Music / 26.08.2010

By Anjum Altaf I hope by now readers have fully internalized the most essential characteristic of music. It is not the frequency of a swara that is important; rather, it is the interval between swaras or the ‘musical distance’ between them that is critical. One can start from any frequency; as long as the subsequent swaras are at the right distance, one would be in the realm of music. We had started this series with the claim that while all music is sound, not all sound is music. In doing so we had made the distinction between music and noise. We are now in a position to elaborate on this distinction. Think of construction in which the building block is a brick. If we dump a load of bricks on a plot of land we would have an untidy sight to behold.However, if we arrange the bricks according...

Music / 23.08.2010

By Anjum Altaf We concluded the last installment with an explanation for why there are 12 and not 7 swaras in a saptak. We will take a breather in this installment going over the names of the new swaras thereby completing our knowledge of the alphabet of Indian music. This would prepare us for a perspective on music as a language. Recall from the last installment that the sequence of swaras in a saptak now appears as follows: S * R * G M * P * D * N S The asterisks denote the five new swaras added in the saptak (the black keys on a keyboard – note the characteristic 2-3 pattern mentioned before). The convention adopted in naming them is not to give them independent names but to treat them as altered or vikrit swaras that are auxiliary to the seven principal swaras (in Indian music...

Music / 20.08.2010

By Anjum Altaf In the last installment we established the relative frequencies of the seven swaras in the saptak and thereby their relationship to each other. We concluded with two questions: Why was the frequency of the reference note (Sa) not fixed at some absolute value? And, where did the five black keys on the piano octave come from, i.e., Are there 7 or 12 swaras in the saptak? As often happens, the answer to one question provides a clue to the answer of another. The answer to the first question is really quite intuitive. Vocal music is the dominant genre in the Indian tradition and, as everyone by now will know, every human being has a distinctive voice. Not only that, the voice of the same individual changes over time. Thus, it should not be a surprise that every individual’s reference frequency (the frequency that he/she...

Music / 19.08.2010

By Anjum Altaf At last we are in a position to answer two fundamental questions: First, why are there so few elements in the musical alphabet? And second, why have widely dispersed civilizations separately discovered the same musical alphabet? Recall that the range of frequencies that are audible to the human ear extends from about 20 Hz to about 17,000 Hz. This is a huge continuous range that can accommodate an infinite number of stopping points. But as was mentioned earlier, the ear cannot distinguish very small differences in frequencies and of those that it can distinguish, not all combinations are musical or pleasing to hear. As we mentioned in the last installment, consonant frequencies (those that sound pleasant together) are related to each other by the ratios of small integers. A lot of experimentation must have gone into the discovery of the sequence of frequencies (which are...

Music / 18.08.2010

By Anjum Altaf In the last installment we went back to the origins of instrumental music tracing it to the sound that resulted from the draw and release of a hunting bow. This was presumed to have led to experimentation with more strings being stretched across a bow-like frame – a precursor of the harp. Since the shape of the frame mandated strings of unequal length, we asked the natural question: Did there need to be any kind of relationship between the lengths of the various strings in order for the harp to produce music rather than noise? Recall from an earlier istallment that the frequency generated when a string stretched between two points is plucked depends upon at least four characteristics of the string: its material, its thickness (or gauge), the tension with which it is stretched, and its length. These can be easily verified by...

Music / 13.08.2010

By Anjum Altaf When I discovered ‘frequency’ I felt empowered and reacted much as Archimedes did by letting out a high-pitched shriek – Eureka (“I have found it”). At least for me it was an empowering feeling to finally figure out what I had been talking about. Let us get two things out of the way before we forge ahead. First, the term ‘high-pitched shriek’ is really a tautology: a shriek, by definition, is high-pitched. If you don’t believe me, try and emit a low-pitched shriek. What you might succeed in emitting would be a low-volume shriek but the shriek itself would retain a high pitch. This is a useful exercise because it would help you distinguish clearly between the two attributes of sound we have learnt so far – volume and frequency. To be absolutely sure you know what you are going to talk about, try...

Music / 07.08.2010

By Anjum Altaf We are almost there, within striking distance of our primary goal. If you would bear with me just a little longer and not get psyched out by the reference to physics, you would find yourself the proud owner of a number of important insights and you would wonder why you had not been aware of them all along. Believe me, this is a short tunnel and there is a searchlight at the end of it. We had concluded the last part knowing how sound is created and how it travels from the source to the human ear. We also described the shape of an ideal sound wave and I would urge you to take a look at the graphic if you have not done so already (just observe the shape, ignore everything else). Almost everything we need to know is hidden in the shape of...

Music / 03.08.2010

By Anjum Altaf I have been reflecting on the feedback from readers, both negative and positive, and it has helped me immensely to sift through my own biases and prejudices. I am now inclined to drop any remaining pretension to the claim that the end objective of this series is to increase the enjoyment or appreciation of music. This end result may or may not happen but it is not the real driver of this set of notes. I now realize that I am addressing myself to the set of individuals who wish to talk and write about music, to describe an aural experience in words, and to critique it such that a reader gets a reasonable sense of the difference between one performance and another. Indian music seems to me like a building suspended in air. The foundations are invisible, not in the sense of their origins...

Music / 31.07.2010

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...

Music / 30.07.2010

By Anjum Altaf I feel I should explain once again why we are proceeding slowly with this introduction. It is because we are not trying to learn to perform music. We are trying to learn to understand music. This is a difference that people are often impatient with but it is a fine difference. In music, it is possible to learn to perform without understanding the underlying theory. But, quite clearly, understanding becomes severely limited in the absence of knowledge of the basic principles. It is my belief that if we learn to walk right, we will be able to run much faster in the future. This can seem abstract so let me illustrate with an example. A number of the readers of this series are more familiar with Carnatic music about which I know relatively little. In order to be able to continue the dialogue I...