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ON Stage brings you excerpts from the NCPA Quarterly Journal, an unsurpassed literary archive that ran from 1972 to 1988 and featured authoritative and wide-ranging articles. In the first of a two-part series, William P Mann dissects the belief that music is universal.

The fame and talent of Indian musicians is such that they are often involved in all kinds of international meetings as are the artistes and scholars of many other parts of the globe. The hosts of such important meetings are always concerned that their honoured guests feel welcome. For this purpose, they usually enlist some regional dignitary whose primary task is to open the meeting and set a friendly tone in order that things hopefully continue in a proper manner. With guests from many parts of the world, this is indeed a challenge. The standard procedure is for the speaker to expound the exceptional value of music in this strife-torn world as an international language which helps to create brotherhood, love, and peace among the people of the world.

It is truly a lovely idea and one that will inspire positive feelings in many sensitive hearts. There is only one problem with this idea; it is not true. If it were true, Indians would flock to Chinese opera movies and Italians would buy out every ticket of a touring Jatra theatre group from Orissa performing in Rome. However, it is a fact that a rare performance of Japanese court orchestra music and dance (gagaku and bugaku) in Vienna once played to an almost empty house while a similar ah aak ensemble from Korea played in neighbouring Japan to a house filled with emigrant Koreans who soon shouted for better, more ‘real’ Korean music. 

One man’s melody, another’s noise

The fact that someone went somewhere in hopes of hearing some music does seem to imply that music is a universal need, an essential element in every culture or sub-culture of every part of the world. This need is equally great for a young man walking down the street with a transistor plugged in his ear as it is for a paddy planter singing to his rice shoots to make them grow. Such a terrible need for music in the world is indeed worthy of note at every international music conference. However, along with this universal truth, one must add that music is, in fact, not an international language any more than, for example, Swahili or Chinese are in the fields of speech communication.

Music, in a world sense, consists of a whole series of equally logical but different closed systems. A listener from one culture with wide international musical experience might understand the meaning of the word ‘different’ in the above definition as he shudders at the thought of sitting through another hour of some specific ‘terrible’ music. However, note that the term ‘logical’ implies that the characteristic parts of any given musical event actually are set in an order and a hierarchy. These are determined by the musical culture to which that event belongs, and need not conform to other cultures’ view of musical logic. The word ‘equal’ means that one cannot place a value judgement on a given system in any international sense. Thus a German symphony is not necessarily better than an Indian gat. Naturally, one has the aesthetic right to like one style or form better than another but this is not a view that works very well towards an international musical understanding.

In a related context, we should note that the word ‘closed’ elements of a music and their arrangements in one culture may be radically different from those of another and may, in fact, be unusable out of their original tradition. To understand this last point, merely think of a dhrupad sung by an Italian opera soprano with orchestral accompaniment, a Mozart string quartet played by a Chinese opera orchestra, a Javanese gamelan composition rendered by a brass band, or a Wagnerian aria played on a veena.

Getting technical

At this point one may begin to wonder: what really is music after all? From the standpoint of the study of music in world cultures (a science known to some as ethnomusicology) there seem to be two answers. One is purely cultural and the other is potentially universal. The first is that a sonic event is called music if the knowledgeable carriers of the culture in which it occurs call it music themselves. No matter what the outside listener may feel about the sound, the cultural definition depends only on the opinion of the actual carrier of the culture involved. What sounds like a shout to one person may be a love song to another. By the same token one may hear a lovely melody which culturally may turn out not to be music at all. A case in this point is found in certain sects of Islam in which music is quite forbidden in the mosque. In such circumstances it is possible only to ‘read’ the Qur’an and the rules for a proper reading are often most rigorous, systematic, and logical. There may even be regional and international contests of such readings as well as long recordings of famous readers but, culturally speaking there is no music.

The second answer to our question of what is music must reflect a more international, neutral view. In this context, any sound event may be considered and studied as though it were music if it combines the elements of pitch, rhythm and dynamics in a way that communicates emotionally, aesthetically, or functionally in a manner that either transcends or is unrelated to speech communication. Regardless of what the culture may call it or what you may think of it, such an event can be ‘analysed’ in order to find its musical components. In this manner, it can be properly compared with the music of other cultures or with other sonic events within that one culture. Musical analysis and cultural context; both these approaches are very useful in one’s development of a tolerance and perhaps an understanding of that wonderful non-international phenomenon called music. Let us dwell first on some of the analytical aspects of this musical universe.

If we limit ourselves to literate, urban music cultures one could view the world in four or five large segments: South Asia, the Near East, the Far East, Europe, and perhaps the Southeast Asian knobbed gong culture. Around each of these central systems, are orbiting many kinds of different but related styles usually called national musics. Thus Germany, America, Argentina and France belong to one large family while India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are part of another. The Near Eastern family has very widespread relatives along the Mediterranean littoral and in Africa and South Asia as well as in parts of Malaysia and the southern Philippines, while East Asian culture holds rather closely to China and its neighbours such as Korea and Japan. The knobbed gong culture of Southeast Asia is a smaller but equally important group that seems to maintain yet another logical but different system.

The irresistibility of the exotic

Of course, all these systems have been in contact with each other at some time or another and in the modern mass communication world are interpenetrating even further than before. One need merely listen to the more imaginative examples of Indian film music to recognise that while music is not an international language, neither is it a set of totally isolated sounds.

Nevertheless, when one wishes to deal with the traditional aspects of one musical culture, the presence of an equally logical but different system in its organisation may make one’s own means of musical analysis most inappropriate. Thus, for example, all the wondrous means used in the West to explain a Beethoven symphony will tell us nothing about the music of a Thailand pi phat orchestral piece. By the same token, if one looks at an Indian khayal in terms of the Western sonata-allegro form, it is chaos; while, on the other hand, if one applies the thorough analytical system of Japanese Noh drama to Bach cantatas, they too will make no sense.

In recent years some of the analytical systems used in the field of linguistics have proven most fruitful in ‘taking apart’ the actual sonic events of various world musics. These techniques have an appeal for many ‘world-curious’ musicians, particularly those whose major interest is or was composition, for composers are rather like mechanics. They both have an incurable need to find out how things work. If a mechanic sees an auto drive by in which the driver sits with his arms folded, he will be dying to know how the machine works. If he opens the bonnet and finds almost no engine as well, he will pursue the secret even further. It is much in the same way that many Western musicians with compositional training became quite immersed in an ‘exotic’ music. Colin McPhee’s life in Bali is a good case in point. Other compositionally trained musicians such as Mantle Hood moved on into the broader field of ethnomusicology.

Technically, this discipline is defined as the scientific study of music in any world culture or subculture in terms of its actual sounds and performance practice in its relation to the specific culture, or in comparison with other cultures. It is an imposing definition but secretly, those musicians who have pursued this profession may admit that a subliminal goal of their work is hedonism. By that is meant that a sensitive musician would like to be able to enjoy a musical event that other people obviously find beautiful but, because of the non-international aspect of music, he cannot fathom very well or perhaps not at all. Readers who are not musicians will recognise an analogous feeling which can be generated when one attends a reception held in a foreign tongue that you do not speak. Thus it is that musicians and musical scholars of the modern world have pursued the elusive muse and then, having once found her in one of her disguises, have attempted to teach each other her many dialects so that they may never feel left out of important musical conversations.


This article was originally published from the Archives section by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the April 2019 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.