Philosophy of music & the South Asian theory
Why do we make music? I spent 2 passive decades thinking about this as I soaked up new musical styles like Blues, R&B, Country, etc. Stuff I did not have access to growing up.
Watch the first 3 to 5 mins of this video to hear a composer’s perspective on South Asian (or Indian - used interchangeably) music. Earlier in the video Terry Riley says:
Music is the involvement of the human spirit with sound.
The evolutionary thinking on music is that it’s inherently a social activity. As with elephants and monkeys, music is meant to bring individuals (people) together. It exists to aid cooperation and help with emotional expression/regulation. It makes sense that songs with the most emotional appeal end up transcending generations, or in a particular case planets.
Role of religion on music in South Asia
All art & artists require patronage to survive, learn and hone their craft. Considering how influential organized religions have been for the last 5000 yrs and music’s power to move people, it was inevitable for a connection to form. Songs are, as they say, timeless.
Temples, Mosques, and Gurdwaras offered avenues & resources for musicians to seek refuge, gain respect, learn, and educate others about values and virtues through the musical word. Most importantly a steady captive audience, to test out their ideas 🙂
The Sikh holy book Gurbaani is itself a poem annotated with a Raag. Medium of discourse is intended to be music. Here’s how a Bhai Baljeet Singh Namdhari, a skilled musician recites the Gurbaani.
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Vedic philosophy imagines God to be a sound.
One that is responsible for all creation. If you’ve ever encountered “Aum” or "OM,” that is an excellent reference to this philosophy. Many Indians consider that to be the beginning and end of creation, and it is also a standard “bootloader” chant before reciting the Vedas or singing music among Hindus. Before you begin doubting the validity of this idea, consider that the English-speaking world refers to a similar epochal event with the suffix “Bang”!
Christian philosophy views music as a powerful tool for expressing and communicating spiritual and emotional truths and for fostering a deeper connection with God. You can replace “Christian Philosophy” in the last sentence with self-affiliation of any organized group of humans, and I bet it tracks. Even in Hindu devotional music, it’s common to find a reference to a sense of “elevation” and the ability to channel divinity.
Vedas are learned orally, through rhythmic repetition and melody is a key ingredient. I address the brahmins globally
Your rituals sound boring AF because your pujari is a terrible singer.
Some usually have a melodious voice to sing a song or two before the Aarti, but will not bring that energy to the rest of the Sanskrit rap. There are exceptions of course, but it’s a pity that the bar for priests performing rituals is a form of disembodied dr(groan)one. No seriously, try mimicking it. Like a bad black metal vocalist who doesn’t get it. I know a few of those too 🙂
Over the last 2000 years, kings, feudal lords, invading rulers, colonialists & local chieftans (Hindu and Muslim) also provided Patronage to musicians in India, in addition to religious and community establishments. Considering they were rulers, who could steer the culture any way they wanted, they chose a culture of assimilation musically.
Here’s a good example which also happens to be the cover for this “Newsletter” 🚀
Universal grammar for music
It boggles my mind that what’s considered documented music (across cultures) can be approximated to the same seven notes & sharps (some micro-tonal variations exist culturally), but the framework remains repeatable with seemingly infinite possibilities.
Evidence suggests that notated music has existed since the Samavedas (~1000 BC), with sections set to a melodic template of notes. Then there’s the NatyaShaashtra (200 BC) which combined vadya(accompaniments), gita (song), and nritya (dance) and included the 22-note scale for music.
The first instruments were string, wind & skin instruments, and they were probably created to emulate the sounds of nature. For e.g., Bird calls, and animal sounds, for hunting, which later evolved to be used musically. If you listen to Hindustani music, there are a lot of elements of nature in there too, and constant references to seasons and time of day. Much of it oral and deeply rooted in the local culture, beliefs, language, people, emotions, flora, fauna, and the seasons.
It’s always fascinating to see what Western musicians (classical or otherwise) have taken back from exploring the traditions and templates of classical musicians from South Asia. I’ll end this post with a classical fusion piece from Grammy & Academy award winning composer A R Rahman.
The mixing of the monosodic melodies & movement of an Indian classical flute with a full orchestra is an absolute masterclass in fusion. In this version, he uses the continuum fingerboard to emulate the flute part.
Listen with good headphones 🎧 or speakers 🔈
If there are any factual errors in the post, please comment and let me know. Thx!
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