Posts Tagged ‘Indian’

Love’s Labor Lost?

February 7, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

In a recent article (The Music of Poetry), I argued that it didn’t make sense to ask if one poet was greater than another. The musical metaphor I attempted proved to be the undoing of the piece; perhaps I should have tried a different metaphor – it would be silly, for example, to ask if Tendulkar is “greater” than Muralitharan, though both are cricketers. The reason is obvious, the one being a batsman and the other a bowler. My conclusion was simply that we should place less emphasis on “greatness,” however defined, and focus instead on the pleasure that comes from a given work.

The use of a cricketing metaphor, however, adds another point to the argument. In cricket, statistics are available for comparison in a way impossible for poetry or music, but even then the matter is not as simple as it seems. (more…)

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A Modern Introduction to Music – 17

September 16, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

In the last installment we introduced the classification scheme in which the ragas of Hindustani classical music are grouped into ten parent families called thaats. Little is to be gained by my describing these thaats and listing the ragas that belong to each; this information is now readily available on scores of websites (one relevant to this topic is here). I prefer to share my own explorations of this schema in the hope that some readers would come up with insights that have eluded me thus far.

Personally, and this is surely a function of my ignorance, I haven’t found the schema to be of much use (because of its many exceptions) asides from the help it provides in identifying closely related ragas. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 15

September 4, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

I hope you have watched the video clip I linked in the last installment. If not, I will urge you to do so now because what you will be watching is a visual demonstration of Hindustani classical music. This video will enrich your understanding of classical music more than any number of words.

Let me explain. What you are watching is an incredibly skilled performer who can keep three balls in the air for an extended period all the while creating new and intricate patterns that are non-repetitive. This is an output that rests on an enormous amount of training and endless hours of regular practice. To appreciate the performance you have to keep your eyes open and focused on the patterns made by the balls. And the response that it evokes is less one of entertainment and more one of awe and amazement. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 14

August 29, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

We have completed two stages in this series – the physics of sound in general and the technical foundation of musical sound in particular. These give us an understanding of the fundamental building blocks of music (the swaras) and of how they fit together according to the principle of intervals or ‘musical distance’. With this understanding we are ready to explore how music is constructed.

Many more good textbooks are available in this domain although I find them heavy on content and information and a bit light on communicating the intuition and concepts. I will therefore continue this somewhat off-beat introduction that seeks to reproduce my personal struggles and discoveries and the ways in which I pieced them together. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 13

August 26, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

I hope by now readers have fully internalized the most essential characteristic of music. It is not the frequency of a swara that is important; rather, it is the interval between swaras or the ‘musical distance’ between them that is critical. One can start from any frequency; as long as the subsequent swaras are at the right distance, one would be in the realm of music.

We had started this series with the claim that while all music is sound, not all sound is music. In doing so we had made the distinction between music and noise. We are now in a position to elaborate on this distinction.

Think of construction in which the building block is a brick. If we dump a load of bricks on a plot of land we would have an untidy sight to behold. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 12

August 23, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

We concluded the last installment with an explanation for why there are 12 and not 7 swaras in a saptak. We will take a breather in this installment going over the names of the new swaras thereby completing our knowledge of the alphabet of Indian music. This would prepare us for a perspective on music as a language.

Recall from the last installment that the sequence of swaras in a saptak now appears as follows:

S * R * G M * P * D * N S

The asterisks denote the five new swaras added in the saptak (the black keys on a keyboard – note the characteristic 2-3 pattern mentioned before). (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 11

August 20, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

In the last installment we established the relative frequencies of the seven swaras in the saptak and thereby their relationship to each other. We concluded with two questions: Why was the frequency of the reference note (Sa) not fixed at some absolute value? And, where did the five black keys on the piano octave come from, i.e., Are there 7 or 12 swaras in the saptak?

As often happens, the answer to one question provides a clue to the answer of another. The answer to the first question is really quite intuitive. Vocal music is the dominant genre in the Indian tradition and, as everyone by now will know, every human being has a distinctive voice. Not only that, the voice of the same individual changes over time. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 10

August 19, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

At last we are in a position to answer two fundamental questions: First, why are there so few elements in the musical alphabet? And second, why have widely dispersed civilizations separately discovered the same musical alphabet?

Recall that the range of frequencies that are audible to the human ear extends from about 20 Hz to about 17,000 Hz. This is a huge continuous range that can accommodate an infinite number of stopping points. But as was mentioned earlier, the ear cannot distinguish very small differences in frequencies and of those that it can distinguish, not all combinations are musical or pleasing to hear. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 9

August 18, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

In the last installment we went back to the origins of instrumental music tracing it to the sound that resulted from the draw and release of a hunting bow. This was presumed to have led to experimentation with more strings being stretched across a bow-like frame – a precursor of the harp. Since the shape of the frame mandated strings of unequal length, we asked the natural question: Did there need to be any kind of relationship between the lengths of the various strings in order for the harp to produce music rather than noise?

Recall from an earlier istallment that the frequency generated when a string stretched between two points is plucked depends upon at least four characteristics of the string: its material, its thickness (or gauge), the tension with which it is stretched, and its length. These can be easily verified by actual or imaginary experiments. (more…)

A Modern Introduction to Music – 8

August 13, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

When I discovered ‘frequency’ I felt empowered and reacted much as Archimedes did by letting out a high-pitched shriek – Eureka (“I have found it”). At least for me it was an empowering feeling to finally figure out what I had been talking about.

Let us get two things out of the way before we forge ahead. First, the term ‘high-pitched shriek’ is really a tautology: a shriek, by definition, is high-pitched. If you don’t believe me, try and emit a low-pitched shriek. What you might succeed in emitting would be a low-volume shriek but the shriek itself would retain a high pitch. This is a useful exercise because it would help you distinguish clearly between the two attributes of sound we have learnt so far – volume and frequency. (more…)