I have frequently been told by (new) listeners of Indian music, especially North Indian music of how soothing it is to their ears, how meditative the experience is, and how it makes them feel as though they can concentrate and focus. Contrary to what most performers willl feel about this after having sung a long and serious rendition of a Bihag, for example, these listeners, of course, mean it is a huge complement. Even educated listeners of different kinds sometimes collapse the many moods and functions of indian music into what is first available from its form.
Understandably, this can become frustrating. If the form (the structure) of a piece of music is inseparable from the functions, but the form occludes the function, it is hard to get involved in the properties of the function afresh. Different ragas in Indian music are meant to evoke and represent emotions ranging from happiness in the monsoon, to sensual interaction with the beloved, to righteous anger, to supplicating devotion. How does the walk from these intended emotions to one ‘meditation’ affect take place?
I have thought of some properties in the structure and presentation of Indian music, that might just be a challenge to grasp, way before moving on to the functional nuances:
- The Tanpura Drone, and the sounds of the overtone
- Fixed tonic position
- Long open vowels (for vocal music)
- Beginning and exposition in an extremely slow tempo
- Absence of rhythmic repetition for a large part of the performance
- Melodic detail (which is sometimes easy to miss because of intricacy and speed)
- Getting used to feeling the differences of minor variations on the mood
- Not understanding the language
At first brush it is clear that this music is not meant to dance to, not dance in the club sense. It offers one or two memorable lines at most. There is no refrain, no bridge, no return section – all the structural markers are missing. It is difficult to understand and get into a new melodic ‘mode’ with new intervals, as their functions are unclear. A very good question to ask is especially for ragas is the range of mood that people can identify as being different between ragas that are even close to each other, such as bhairav and kalingada. What, also, makes the moods of faraway ragas seem similar for untrained audience. Also, if the intended emotion is not universally comprehensible, what prior experience is required to understand the nuance? Is this prior exposure sufficient if its only in the sense of musical training, or does linguistic and prosodic nuance add up?
I guess several of these are straight up research questions / might be hard to answer even if data is present. But what I want to say is this: No type of music is meant for one thing alone – never for one type of musical affect. Once we can get over the form and structure of any genre, then there are things to see, outside is only an aura, a farce, and no nuance.