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  • Nandan Gautam

Music: What is it really?

Updated: Jun 24, 2019

Several famous musicians like Elvis Costello, Brian Eno, David Bowie... have said that in effect 'Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.'


While the implication here is obvious, there are other questions that may lead us closer to the truth about what music really is - Is music closer to architecture or dance or sculpture? Perhaps it is a language, as some say? And that leads to another set of questions... Is music constructed? Does it aim to be aesthetically pleasing or in some way evoke ones emotions? Are there rules that exist, and can they be broken? The answer is yes, yes and yes. But here is the question for which the answer may not be so obvious? Does music serve a function? And the answer is yes and no. No - because it serves no practical purpose. Even romantic love could be said to serve the purpose of propagation of the species - it leads us to procreate. But man could easily survive without music.


So what purpose should music possibly serve? Research shows that children who play some sort of instrument, do better academically. Research shows that cows when listening to music, produce more milk. And of course, research shows that music has a huge effect on the human mind, the human brain. But does it exist for this purpose? I for one would still listen to music even if it had none of these positive effects, which means that I would listen for pleasure and for pleasure alone.


But this pleasure is not really pleasure is it? Or is it? They say there are two kinds of people - those that love a song for its lyrics and those who love a song for its melody and instrumentation. If you have any doubts about what kind of listener you are then here is a question for you - do you look forward to guitar solos or even the instrumental sections in a pop song? If the answer is yes, then you are more of a 'music' person. If your answer is that you can't wait for the 'boring' part of the song to finish so that you can start singing along with the song agin, then perhaps you are a 'lyrics' person. But truly, no one is really either/or. We are all a combination fo the two. If you were just a lyrics person then why even listen to music. Just read the lyrics off a page of paper and be done with the song. If I set the same lyrics to a terrible melody would you really love that song? Probably not. Which means that it's that particular combination of words and melody that somehow make that phrase or line more powerful and meaningful. A song like 'Hey Jude' touches us, because the melody and words come together in a magical sort of concoction - One that stays in our heart and minds far longer than if those lyrics were separated from the melody. 'Music' people (read: Classical and Jazz lovers in general) will tell you that instrumental music is equally and if not more powerful that music set to lyrics because the instruments can speak in a language that extends far beyond words. There are plenty of emotions that simply have no way of being expressed by words. And for all those emotions there is instrumental music.


In western music we have Bach and Stravinsky and John Coltrane and Miles Davis to name just a few, who didn't speak a single word and yet touch our hearts and souls. And in eastern music we have Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Zakir Hussain and Dr L Subramaniam and Pandit Jasraj, who despite being a vocalist, is known more for his compositions and his improvisational skills than the lyrics which are simple chants, more like vehicles for improvisation. A typical concept can last for several hours and even go well into the night all the way into dawn. The audience would be sitting still, without any additional intoxicants or drugs, wide awake for the entire duration as the musicians would be accompanied by a drone like sound that forms the foundational notes of a particular Raga (scale). This would be the equivalent of a jazz musician soloing over one chord on one scale (albeit the descending notes may vary from the ascending notes) for the whole night while the listeners sip on an occasional chai.


When I was a child and I attended these concerts, it was absolute torture. It was the very definition of boredom. But today if someone were to listen to what I listen to (a solo piano concert by Keith Jarrett or an extended guitar solo by Allan Holdworth) they would probably feel exactly as I did then. With barely a tune, no words or lyrics, and notes cascading up and down like a river without a recognizable beat or danceable rhythm, some would not even consider it music.


What pleasure center does music touch within us that nothing else can? What states of mind does it invoke that it can create a flood of tears or a sense of transcendence that is simply unspeakable.


Try running on the treadmill with and without music and see how far you can go when your favorite music is on. The difference is phenomenal. Maybe not for those who don't love music. But for those who do, it's life and death. There is no comparison.


To come back to the question - Does music serve a purpose? The answer could be as mysterious as the answer to the question - Does life serve a purpose? It is purpose unto itself. It validates itself without reference to anything outside itself.


Shakespeare said, Beware of the man who hath no music in him. Perhaps music comes closest to our soul, which cannot be seen or measured with the instruments we possess but which gives life to inanimate atoms. What is matter but just an illusion that appears before us because the smallest particles within it vibrate at a lower frequency.


Could sound be the first language of the universe when nothing existed, and music the poetry that arises from that language...


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