By Anjum Altaf
This is the first in a series of posts about understanding music. Understanding music is different from learning to become a performer. This is a distinction whose importance is often missed.
But why should one bother to understand music if one can enjoy it without understanding it?
Let me try and provide an answer via an analogy. Would you enjoy watching chess or cricket if you did not know the rules of the games? In all likelihood the answer would be in the negative. Music is obviously much more powerful in its impact compared to chess or cricket because it can be enjoyed without any knowledge of its rules. But the point to ponder is this: How much more does music have to offer? How much more would the enjoyment increase with greater familiarity with its principles, vocabulary, and grammar?
Think of another analogy. No one who can help it confines himself or herself to a lifetime of consuming plain food. Human beings enjoy making their meals tastier and rave about the special dishes they have had the pleasure of sampling. An ordinary meal would do the job of providing the daily requirement of calories but those who know the difference between a well-made dish and a not-so-well-made one are willing to make the effort to enjoy the former. This requires learning the rules of good cooking or at least being able to appreciate them.
Music is like that, too. There is a difference between good music and not-so-good music and it is difficult to pick up the difference without an understanding of the underlying rules. But a heightened musical experience is not the only reason to invest in learning its rules. There is another more mundane but equally important reason for doing so that pertains to the simple law of supply and demand. It is only the demand for good music based on the existence of discerning listeners that can ensure a supply a supply of good performers. Without a discerning audience, bad performers would drive out the good – only noise shall remain and by that time it might be too late to reverse the tide.
How difficult is to learn about music? Here the distinction mentioned in the first paragraph becomes relevant. It is indeed hard work becoming a good cricketer or chess player but it is not all that difficult to understand the rules of chess or cricket. It is the same with music. It is relatively quite easy to acquire the essential knowledge required to enhance the appreciation of music.
That, however, has not been the focus of our musical tradition which is oriented primarily to the training of performers. Students learn how to become good performers by long apprenticeships with teachers imbibing the skill through emulation. If they do pick up any theoretical knowledge it is a by-product and a function of their own curiosity. Often the best of the teachers are not able to explicate the essential aspects of music theory.
Thus the only route to music appreciation or music criticism is the prohibitively daunting one of first becoming a performer and even that does not guarantee the outcome. Is there an easier way of achieving the objective of producing a discerning listener? It is the premise of this series that there is and we shall devote our effort to that end in the posts that follow in this series.