My interest in neurological facets of music is nascent. My familiarity with the subject is negligible. My first serious look at it was occasioned by a chance exposure to an eminently readable paper by Alasdair Wilkins, titled “Music and Neuroscience” which came to my attention on Facebook.
Before making observations on the report with specific reference to Hindustani music, I present below a selective summary of its relevant indications.
1. From the perspective of neuroscience, listening to music is one of the most complex things you can do. Many parts of your brain have to work together to comprehend even the simplest tune. The act of processing music is so diffuse and decentralized throughout the brain that describing it as being centered in the right side of the brain is an oversimplification.
2. An intriguing side-effect of listening to music is the activation of the visual cortex, found in the back of the brain in the occipital lobe. Research indicates that some music can provoke a response in this part of the brain, as the engaged listener tries to conjure up appropriate imagery to match the changes and progression in the music.
3. There is no real objective measure of what counts as “musical” and what doesn’t. Memory is one of the most obvious influences here – you are most likely to like a particular of piece of music if it carries positive associations with it.
4. If there is one constant in this, it is that songs carry as tremendous ability to provoke emotional responses – indeed, it can even seem our brain’s primary concern, when it comes, to music. In fact, the brain hangs onto the ability to understand the emotional impact of music, even if the finer points are lost. Brain imaging studies have shown that “happy” music stimulates the reward centers of the brain, causing the production of the chemical dopamine – the same chemical produced from eating great food, having sex, and taking drugs.
5. Brigham Young University researchers report that infants as young as five months are able to discern when a happy song is playing, and by nine months, they have added comprehension of sad music to their repertoire. They observed that all the happy songs were in major keys with fairly short phrases or motifs that were repeated. Their tempo and melodic rhythms were faster than any of the sad selections and the melodies had a general upward direction. Four of the sad songs were in minor keys and all had a slower beat and long melodic rhythms.
6. We actually can have physiological reactions to music – happy music with a fast tempo and major key can make is breathe faster, while sad music and minor key can slow down our pulse and cause blood pressure to rise.
The significance of music
1. Prof. Daniel Neuman, amongst the most respected ethno-musicologists today, has studied the social organization of Hindustani music for over four decades. In his recent book – Studying India’s Musicians (Manohar books, 2015) – makes the following observations:
“Music is a special instance of human behavior. The fact that it is universal – no peoples are known not to have music – and species-specific to homo sapiens, suggests and adaptive basis for music in the evolution of our species. In other words, music has been important in the evolution of our species, although it is not clear in what way this is the case. But, the fact that societies such as India spend so much energy in the training of musical specialists, raises for me questions of why this is so.
These observations are well supported by the neurological finding that listening to music is a far more complex neurological process, involving many more part of the brain, than has for long been believed. Music may therefore be considered an integral part of human evolution, and justify the massive amount of energy that societies like India have invested in the cultivation of music professionals.
Music elicits an emotional response
2. Indian musicological thought is consistent with the neurological finding that songs (which are pre-composed rather than largely improvised like Raga-based music) carry a tremendous ability to provoke emotional responses – indeed, it can even seem our brain’s primary concern, when it comes, to music. In fact, the brain hangs onto the ability to understand the emotional impact of music, even if the finer points are lost. This finding would validate the phenomenon of a maestro’s music bypassing the intellectual discernment of its contents, and enabling the enjoyment of its emotional content.
In my first book – “Hindustani Music – a tradition in transition” (2005) – I have observed as follows:
The word “Raga” does not have a musical or melodic meaning at all; it has only an emotional meaning. The notion of the “Raga” deals with the totality of the communication process – generation of the stimulus as well as the elicitation of the response. In common usage, the word has come to describe a melodic structure, the stimulus, because the music world has accepted a correspondence between the stimulus and the response, and feels comfortable in using the word “Raga” to describe the former. This leads to the proposition that the “Raga”, as commonly understood, is a melodic representation of an emotional statement, and a vehicle for its communication.
In the second edition of the book (2015), I have developed the idea that a Raga is, in reality, a psycho-acoustic hypothesis. Each Raga shapes a distinct pattern of melody by its unique selection, sequencing, and treatment of the swara-s. Because of the distinct pattern, each Raga suggests a different emotional idea to the listener. But, the swara-s of the scale have no musical meaning in isolation. So, when a Raga organizes them in a specific manner with the intention of communicating an emotional idea, there is a tacit assumption of a cause-and-effect relationship – something akin to a theory. But, a theory requires a substantial predictability of effect from a given cause.
Since the Raga is a “formless form”, its impact depends on the quality of the communicable form which interprets it for the audience, and the receptivity of the audience. In addition, the impact may depend on a host of non-musical factors associated with the performance. Because we are in the region of “known possibility” rather than “predictability”, the cause-and-effect assumptions of the Raga may therefore be called a psycho-acoustic hypothesis, which is tested uniquely at every performance for its effectiveness in producing the desired emotional response.
Familiarity is the basis of "musicality"
The phenomenon of the Raga in Hindustani music is supported by the neurological finding that there is no real objective measure of what counts as “musical” and what doesn’t. Memory and familiarity are the most obvious influences here – you are most likely to like a particular of piece of music if it carries positive associations with it. In my first book – “Hindustani Music – a tradition in transition” (2005) – I have observed as follows:
The phenomenon of the Raga, as the foundation of music making in the Hindustani tradition, ensures that the aesthetic experience of every performance enjoys the benefits of familiarity along with novelty. But, the tradition accepts that, in time, everything changes. Each generation of musicians and audiences is free to choose the parameters of continuity/ discipline/ conformity / familiarity, and impose on them their own parameters of change/ creativity/ individuality/ novelty. Raga-s have thus evolved as ever-growing and ever-changing repositories of aesthetically coherent melodic ideas.
Is the Raga an archetypal entity?
Is the Raga an archetypal entity?
4. Neuroscience relates the responsiveness of listeners to the association of melodic patterns to pleasant/ unpleasant memories stored in the listener’s mind. Simultaneously, it also suggests that infants as young as five and nine months – an age with hardly anything by way of an accumulated variety of musical/emotional experience – can respond differentially to musical stimuli known to be either “happy” or “sad”. These indications of neuroscience would suggest the possibility that specific melodic patterns are potent at least within a culture specific context -- if not universally potent -- as triggers of associated emotional responses , and this linkage is perhaps stored in something akin to a "collective unconscious" or a “racial memory” rather than a mere storage of accumulated associations in the individual memory.
I have suggested this perspective in the second edition of my first book – Hindustani Music – a tradition in transition
Several years ago, a Western scholar, intrigued by the Raga phenomenon, had asked me a question: – “Does the Raga exist? And, if so, where?” Having lived and worked with Raga-s for almost six decades, I am attracted to the idea that a Raga is an archetypal entity in the Jungian sense. Though this direction of speculation continues to engage my mind, I prefer, for now, to use more familiar linguistic analogies.
A Raga, indeed, exists as definitely as a language exists. By the same analogy, the Raga does not reside either in treatises on Raga grammar or in any document that claims to be a lexicon of Ragas. Like a language, the Raga exists in the collective memory of the community, as a set of associations related to specific sound patterns. As a cultural force – and like a language – it is shaped by usage, and in turn, governs usage. We may say that the Raga resides in its performance, which, in turn, shapes the Raga.
Since each performance is shaped by the interaction between the musician and his audience, the repository of Raga-ness in the collective memory is constantly shuffling and reshuffling its inventory of melodic images to keep the aesthetic resources of the Raga perennially relevant.
Music has a visual component
5. The relationship between melodic patterns and visual imagery is well established in the Hindustani music tradition. Many Raga-s are named after deities, and the mythological associations of these deities are expected to guide the musician in their effective interpretation. There exists a considerable volume of Raga-Dhyana poetry, which enables a musician to visualize a Raga to aid him in the process of drawing a sound-picture of it. There also exists a substantial body of paintings, popularly known as the Ragamala paintings, which represent an artist’s attempt at portraying his interpretation of the Raga experience.
Namita Devidayal’s famous book titled The Music Room (Random House, 2007) opens with a quotation from Ustad Vilayat Khan – “A Raga should be performed such that within a few minutes, both the performer and the audience should be able to see it standing in front of them”. I had occasion to query Khansaheb on this issue. In reply, he said – “You have not discovered it yet. But, there is actually an eye hidden inside a musician’s ear, with which he can see the Raga.”
These notions prevalent in the Hindustani musical culture find support in the neurological discovery -- listening to music results in the activation of the visual cortex, found in the back of the brain in the optical lobe. Research indicates that some music can provoke a response in this part of the brain, as the engaged listener tries to conjure up appropriate imagery to match the changes and progression in the music.
While neurological research appears to focus on the listener’s visualization of a musical experience, the implications are far greater in Hindustani music from the music maker’s perspective. The musician’s task in performance is to explore a Raga, “formless form” and interpret it in communicable form which enables the delivery of emotional meaning to the listener. “Form” itself is a visual idea, and visualization is inherent in the process of manifesting the formless form of the Raga as a communicable and intelligible experience. In shaping a manifest form which delivers emotional meaning, the musician also goes through an auto-suggestive process which is, once again, aided by visualization.
Raga grammar and Rasa
6. I find it interesting that neurological research relates the “key” of the music, the swara-density, tempo, and the directional thrust of the music to its classification into “happy” and “sad” music. The major and minor keys in Western music come closest to the Hindustani notion of a Raga. Its relevance to the communication of emotional ideas validates the melodic wisdom of Hindustani music.
Hindustani Raga-s are classified as “Aroha-pradhan” (ascent-dominant) or “Avaroh-pradhan” (descent dominant) based on the prescribed dominance of ascending/ descending melodic thrusts in their performance. Likewise, they are also classified as “Purvanga-vadi”, “Madhyanga-vadi” or “Uttaranga-vadi”, based on the region of the melodic canvas in which they most effectively communicate their emotional meaning. In fact, there are groups Raga-s in Hindustani music (e.g. Marwa, Puriya, and Sohini), which feature identical swara-s, and are differentiated largely by their differential emphasis on the directional dominance in their melodic treatment, and the epicenter of the melodic action in their rendition. This aspect of Raga grammar is also evidently validated by neurological research.
Musical aesthetics of the Hindustani tradition also acknowledge that Raga-s deliver different emotional values in different tempii. This is why exceptionally fastidious Hindustani musicians will not render serious Raga-s in fast tempo compositions, and skip slow-tempo compositions in some others, which are considered vivacious. There appears to be considerable scientific support for this fastidiousness.
At a broader level of consideration, it appears that neuroscience is so far classifying the emotional effects of music only on a bi-polar continuum of “Sad-to-Happy”. The Indian aesthetic tradition, with the highly evolved notion of Rasa prevalent since Bharata’s Natya Shastra, would appear to have intuited a far more complex spectrum. Neuroscience may probe this area further and, some day, help us understand our aesthetic traditions better.
(c) Deepak S. Raja 2015