Listening with Awareness — Hassan Azad

About the author: Dr. Hassan Azad is a mathematician by profession and a senior student of sitar-nawaz Ustad Mohammad Shareef Khan. He is also a founding director of the Rauf Ansari Foundation. Learn More »

This essay is addressed to listeners of Raag music who want to go beyond being simple consumers, and to students of this music. The title is inspired by Marc Frantz’s article ‘Drawing with Awareness [MF]’. The comparison of drawing with listening is not as far fetched as one might be inclined to think.

We first learn music directly, without being aware of any note names. All of us can sing without knowing the sargam or even being aware of it; for instrumentalists, the fingers just learn to find the correct place with sufficient practice. The direct method of absorbing music and reproducing it is indeed the best method of learning. In learning the music of the subcontinent, great emphasis is also placed on knowing the names of notes. Why is it important when even professional musicians sometimes have difficulty in naming notes? For example, one will be able to sing the melody in Ustad Vilayat Khan’s Bhairveen, which is available at Patrick Moutal’s site [PM]. However, singing or transcribing its sargam will test even a professional musician. So why and when does the ability to name notes become important?

It becomes important when one wants to learn and listen with “awareness”. The desire to know and understand is a fundamental human desire. One wants to know whether Raag development is arbitrary and if not, does it follow some sort of a path. What, if any, are the principles of improvisation and composition in Indian classical music? Are these really different from principles of composition elsewhere? The answers to these questions are of great significance for the transmission of the art of improvisation to the succeeding generations. Surely, the answer must come by analysing recorded or orally transmitted works of masters.

By its very nature, a performer of ICM is a composer of sorts. By learning note recognition, it is possible to get an idea about basic principles of composition in ICM. Of course, no one can teach creativity. By analysis, one can begin to understand the intuition of great artists. We have before us the example of perspective drawing. By analysing it, now even a computer can render a three dimensional scene on the flat screen of a computer.

If one wants to listen with awareness, one has to invest a substantial time in learning note recognition. How can this be achieved? The best I can do is to share my own experiences with you. I used to take very long walks and, to occupy myself, would think about music (and mathematics). I knew several popular songs and I tried to recognize the relative pitch of the first notes of the songs. I also practiced things like SR SG SM SP SD SN SS and then RG RM RP RD RN RS RR etc to etch the various intervals in my mind. After some time I could make out the notes in various compositions.

Once you have mastered note recognition, you will be able to answer the questions posed above. Even the simple question- Is there a relationship between the last note (or groups of notes) of one phrase and the next? – extremely illuminating.

To understand principles of improvisation, one can concentrate on what note or pattern a phrase finishes and with what note or pattern the next phrase starts with. Is there a correlation between the last note of the phrase and the beginning note of the next, or the first notes or groups of notes in one phrase and the next?

For example, if a phrase ends in Sa, it is a good idea to start the next phrase also with Sa (or its consonants) and, for contrasts, with nonconsonants. Look at the phrases in Darbari: Sa- dha ni Re- next Re Sa ni dha – next dha ni dha Sa ni Re, dha Re Re – Dha ga Ma Re Sa Re ___ Re Sa.

You will begin to see that the performers are guided subconsciously by principles of consonances and contrasts, repetitions, silences – which are indeed universal principles of composition.

There are elements of repetitions – recapitulation – omitting notes, substituting other notes, inversions etc. In a musical mind, this happens instinctively, but it certainly helps the student to be aware of this while improvising.

The variation in Raag music comes from colouring the notes differently – this is what a shurti does- hearing the same phrase in the mind differently with microtones, meends, gamaks, variation in volume, cross rhythms…

Once you have mastered note recognition, you will be able to find your own answer to the question: Where are our Mozarts and Beethovens? From the analysis of the recorded music of Ustads Imdad Khan, Inayat Khan, and Vilayat Khan, it seems that composition in Raag Music is incremental and our Mozarts and Beethovens are ever present with us. It is their sense of balance, contrasts and a stream of ever new ideas and nuances which distinguishes them from the average performer.

The immense treasures available on the Internet will also become available for you to analyze and learn and teach from and to test your theories. You will have a fund of first rate taans and compositions to transcribe, to play and sing. You will derive immense pleasure from recognizing germs of new ideas and their evolution. You can see and hear all this in play in the transcription given in the appendix and the ones done earlier on the Virsa site.

I want to conclude this essay by reproducing words which were addressed to the student of Mathematics. Replacing Mathematics with Music shows how close the learning methods of these disciplines really are:

While you may have a clear idea of what a physicist or a chemist does – because you see them working in their laboratories – you may not have a very clear picture of what a professional mathematician does to discover something new. Well, the laboratory of a mathematician is the laboratory of ideas which are handed down through generations of mathematicians. The usual task of a mathematician is to combine these ideas to form new ideas, to link hitherto unrelated mathematical ideas and, of course, to have original ideas. All of this demands extreme hard work and patience but if you are mathematically talented, you will certainly have a couple of good original ideas and these ideas would be enough to earn you a respectable place in the comity of mathematicians.

Just as most of you learn to appreciate language and can recognise beautiful phrases and ideas, a trained mathematician also learns to recognise beauty in mathematics and to sift good ideas and he is guided in his researches by such largely aesthetic criteria. The joy of discovering a truly fruitful idea is something that can only be experienced; it cannot be described in words.

Acknowledgement: I thank Pete Fine for a correspondence which led to this essay.

REFERENCES

[MF] Marc Frantz, Drawing with Awareness

[PM] Patrick Moutal’s Indian Music page

APPENDIX: A Transcription of Ustad Vilayat Khan’s Gujari Todi: click here to download it from Patrick Moutal’s page

Notation: This is just a skeletal notation meant only for learning and research. It should be read while listening to the actual music from the source. To follow this, you will need to download the Gujari Todi mp3 file with the option of speed reduction. For the purposes of analysis and study, it is recommended that you play the music at half the speed.

Naturals are denoted by capital letters, any variation thereof by small letters. The letter c denotes playing the chikari string. Notes of the lower octave (Mandir Asthaan) are indicated by a dash (‘), notes of the upper octave (Taar Asthaan) by a double dash (“). A bold letter denotes the first beat (Sum) of the cycle. The composition is in Teen Taal.

Although Pa is not allowed in Gujari Todi, it is acceptable at extremely fast speeds.

Gugari Todi:

Alaap:ScSc SN’rS /

Ndmg-rg-rS___SN’rS

Gaat: d-mdm/dNS”Ndmdmg/g-m/

d-mdm/dNS”Ndmdmg/g-m/

d-mdm/dnS”Ndmdmg/g-m/

d—/m-grS/N’Srgr-SS

/S”- -d-mdN N-dmd mgmm/

d—/—-/o—/—-/

1st taan from (1/2 matra before) sum- in double tempo(x 2)

(1) NN dm dm gr gr SN’ Sr gr SN’ S – – – – –

2nd taan from 16th matra(x 2)

(16)SN’ rS gr SN’ Srg Srg N’S N’r Sg rS

N’r SN’ SN’ rS gr SN’

S r g m P m g r / g m P d NN d m / S” r” g”m”P” m” g” r” /

S”S” dN dN dm dm g r S_/ NNdmgmd-/ NNdmgmdNS”-/NNdmgmdNS”

– – -/(4) dm md N-dmd m g m mdS” — m-d- _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _


– 3rd taan-from 4th matra: (x2)

(4)d m d NS N d m g r g r S N’ S- – – – – X- – -/ – – -/

(8)S r g r S N’ / S r g m P m g r / g m P d S” N d m d m g r g r S N’ S/

– – – – – – – –

From sum : (1)S r g m P m g r /g m P d S” N d p / S” r” g” m” P” m” g” r”/ S” S” d m g

r SN’S/ S” N d m g r S N’ S / S” N d m g r S N’ S / S” N d m g r S N’ S /

(1)S”- – d- m m d N-dmd mgmdS’- d—d-d-d-

(1) m g r S – – – -/(9) S – r S- – S N’ r S- g r S – r S-g r – rS- rS-rS-gr-mg-

gamak /d d d d/d d d d/d d d d /g r S N’- r g m D n n n- d m g g m m g r S/

N’- r g m d N S”/ S” N g” r”-N d-m-g-r S/

N’-r g m d/N’-r g m d/g-m d – – m-d N S” N d m-m g m d S”-d-/- – – -/o – – – /- – – – /

X- (3)gg mm dd NN S”S” NN dd mm gg rr gg rr SS rr/

(1)N’N’N’N’ rrrr gggg mmmm dddd NNNN S”S”S”S” r”r”r”r”/(1) g” r”- r” S”-S” NX Nd_d/ g-

md- -d- g-md g-m g-md- -m d N S” N d m d m g g-m d- – -/ – –

Also read Mathematics, Arts and Real Life: Reflections on Teaching Mathematics — Hassan Azad

16 thoughts on “Listening with Awareness — Hassan Azad

  1. I like this article because it is a partial reflection of my own—or anyone else’s—continuing musical experience. The introduction is admirably childlike and in the classically naïve spirit of inquiry, where climbing upstairs comes before climbing downstairs, and so on. The mathematical skeleton of phrasing and other similar measures are also very sensible.

    Since there is thoughtful mention of instinctive/deliberate movements/intuitions and the intent to grapple with them, I would like to augment this honest discourse with a couple of ‘acquired’ insights, and must have recourse to a text passage and an audio clip that I personally consider worth living by:

    1. “Raga – and the Ananda it brings – is best experienced firsthand, by renewing and recreating it in the hallways of your own mind, not vicariously or through the written word. I am anxious that a Raga not be viewed as merely an ensemble of rules defined by Aroha and avaroha, vAdi-samvAdi pairs, and a tissue of characteristic phrases and chalans. A nyAsa swara here and a skipped swara there are important and necessary details while speaking about Raga, true. But where do these considerations come from? Are they merely whims ossified by convention? Or is there a deeper basis? My hope is that I have successfully suggested some of the answers. That, at its foundations, Indian music is governed by what I refer to as The Laws of Melodic Ethics (the Indian term is Raga Dharma). Pandit Bhatkhande’s monumental achievement lay in seeing and abstracting the nature of these ‘laws’ from the thicket of melodic observations. What seem like ‘rules’ to the innocent eye are, upon contemplation, revealed to be ‘truths’ to the sAdhaka.”—Rajan Parrikar

    2. A commentary on shruti by Ramashreya Jha—featured in The Kanada Constellation—employing Adana, Darbari and Multani respectively.

  2. As it is truly said, creativity cannot be taught, it is natural. However it can be relished with some ‘taste buds’ developed (or conditioned) in the mind.

    This is very logical approach of how a non-musical person can enter into enjoying the music. It is also a good example of how a knowledge of one discipline helps grasp another discipline.

    Eminent scientist Albert Einstein stands as a good example to this. He was a very good violin player, that helped him find new mathematical ideas. At the same time he could relax from his heavy mathematical work by playing violin in between.

    The merukhand technique is nothing but a part of permutation & combination process of mathematics.

    – Dr. Kashyap

  3. Hello friends,

    Kindly listen to Kalavati in Raagmala and tell me who are the 2 singers whom Khwaja Khurshid Anwar refers to when he says that Roshan Ara Begum is one of the 3 singers who helped bring Kalavati in fashion in the subcontinent.

    Thanks.

  4. Undoubtedly ustad nazakatali & ustad salamatali.

    First performance of Kalavati by this duo was at the residence of
    famous kaththak dancer sitaradevi in Mumbai in late ’50s. The audience
    included many famous artists of that time including ustad amir khan.

    However truth can be extracted from the 70 plus honest senior citizen only.

    Comments most welcome !

  5. A great blog. This article totally resonates with the true spirit of music. Indian Ustads have described the three essential properties of a good artist. These are : Adat, Jigar, Hisab (good habits, good health and good math). Math is an integral part of music. The meaning of putting Hisab in three essential properties is that if an artist doesn’t know what he/she is playing, he/she is not a great artist. Who can explain it better than a mathematician?

  6. this reminds me of when i was talking to a space scientist about listening to bird song. i felt that if we spend time in identifying the bird, we lose sight of the music. he had another view. he said, when you look at stars, if you know their distance from earth, you can better appreciate the beauty of space. music is like that, when the sargam becomes part and parcel of your listening, it cant get any better.

  7. HI! its superb I like it very much and I have learn lots of things i.e. how to do practice for note recognition because it is very hard to recognize note during performance. This is great work of Dr. Hassan Azad. I am music disciple. I do want to become a vocalist. My Guru G is Ustad Pervez Paras. He is a legendary Guru in Pakistan. So this article is really supereb……:). Ustad Shiad Pervez is the greatest Sitarist in the world. When I feel that I am bored and I want to fresh my mode believe me that time I use to listen Puriya Kalayan Played by Ustad Shahid Pervez then I got peace in mind. So I believe in music therapy. What do you think…?

  8. Taimur Khan :
    1. “Raga – and the Ananda it brings – is best experienced firsthand, by renewing and recreating it in the hallways of your own mind, not vicariously or through the written word. I am anxious that a Raga not be viewed as merely an ensemble of rules defined by Aroha and avaroha, vAdi-samvAdi pairs, and a tissue of characteristic phrases and chalans. A nyAsa swara here and a skipped swara there are important and necessary details while speaking about Raga, true. But where do these considerations come from? Are they merely whims ossified by convention? Or is there a deeper basis? My hope is that I have successfully suggested some of the answers. That, at its foundations, Indian music is governed by what I refer to as The Laws of Melodic Ethics (the Indian term is Raga Dharma). Pandit Bhatkhande’s monumental achievement lay in seeing and abstracting the nature of these ‘laws’ from the thicket of melodic observations. What seem like ‘rules’ to the innocent eye are, upon contemplation, revealed to be ‘truths’ to the sAdhaka.”—Rajan Parrikar

    That is a great point, I’ve also found that however much you learn listening, your learning deepens through personal contemplation on the various aspects of the Raag: the shruti, swar, and the ras. Listening is always important, but we can only take so much in without creating ourselves. The amount we can take in 2nd hand, of course depends on the individual, but eventually if we want to fulfill our creative and imaginative needs, we must create and imagine.

  9. My humble experience is that if one tries to make music according to some formula or simple memorization, it has no emotional effect. However, if one keeps just the principles in mind and brings the music inside oneself , then the music has an emotional effect

  10. Wonderful, wonderful site. May God bless you for sharing your wisdom and resources with other lovers of classical music. This site is truly a labour of love and I’m truly grateful to you for putting it together.

  11. Tolstoy once said all i know is because i love.All Docter Azad knows is because he loves math. and music.His devotion and commitment towards music is like the devotion of a lover but his love is not blind and the credit goes to mathmatics which is pure rationality!

  12. Tolstoy once said all i know is because i love.All Docter Azad knows is because he loves math. and music. His devotion and commitment towards music is like the devotion of a lover but his love is not blind and the credit goes to mathmatics which is pure rationality!

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