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Reflections on Music

Music – everybody listens to music these days. Is there anything surprising in that?

“Music – everybody listens to music these days. Is there anything surprising in that? If we look backwards in time, we will see that it was not always so. Music then was music – not the good music-bad music, rock music-classical music, this music and that music. Music can only be music – neither good nor bad – whatever else there is, is non-music. Music in the past was not merely a form of entertainment but something more. Moreover, only the few used to listen to music, as was the case with all art. There were few pretences in this regard and it was not a means of achieving fame or success. It was life for some, means of worship for some, and for some it was a means of great expression, beyond words and images. The tones, the sounds employed, the instruments were all a very personal medium for the musician to reach into himself and go beyond it,” I said to my friend Jitendra, one day after listening to Bach.

It had been a year since I started taking music seriously and found great pleasure in doing so. Earlier, all I used to listen to was some Hindi film music and some of the latest, most popular English and Hindi pop music. It was always a means of entertainment for me, a means of passing time, a means of having some activity in the background while doing something else so that I didn’t get bored. I had never actually paid attention to it before.

Jitendra said, “Like all other arts, music has declined in the last 30 or so years. Music has now become associated with images, ideas and for entertainment, partying and all the rest. Most so-called music these days is nothing but empty sounds, put together by a lot of people, using all kinds of artificial means to manipulate the sounds to achieve one end – popularity. That is what popular music is. Moreover, a division has been created, probably on the basis of outward form – between classical and popular music. But if one listens, actually listens, what one hears is only music. If one simply listens, without comparing what one hears to his or her idea of music, only then one can see what music is.”

I was new to Mumbai and Jitendra was my only friend here, so usually on weekends and whenever I had a day off, I went to his place to stay over. He was an old friend of mine, from the time when I was in Delhi. We used to stay together at a paying guest hostel. Our rooms were close by and we often used to spend time together.

I said, “In India, only classical forms of music have survived, probably because it has been not popular and most of its exponents have not succumbed to the motives of personal ambition or fame. In the West, the same is the case with classical music, though there the quality depends upon the interpretation of the performer or the conductor. In popular music, several good attempts were made, in rock, punk, and jazz in the years before the 80s. Since then, there has been a gradual decline in popular music. In India, Bollywood music, except in a few cases, has been melodramatic, sensational and mediocre. The decades of the 60s and 70s were especially productive for music in many ways – there was a regeneration, a breaking from the traditional forms, but soon afterwards, it collapsed again.”

I had been finding myself becoming more and more intimate with music lately. I saw the beauty, the importance of music as a part of human existence. At first, I used to resist anything new, since it was not already known to me. I used to remain content with what was familiar since it gave me a certain degree of comfort. Now I was realizing how small my world was and how vast were the unexplored territories. Music was what helped me realize this more than anything else. I started listening to it openly, afresh, with no expectations whatsoever and found that by listening without an idea, I could listen so well. Music was teaching me how to listen.

“One can’t define what music is – any attempt to define music physically does not suffice. One has to hear, with clear senses, untainted by expectation or comparison to see the beauty of music,” he said, as if reading my thoughts. “Music is always out of time. If you are actually, attentively listening, there will be no sense of time. It is this quality of music that has made so many of the great composers exalt it as a divine virtue. Music has an effect on the body and the mind – not as two distinct effects but as one total effect. It affects the senses in various ways, and when one is in harmony with the music, then it ceases to be something separate, something outside of oneself – you become the music. Music is harmony and music is beauty. Music has the quality of expressing the inexpressible. One can’t approach music with one’s own peculiar likes or dislikes and tastes, which are all a part of one’s own conditioning. Music is something both extraordinarily complex and simple at the same time. We are not used to listening to anything except our own thoughts, therefore we can’t sense the beauty of music. Because we are always trying to do things according to our own peculiar tastes and likes and dislikes that we have built up, we become deaf to all other sounds. But when we drop all that and simply listen, then sound becomes a most wonderful thing – the complexity of it, the depth, the clearness, the penetration, the opening of many doors it leads towards, is inexpressible and beyond words.”

How well he could put it all into words! The things that I had faintly realized and which were not so clear to me became clear as light on hearing him.

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