Sunday, February 8, 2009

Music: Elusive but Ubiquitous

Most of you will agree that music is one of mankind’s most dependable companions through life’s decisive moments. It certainly has been for me.

It accompanies the celebration of a baptism, a birthday, a wedding, an anniversary, a march into battle. It also sustains us as we grieve at funerals. And beyond the decisive moments, music is also with us in the everyday moments. It is part of worship in churches, mosques and temples. It is the lifeblood of a carnival, it is that ‘very personal’ song between lovers, it is the throbbing beat from spectators at a sporting event, the anthem we sing, the background score to the films we watch, the insidious, and sometimes, irritating ambient tracks in a lift or lobby, the live music in a concert hall, at a party or from a busker on the street, the bedtime song we sing our children, the whistling in the dark, the singing in the shower, the aerobics accompaniment, on the car radio, on home stereos, on personal headphones; in fact you can think of hundreds of different scenarios where music is part of our lives.

Most of you will also agree that music is universal, in the sense that in some form or the other, it is created, performed and enjoyed across races and cultures. Afro, bhangra, bel canto, boogie, bolero, calypso, carnatic, celtic, cha-cha, flamenco, ghazal, hillybilly, hindustani, polka, qawwali, rumba, salsa, samba, swing…the exercise of simply listing out some music styles throws up a rainbow of impressions of each culture and geography that gave birth to each of these genres.

Again most of you will agree that music finds a way to connect with people, through different forms or genre. It could be the chart-topping pop number that is the current favourite on the dance floor or the rock song that has ‘protest’ written all over it, it could be the monumental symphony in a classical music concert or the smooth and easy sound of a jazz band, it could be the raw and simple refrain from a folk song or the adrenalin-pumping soundtrack of a film score. (Please overlook the stereotyping implied in many of these phrases relating to various genres; they are only indicative of common impressions of various genres. By no means can they be taken to encompass the essence of each genre; the generalist adjectives used here are only in the interest of brevity of expression).

Finally, you will agree that music impacts us significantly. Human beings connect and respond instinctively to music. After all, the unborn baby hears long before it sees. And right through every stage of life, music exerts a mysterious, but real power to excite, arouse, enthrall, soothe, reassure, inspire and lift us.

But I think you may also agree that music’s impact varies based on the person and the context, and that impact itself could be of different levels and types. What is difficult to do is to actually understand this impact of music on our lives. This is because music is in itself a virtually formless force. It is not a painting you can appraise at a glance or a piece of sculpture you can touch, it is not a building you can walk through, it is not a culinary delight you can taste. In fact, if you think of it, music does not even exist in the moment; and what I mean by that is – at any given point in time, you are hearing one note or notes and the melody is experienced only by linking it what came before and what comes after that note or notes. You cannot hear a whole symphony in a second; unlike looking at and appreciating a painting in a second. So, if we did not have the faculty of memory, we would not appreciate the melody or the structure of a piece.

And the peak experiences in music listening are often characterized by their inexplicable nature. Ask anybody to describe exactly what and how they felt (when they experienced music in a deeply moving manner) and you are likely to get a garbled mix of expressions that do not clearly explain what the nature or meaning of the experience was.


  1. The coming together of good things is perhaps another element, especially in vocal music. A composer who comes up with a great piece of music surrenders his work to the Music Director and the singer (s). They can then, in many ways, make or break the composer, either lifting masterful works to a transcendental level or dragging them down to the level of mediocrity. It is both a blessing and curse that music - especially the vocal variety - often rests entirely on the performance of it!

  2. Well said. Yes, the performers and the performance can make a world of a difference to the impact of the music. In fact, in the high-pressured and intensely competitive world of virtuosos, reputations are made or marred by the way they interpret the masterpieces.