In India, there is still a lot of talk about playing music from the ‘heart’. Music is mostly still described as something that requires emotional engagement, involvement from love and absorption rather than active engagement with mathematical or analytical parts of you. Music is also taught and learnt by absorption, imitation, involvement and feeling. Although advanced studies include some very complex mathematics and practice, analytic is not the most embellished and overt feature of the narrative of music here. This carries into several other notions, such as musicians are ‘born’ and ‘gifted’, it’s impossible to learn if you weren’t already born with the gift, you might try your hand at some music, but once without a gift is always without a gift – and several such misappropriations are commonly heard.
This perhaps has to do with enigma within love itself – that nothing appears like love if you know it too well and that if something isn’t mysterious enough, then its likable qualities – now transparent before you – are not desirable. That nothing is worth loving if you know it too well. How does this concept scale and compare with music?
When i started to learn to read and write western classical music, it was confusing to a lot of my friends. Ear training drills especially so. A lot of people would ask: “Well if i know the contents of it thoroughly, how will I love it anymore?” That is to say, how will your absorption be overwhelming if you spend too much of your mental resource analyzing musical schemes. At first, I dismissed such a question as an offshoot of popular impressions of musical abilities – that performers are god’s creation and so on. But later, this question seemed not so trivial to me, and the reason is not because of improved musicianship.
A teacher of mine once said: “I listen to music all the time but if you asked me to name a song or two, I wouldn’t know any.” Is it not me then, and just by the virtue of its being ubiquitous now, music has taken over the form of a collective noun in our heads rather than a concept. Another old teacher disapprovingly adds: “He was a musician, but couldn’t dance! You know what that means, right?”. Another who listens to music day in and day out – gets more and more overwhelmed by the complex and engaging capacities that his sophisticated listening abilities enable him. It is in these and many other profound ways that music remains being substantial, but if you ask me to just play a song, I am sure i couldn’t think of one in under 10 seconds. Maybe I could zero in on genre by then. There is so much good work!
Our musical affairs really really intensify during teenage and some studies suggest that the music we hear and love around that time just stays with us for the rest of our lives. This is what happened with me too. I learnt five or six new instruments around that time. I gave them up all one by one, in the interest of focusing on a primary instrument to love – the voice. I played the keyboard every single day when i was a teenager. When my brother would come by during vacations, we would sit together at the keyboard everyday, him singing songs he loved, and me accompanying him, and my mother listening on. I had a small field tape recorder in which i taped tens and hundreds of new compositions. I was just figuring out how to layer instruments on top of each other. When I think of how not-so-long-ago this was, I don’t know who to point the accusatory finger towards – adulthood or music education.
I wasn’t a great musician either – I wrote cheesy lyrics sometimes, I sometimes romanticized the fact that I felt like crying while singing to other people. Me and my friends spent countless hours around that keyboard. I taped on it, sequenced, imitated the songwriters I loved, and just – engaged.
When i think about going home now and sitting by a keyboard – the only songs i can think of playing are those old ones. I am, I guess more accomplished as a musician now – I can hear much more nuanced music, recognize many more things. I even spend a lot of time trying to develop listening of new genres and trying to reproduce and analyze different things people were doing with music. But. I don’t know to engage with any of those songs if I were given a keyboard. I could accompany you if you wanted me to. If you pull up a set list, I would sing all of it perfectly, knowing exactly when and how to emote and what vocal gestures to execute. But I probably would never cry from singing now. Maybe this experience resonates with some?
I have listened to a piece too many to study though – to listen carefully – and this hasn’t meant that humming habits and downtime singing is different now. I still do it all the time – it’s just that I take the question about analysis and lovability more seriously. I find study music more absorptive, it’s qualities more forbearing and powerful, it’s structures more firm and desirous of categorical exploration.
Do you or should you fall out of love with all pop music, all cliche, all things known? Should you, as soon as you see a pattern, abandon absorption and immediately abhor the pattern altogether? If not led by curiosity, what are we really good for? But if led by curiosity, is over-familiarity a dire consequence? Should i care about history, context and quality all the time?
I don’t even think much of the heart-brain cliche, that suggests that there must be notable and separate differences between our reactions from curiosity and our reactions from relatability and love, and don’t see the merit in that. I just wish there was a way to love as intimately the music that i wanted to stomp my foot on the ground firmly for, saying – “This song is mine. I sang it last year.”