Dew drops in the air: 7 essential notes on how to listen to music
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Music, whatever sound and structure it may assume, remains meaningless noise unless it touches a receiving mind.
—attributed to Paul Hindemith, German composer (1895-1963).
Dum Dum airport, Kolkata, 2017: Dinner-time’s long gone but two children—a girl of maybe 5 and a boy only slightly older—have just invented a game.
It’s to do with the metal barrier in a waiting lounge separating the chairs and the windows looking out to the tarmac. These are hollow, rectangular bars. The girl scampers away from her mother and gently taps on a bar. It makes a sound. She taps slightly harder and it makes a louder sound. The sound hangs in the air for a second or two.
About four rows down, the boy mimics the girl and gives the bar a hearty thump. The girl smiles, and puts her ear to the steel. The boy gives several raps in quick succession. Now she straightens up and drums out her own little pattern and he puts his ear to the bars. This charming play continues for several minutes. It’s not a din, just a series of resonating metallic sounds.
On the surface, the children are playing with what they can find in their environment while their parents natter away on their cellphones. But these two children are actually making music—creating a sound of basic quality and listening to each other.
There’s a third person in this little chamber piece. As a fretless bassist, esraj player and music journalist, I’m listening in. If you too are a listener, I hope to persuade you to listen with care, train your ear and derive greater satisfaction from listening.
The language of music
Music is the art of sound, going back to the start of the human race. Our ancestors beat on logs, and later cut the wood into differently sized bars to make a crude marimba; killed animals, ate the flesh and made drums of their hides; after the bones had been picked clean, they drilled holes into them and made flutes; they even hollowed out the humble gourd and turned it into the unrivalled soundbox that eventually became the foundation of some of the finest Indian instruments, such as the sitar and tanpura.
By themselves, a log of wood, the bone of a dead animal and the pumpkin are at best a set of potentially interesting objects that could make for, say, a fire, an ancient funeral ritual and a soup. With musical intervention, they have been turned quite magically into musical instruments—the marimba, flute and sitar. Afro-Indian fusion, anyone?
This then is the essence of music—humans are at the centre of music-making (although birds and whales may sound musical to us, they are not consciously making music—we alone decide the nightingale sounds sweet, and the crow anything but).
We listen to music for the most basic of reasons—the need to relax, to meditate, or conversely, to goad ourselves into action, to focus, to study, to work out, to cope with a crisis. Increasingly, neuroscientists are studying the health effects of listening to music in areas such as pain management. The horror fiction writer Stephen King listens to heavy metal bands to write.
But there are reasons that are more deeply etched in our consciousness—we turn to music instinctively in order to experience pleasure. This area—the experience of pleasure and its anticipation—too is the focus of brain scientists. Their aim is to find a pattern, one consequence of which may be to help companies offer us bespoke musical products that we anticipate will give us pleasure. Anyone who buys music online will know this: Increasingly, streaming services decide what kind of music we like. To be sure, there is convenience in submission, but don’t always give in to temptation—instead, pander to your eclectic tastes and sheer randomness.
Counter-intuitively, listening to sad music when you are sad helps you feel better, according to researchers at Durham University in the UK and the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.
Listening to death metal when you are an angry teenager can help calm you down (but don’t try it at home if you are an adult).
Listening to music randomly is like brain-training through the ear—catering to emotions and mixes of emotions that may not even have been categorized by science.
When you listen to music, you’re dropping in on thousands of years of history and the spirit of your ancestors. Music may have begun with humans mimicking the sounds of nature (one school of thought says Jhaptal’s dhi na, dhi dhi na comes from the gait of elephants—must have been pretty graceful pachyderms). These sounds evolved into community music and unwritten folk forms that in turn formed the basis of classical music.
Some of the earliest incantations were no more than sounds (an Om) sung out as animist prayers for the sun, the stars, earth, wind and fire. These were organized later into chants, Vedic hymns in India for instance. Much later, sometime in the sixth century, something similar came up in the churches of Greece, celestial choral music that we know today as Gregorian chants. As with much of Indian choral music today, these chants were sung in unison (everyone sang the same notes) without any instruments to begin with—until the advent of harmony (several parts sung or played together) in Western music.
The Industrial Revolution brought recorded music. We always had the ability to write it or pass it down orally, but now we could capture music, like dewdrops in the air, and preserve it in plastic, wax and metal so we could listen later. It’s important to be aware of audio technology: Radio still brings us the best live music, especially classical music, as All India Radio does so well. And how wonderful is it that we are no longer limited by a breakable vinyl moving at the speed of 78 revolutions per minute, which meant songs had to be no longer than 3 minutes each side, often ending with the artist signing off (“My name is Indubala Devi”). With the long-playing record, you could actually squeeze in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on two sides of a single vinyl or listen to the maestros of Hindustani or Carnatic classical music, someone like the sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan or the supreme veena innovator Chitti Babu unhurriedly lay out a raga. Why, we could even accommodate an overlong drum solo on Iron Butterfly’s 1968 psychedelic classic In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. Digital demolished even those boundaries.
Learning the basics
Just what are you listening to? Whether it’s a vocal or an instrumental piece, it’s always instructive for listeners to familiarize themselves with the piece before hitting the start button. The Internet makes it easy to read up on specific pieces of music. You can learn about the 10 thaats of Indian classical music. You can learn about the forms of Western music—the sonata, the symphony, arias and chamber music. Listen to music from other parts of the world and discover how a scale of only five notes can sound so different from each other—from Chinese traditional music to the blues to raga Bhupali.
But the building blocks of music remain the same—melody, rhythm and, when it comes to Western music, harmony. Learning to read music will open up more windows: Apart from learning a new language, you will know better why a composer or musician is moving along a certain path. Did the key just change there? Did the singer just introduce an unfamiliar note into that raga?
Those rare moments
Sometimes, just sometimes, words and music come together in perfect harmony, as, for instance, with so many of the songs written by Rabindranath Tagore (though modern arrangements reek of plasticine) or Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, as glorious and pristine as on the day they were written (1948), and Paul Simon’s best, such as Dazzling Blue. These represent rare moments of creation and should not be rushed through.
And sometimes, musicians born with what appears to be an umbilical cord tied to the extraterrestrial world invent a new musical language. The Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg tore up the rulebook and did away with the key signature (the sa of Indian music), while jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and the jazz band Weather Report sound like they have tapped into every culture of every age and continent.
American composer Aaron Copland once asked if we were listening to everything—everything—that is happening in a piece of music. Digital technology makes it easier for the listener to do so. For when it comes to Indian classical music, you can train your ears to hear tiny variations in the same note, known as shruti. In Western classical music, where several parts play at once, your ear must learn to multitask. Start with piano music, in particular Bach, whose Well-Tempered Clavier will put you on the path to understanding harmony.
Anyone can listen in
There’s a myth that needs to be nailed. For a long time it has been believed that you are either musical or you are not. But many music teachers believe that a tone-deaf person, someone who cannot make out the difference between notes, either lacks confidence or knowledge, and can be taught to sing with some rudimentary training.
Instead of asking such students to sing a note played on the piano, California-based composer William A. Mathieu would ask them to sing a tone and then play the matching piano note. Suddenly, the so-called tone deaf would be singing in unison with the pianist. Isn’t that amazing?
It helps to have some knowledge of grammar in order to make a good listener. However, unlike reading, music is a supremely abstract art, and anyone can listen in.
Power of persuasion
Finally, note that music is central to the ancient art of lovemaking. Imagine Scarlett O’Hara, in the seconds after asking Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, “Where shall I go, what shall I do?” Before he can dish out his shrugged reply, she fishes out her hidden iPhone in a flash and, with a practised swipe of the screen, hits “Je t’aime…moi non plus.” “Frankly, my dear…,” starts Rhett, then stutters as Jane Birkin purrs, “Oh, mon amour.” The earth moves a bit, and Rhett takes Scarlett by the hand. The Beginning.