The essence of songs: words or music? 

The other day, I had an interesting conversation with Kabir Uncle. He is in his late sixties and I am in my late teens.  While we sat there drinking tea, which I found too strong and he found too weak, I decided to interrupt the sound of silence with some music. 

I know what you’re thinking. Teenagers these days obsessively worship this new phenomenon called EDM (Electronic Dance Music). The artificially synthesised percussion makes sure the crowd’s heart beats as one, causing them to experience a connection that they cannot dream of forming with strangers in any other way. Either that, or it’s pop music, where auto tuned voices sing about anything under the sun (but most importantly, the things that will be most effective on their young and impressionable target audience). Welcome to new-age advertising. 

I’m not judging the listeners. I’m guilty of enjoying mainstream stuff, too. Unfortunately, somewhere along the transition from the 20th century to the 21st, we let go of the beauty of songwriting. Not completely, of course. There are still some honest, heartfelt pieces of music that have been composed or written in the last two decades. But on the whole, mainstream music shows a steep decline from its days of glory. 

So we listened to Simon and Garfunkel. The Beatles. Joan Baez. They strummed along to stories of love, loss, politics. But most importantly, the theme of individuality rang loud and clear. Kabir Uncle suddenly observed, “I find it so irritating when they break their voices to convey emotions”. As a hardcore rock fan, and ardent admirer of Paul Simon’s voice, I was taken aback! “What? No! That’s just natural. Some people have harsh voices but it doesn’t take away from the emotions that are conveyed, or reduce their quality in any way…” I quickly reacted. Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘I am a rock’ came to an abrupt end (And a rock feels no pain/ And an island never cries,) and Kabir Uncle asked, “How about if I play some music now?” 

He played Raga Bhairavi by the Senior Dagar Brothers. “Come and sit a little closer; you can’t hear anything from over there,” he said. So I moved closer to the laptop, from which a strange melody emanated – something my ears were certainly not used to. Hindustani classical music is hauntingly beautiful, and as Kabir Uncle rightly pointed out, its emotions come from careful attention to detail while expressing the notes, not from words. The voice was guttural, just like my favourite artists’. But it never quavered, not even at the most challenging parts of the composition. I was wondering how Indian musicians recorded their music. Surely, in order to achieve such precision, it had to be recorded. “Is it in some form of notation? Like western classical music?” I asked, naively. “No,” Kabir Uncle shook his head. “It’s passed down vocally from teacher to student!”

J. Krishnamurti once said, “I hope that you will listen, but not with the memory of what you already know; and this is very difficult to do”. Words are deeply enmeshed with memories, and as language evolves, it becomes more and more difficult to use without reminding people of things. When emotions come from these memories, they’re tainted by the past, never free to be in the moment. 

Not that I completely understand what it means to live in the moment. But that piece of Hindustani classical music was a tiny sliver of it. My perspective remains similar to that of Giacometti’s, who told his biographer James Lord, “The more you struggle to make it lifelike the less like life it becomes. But since a work of art is an illusion anyway, if you heighten the illusory quality, then you come closer to the effect of life.” 

What I’m trying to say is that, if words are the “illusory quality” that Giacometti refers to, I think that by writing poetry that is then set to a melody, artists still manage to capture the “effect of life”. In the end, I think we agreed that they are both different kinds of beauty, and each to be appreciated for their virtues and flaws. 


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