When I was in school, I was very taken with the idea of having music form the backdrop of anything I did. I’d have FM radio on in the evenings while I pretended to solve homework problems. I’d have the television tuned to MTV while I ate or even read. It was, I figured, a nifty form of sensory multitasking: Your ears did the aural work, while your mind or eyes or mouth did something else. I was hearing — but I wasn’t listening.
Get an earful: It’s never too late to learn how to listen.
I learnt to listen, to interpret what I was hearing, only when I began to shoot myself full of Carnatic music. In those initial weeks, I hungered to master a trick everybody else around me seemed to have been born with: how to identify the raga of a song, often from just a wisp of music. Every raga has a unique structure — such-and-such notes omitted, such-and-such notes sung this way, such-and-such notes phrased thus (the question of what exactly a raga is must await its own column). But nobody I talked to seemed to be parsing that structure consciously or methodically. “But how do you know it’s Bhairavi?” I’d ask. And invariably, the response would be a shrug and a variation on: “You just know.”
So, finally, I admitted to myself that simply reading about this mystery would bring no light, and that the answer lay in the music itself. I began to listen obsessively, putting music in the foreground for the first time in my life. I loaded songs on to my Shuffle, which luckily came without a display and so removed the temptation to sneak a peek at the name of the raga. In the car, or in the shower, I’d even tentatively sally forth with a few snatches of song, just to understand what, from the point of view of the voice box, these wonderful singers were doing with their music.
I wish there was, at this point, a dramatic eureka moment to describe in vivid detail, but there isn’t. Gradually, I stopped trying so hard, and the pieces started to click. Like rain on dry earth, the music seeped in. Initially, I’d identify phrases without necessarily knowing the individual component notes; then I grew capable of pinning down those notes as well.
I slowly began to understand how we listen much more physiologically than we realize. The ears are involved, of course, and the mind. But your voice listens too, and learns how to form notes; your legs listen, and learn how to tap out more complex beats; even your hair listens, if only to stand on end at a screechy note.
The process taught me two lessons. One, that it is never too late to learn how to really listen, because in our scurrying and impatient lives, the value of close, true listening grows every day. And also, that it’s remarkable how the human body can turn a complex activity into second or even third nature, something that doesn’t have to be thought through once it has been internalized. It’s a marvel of the subconscious—even if it does sometimes result in blank stares, baffled shrugs, and frustrating explanations like “You just know”.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at email@example.com