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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 second installment of a two-part series, William P Mann dissects the belief that music is universal.

So far, we have spoken of analysis primarily in terms of the sounds of music. The study of that aspect of the art can teach us a great deal. However, we must remember that the sounds themselves are only part of a musical system. One of the fascinations of the total system is the logical way in which all its parts interrelate. Take, for example, the logical results of the Indian raga system. Since a raga is not merely a scale but rather a scalar-melody type with many important characteristics such as ornamentations and pitch variations, involved chords and chord progressions never became part of the Indian classical system. Such thick vertical sonic structures would simply muddy up the musical picture. However, the drone did become essential for its need is logical. The vadi and samvadi and all the many other important aspects of the raga fit together in performance partly because the drone is constantly there to remind the listener of the raga’s tonal point of origin. Because there are so many factors which make up a raga, it is also logical that there be a long, rhapsodic alaap before the actual start of a composition. One doesn’t need more than a chord or two to establish C major in Western music but the Bhairav raga simply cannot be properly introduced by merely a few plunks on the sitar. The very construction of that instrument, by the way, is indicative of its logical connection with the Indian system. Drone strings are present because they may be needed while the frets are movable because of the tonal richness of the raga system. The frets are also convex in order to make it possible to render Indian ornamentations correctly. Except for the potential drone strings, none of these aspects of the sitar are found on the guitar because the musical needs of Western music are quite different. They are also missing from the Japanese shamisen for other equally logical but different reasons. We hasten to add that this does not make one of these traditions better than the other. It is simply different. 

Lost in translation

The logical needs of Indian music create different forms. Since most classical music stays within one raga with shifts of tonal emphasis within it, the two themes in contrasting keys – techniques so dear to 18th and 19th century Western composers – is of no particular value in an Indian context and, in truth, would be a compositional nuisance. By the same token, the Western five-line notation with all its extra marks is grossly inadequate for Indian classical music. Indian musicians long have understood that notation is only a memory aid, not a law. This is certainly true as well of many Western performers for whom ‘interpretation’ of the printed page is the essence of their art. Despite the training of those closely allied to the so-called Gutenberg galaxy of print, both the more sensitive Western musicians and most Asian performers have been able to hold to the important insight that music is meant to enter a man’s heart and brain primarily through his ears rather than his eyes. One could carry on further with examples of the intimate relations of all the parts of Indian traditional classical music and one also could follow similar logical paths in musics from other parts of the world. However, the basic point has been made and we need to consider next some aspects of the second part of our ethnomusicological definition, the relations of a music to a specific culture or in comparison with other cultures.

A good starting point for a new topic is the power of music in a personal social setting. The school fight song in a sports contest or a popular song that was in fashion at the time when one first fell in love are capable of evoking strong personal emotions throughout one’s life from school days to the retirement home. Such memories usually involve the physical location and the cultural social setting of the original event. Thus, a specific moment of personal or cultural history may be identified and retained through the oral tradition of music as strongly and sometimes more emotionally than it can through the very different kind of magic of the printed word.

The musical aspects of more general regional or national events have similar potentials for long range effects through recall or the reinforcement of repeated performances. It is this phenomenon which is one of the motivating factors in the creation of, for example, Protestant hymns, polemical songs and singing commercials. Thus, through a variety of musical experiences young American Christians might first learn and remember that Jesus loved them and later that God was a mighty fortress while in their college days they might know that we shall overcome as well as be aware of which cigarette tastes good like it should. However, since music is not an international language, it is not possible for me to present similar examples from India. Such equally powerful messages might be totally lost on me as a non-carrier of Indian culture. 

The sonic response

It is, of course, true that man, like the other brighter animals can be taught to respond ‘correctly’ to various previously foreign stimuli like music. In his natural habitat, however, his tastes may be very different. The late Richard Waterman, a noted ethnomusicologist, told of a field trip among the aboriginals of Australia in which he played tape recordings of various forms of Western music in order to gauge the natives’ reactions. Their responses to all examples were the same. Whether the music was Bach, Stravinsky, march music or jazz, the listeners remained impassive and either puzzled or bored. By accident, Waterman happened to end his tape with an example recorded earlier from another tribe on the other coast of Australia. At that point there was sudden action and animated conversation for the aboriginals had never heard such ‘weird’ music. Poor Bach and the rest of the Western greats did not even rate inclusion in the ‘weird’ category because, by aboriginal standards, they simply were noise, not music in the sense of their musical logic. This is not the result of their ‘primitive’ musical taste. It is merely the incompatibility of their great sensitivity to their own forms of sophisticated music with the requirements of similar sensitivities in Western music. The Western music-loving reader, understandably, may feel upset at this point for the objects of his personal adoration may seem to have been maligned. It is not so. Bach remains beautiful in his own cultural context whether someone from the outside likes him or not. The same is true of a Chinese opera aria. The object of our discussion so far has been primarily to clarify the meaning of the first lesson for the day: music is not an international language. That being so, we are led naturally to the second lesson which is that music is one of the more powerful and easily recognisable aspects of cultural identity.

Let us return to the aboriginal who considered Bach to be non-music. It is important to remember that his judgement was not primitive. It was totally accurate and sensitive in terms of his own musical culture. Within that culture, there will be pieces equally treasured by a cultural carrier though they may not make sense to someone who does not understand that particular musical language. If one wishes to study further in such a foreign musical tongue, it may be possible eventually to classify some pieces sociologically under the unfortunately foggy terms of folk songs, popular songs and art music. Actually, these terms usually do not exist for the sake of comparative studies if the criteria used are primarily socio-historical.

For example, there may be songs known to many different tribes in Australia in different versions over several generations which, like the American ‘Billy Boy’, could be called folk songs. At the same time, one can find a tune, set in the latest musical fad of Australia’s Arnhem Land and dealing with topical events, which can be called an indigenous popular song. In the transistor era, one can, of course, add the ersatz international or regional popular sounds which play important roles in mass communication in terms of radio time allocations. Finally, there always seem to be, in any culture, some ‘special’ pieces which are usually performed against the highest standards of excellence held by informed native listeners. Such music may not be part of everyone’s taste in that culture, but sensitive culture carriers at least respect those who perform it and the listeners who judge it. One might call this art music, and apply the term just as well to a sacred song sung quietly in a secret place of the Australian desert as to three days of Wagnerian operatic inundations at the festival theatre in Bayreuth, Germany. 

Ancient traditions

Art musics often maintain some form of conscious music theory. This is well-known in the case of Euro-American traditions where, in recent decades, there have been cases in which the theoretical explanation of certain pieces was more important than their sound. The theoretical underpinnings of art music in the Near East, India and China are as detailed as that of the Western classical tradition. The Arab maqam scales, the Indian raga, and the ancient tuning pipes of China are as familiar to professional music theorists as the writings of Pythagoras or Rameau. However, all these traditions fall within the Gutenberg galaxy of the printed word. When one moves on with one’s ears and mind to the oral traditions of, for example, New Guinea or the gong ensembles of Borneo, the concept of theory seems very remote indeed. At first study, one seems to find only mythology or ‘superstition’. At closer examination, however, some tales are found to be efficient explanations of musical choices set in terms that can be understood and recalled by people of the tradition. How many musical or sociological theories of the West can be said to function that well?

One can retort that such an oral theory is not capable of being applied to extensive musical analysis. This is generally true. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that musics within the confines of their native habitats often cannot be separated from their culture contexts for purely musical study. Indeed, in many cultures there is no word for music per se in their spoken languages. The word for music and for poetry or praying may be one, and music may only be defined by the name for the cultural event in which it is used. In such situations, it may not be terribly vital to know the precise tuning of an instrument or the use of an anhemitonic pentatonic scale (the black notes on the piano).

Of course one can ask further whether all this native music is ‘good’ music? Perhaps the most efficient reply is, “Good for what?”

Curt Sachs, a famous early devotee to ethnomusicological studies, presented in the last chapter of his last book perhaps one of the most telling intellectual final gifts. The chapter in The Wellsprings of Music is entitled ‘Progress?’ In it he points out that by diligent training we can teach a university student to ‘hear’ and ‘appreciate’ a Beethoven symphony much as he learns to ‘understand’ other foreign languages. The ‘uneducated’ Eskimo, by contrast, will instantly understand which of some twenty words meaning snow was used as one of the few words appearing in a long-syllabled three-tone chant which occupied a time period nearly as long as a symphonic movement. Of equal or greater importance, he will understand and appreciate why that form of the word snow was chosen, and thus will understand the very depth of the musical event far beyond the reach of most experts on sonata-allegro form in the West. As our music became more complicated, says Sachs, it became less directly meaningful to the carriers of the cultural context in which it was composed and, perhaps, less so to inheritors of that general tradition.

The reader may at this point despair, for it would seem that, since music is not an international language, it really is a fruitless task for one to even attempt to cross the bridge into someone else’s musical land. However, music’s lack of a universal tongue does not mean that one cannot learn to converse in several dialects with success. One can never find the ‘deepest point’ which will involve all the childhood memories that return at each hearing within one’s own musical world, plus whatever Jungian archetypes may lurk about in the wings. Nonetheless, one can understand enough of such distant musical languages that it is possible, at least, to respect the validity and reason for being of some musical tradition vastly different from anything he ever heard before. This is cultural understanding at its best. No one is required to ‘like’ every aspect of every part of the world even in the United Nations. What is mandatory in the educated man is a sense of awe and respect for the multitudinous variety of manners in which world cultures handle their individual solutions to common human needs.


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