Tune in to happiness

Tune in to happiness

After my last column, on the link between the minor third and the sensation of sadness in music, I received an email from Shantala Hegde, from the Center for Cognition and Human Excellence at Bangalore’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (Nimhans). For much of its history, Nimhans emphasized clinical practice above all else, but over the last couple of years, Hegde told me, its research has started to really accelerate. The centre was founded a year and a half ago, and it is there that Hegde has been studying the focus of her expertise: music cognition.

Hegde is a trained Hindustani musician, and her PhD dissertation dealt with perceptions of music. Last year, with Meagan Curtis (one of the authors of that minor third study by the Music Cognition Lab at Tufts University), she ran cognitive experiments on American opera singers and Indian classical singers, using the Western major scale and Hindustani music’s Bhairav scale. That research was presented, by a collaborator, at the World Science Festival in 2009.

It was, however, her paper from a recent conference at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar that most interested me, because of its parallels with Curtis’ work on sadness in music. Hegde wanted to test out Hindustani music’s own classification of happy and sad ragas on untrained audiences, who had no notion of ragas or raga structures. “A lot of musical cues play important roles in generating emotion, and no doubt one is the cue of enculturation," she explained to me. “But when I listen to music from an unknown culture, even then I can appraise emotion through acoustic cues."

For her study, Hegde played, for 30 participants, six ragas: Yaman Kalyan, Behag, Bageshree, Lalit, Gurjari Todi and Marwa. Musical theory classifies the first three ragas as positive or “happy" and the last three as negative or “sad". To render these ragas, she chose flute recordings, because “the flute delivers something very close to a pure tone". To mix it up a little, she played two excerpts of each raga: one from the alaap section, without any tempo, and one from a jor-jhala section, with a tempo (as her presentation takes care to mention) of 64 pulses per minute.

Hegde’s results were fascinating. A striking majority of responses reported feeling either happy or neutral during a happy raga, and either sad or neutral during a sad raga. With the addition of a tempo, a raga—any raga—invariably sounded livelier and happier. Then Hegde asked her subjects to describe their responses qualitatively. “That was so interesting," she said. “We associate Yaman Kalyan with devotion, and Bageshree has a yearning tinge associated with longing for Krishna—and I was surprised when they came up with exactly these kinds of imageries. With Lalit or Gurjari Todi, 89% of the listeners talked about death and grief and loss."

All the major research on music cognition thus far, Hegde says, has involved “Western music, or Indian music and Western listeners." She’s clearly excited by her studies, and even over the phone, her excitement is contagious. “This is just the first step in looking at the effects of Indian music on Indian listeners."

Write to Samanth at raagtime@livemint.com