classical refers to a genre or type of music. Thus there is folk music, pop music, etc. Classical music is a specific type of music that is not folk or pop, for example.

      So, the question is: What type of music is classical music? One way to characterize it would be to say that it is music whose primary purpose is not entertainment. Rather, it as an art form. In both the Western and Indian traditions its origins are in liturgical or devotional chanting (in the Indian tradition this music is described in the Samaveda). Now art forms continue to become more and more refined and abstract over time till all that remains is the pure essence and all the inessentials are stripped out (Naad in the case of sound). Think of the difference between folk dance and Bharatnatyam, for example, in the case of dance – in the latter, even the twitch of the eyebrow contains a story.

      Because classical music is abstract and refined to the represent the essence of sound, it is the polar opposite, in some sense, of popular music. This leads some people to level the charge of elitism against it. I feel this charge is misplaced. By this token, any search for truth or beauty can be labeled elitist.

      So, we are talking about this type of music and calling it classical music. It has always been present in both Western and Indian traditions although many elements and styles inside each tradition have changed over time (Baroque, Romantic, etc. in the West; Dhrupad, Khayal, etc. in Hindustani). It is music whose origin was in religion and devotion and whose primary purpose is not entertainment but aesthetic appreciation. In this regard, I think the notion of classical societies and classical times is not a useful one.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:03h, 21 August

      Kabir: The problem seems to lie in the word ‘group’ which we are using in different ways. You are thinking in terms of social groups or of group-think, e.g., South Asians are family oriented and conform to family and societal expectations. That is not what Menuhin has in mind. He is relating it to the nature of work or labor – team work is very important in Europe (we will discuss why). When one says that Europeans believe in individualism, it means that the individual is sovereign, can decide for himself and herself, and is the unit of analysis. This distinguishes the stage of development from the preceding feudal age which was much more hierarchical and in which the serf was not sovereign. But during both the feudal era and after, labor practices were based on working in teams. This is the same kind of difference we had pointed out in the labor practices demanded by wheat and rice growing societies which lead to the socialization of different attitudes and organizations.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 13:36h, 21 August Reply

    Are the concepts ‘harmony’ and ‘melody’ mutually exclusive? What if one is subsumed in the other – what will that mean to the enquiry on tracing purported distinctions between the two concepts in social structure? Are the concepts clearly distinguished from each other in the context of music? If they are overlapping concepts, how much is the overlap and is it meaningful and worthwhile to search for socio-structural origins of any differences that may exist between the two?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:29h, 22 August

      Vinod: Melody and Harmony are distinct elements of music and can be clearly distinguished. Melody occurs when notes are played in succession one after the other (as when you hum a popular song). Harmony in music occurs when two or more notes are played at the same time. (In both cases the notes have to be appropriately chosen for the resulting sound to be pleasant to the ear.) If you are singing, you can only produce melody because that is the limitation of the throat – it can only produce one note at any moment of time. If you are playing the piano, the right hand can play the melody while the left hand can produce the harmony.

      Harmony contributes richness (‘body’) to the melody. Indian classical music achieves this effect in different ways. It is an interesting question to ask why harmony is part of Western music but not of Indian music.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 13:38h, 21 August Reply

    This is not fortuitous. Just because the Indian would unite himself with the infinite rather than with his neighbour, so his music assists the venture. Its purpose is to refine one’s soul and discipline one’s body, to make one sensitive to the infinite within one, to unite one’s breath with the breath of space, one’s vibrations with the vibrations of the cosmos. Outside the family, the Indian’s concern does not easily fasten on the group

    Is this a correct characterization of the philosophical disposition of an Indian? Theoretically, is it even possible to be so philosophically disposed – can a person want to unite with the universe at the exclusion of other individuals? Is that even coherent?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:50h, 21 August

      Vinod: These characterizations attempt to sketch broad orientations; they cannot describe all aspects of social life and outlook. The common perception seems to be that the classical music (not all music) of India represents an individual quest for submergence in the infinite – that it is other-worldly rather than this-worldly. Rabrindanath Tagore has described the difference between the two traditions of music in this way: “The world by day is like European music – a flowing concourse of vast harmony, composed of concord and discord and many disconnected fragments. And the night world is our Indian music: one pure deep and tender raga. They both stir us, yet the two are contradictory in spirit. But that cannot be helped. At the very root, nature is divided into two, day and night, unity and variety, finite and infinite. We men of India live in the realm of night; we are overpowered by the sense of the One and Infinite. Our music draws the listener away beyond the limits of every day human joys and sorrows and takes us to the lonely region of renunciation which lies at the root of the universe, while European music leads us to a variegated dance through the endless rise and fall of human grief and joy.”

      Now clearly not all Indians feel this way because not all Indians relate to Indian classical music. But Indian classical music represents that ethos and desire (Naad Brahma).

Post A Comment