Morning assembly: a time for singing and gathering our energies for the day, has just ended and our campus is quiet as the day’s work and classes begin. Through the window of my room, I hear a young student experimentally, cautiously, humming an ancient chant he has just learnt. Slowly the chant grows in volume and confidence. The deep, serious notes are a pleasure to listen to.
But wait! The chant is evolving, acquiring new rhythms and cadences. A drumbeat swells between the notes as he slaps his textbook with his open palm. The notes become syncopated as he simulates, variously, electric drums, guitars and other instruments I cannot identify. The chant, meanwhile, continues as a kind of rhythmic outpouring, totally different in tone and style from the manner in which it began. In one swift beat of its wings, it has left Indian shores and has returned totally transformed. The young boy hits a crescendo, wildly improvising, slipping in and out of control. He runs along the path, still chanting and drumming away furiously with the flat of his palm. The morning’s music lesson is over.
It is both interesting and important to reflect on the fact that we are musical beings, whatever our own perceptions of our individual musical abilities are. We all have the capacity to respond to the beauty of various musical forms and traditions, which in turn have tremendous power to tap into our emotional lives. In most musical cultures, the link between music and poetry is very deep, and the line between the two hard to draw; this adds a further dimension to the heady mix. Evidently, then, because music as a creative field has such a strong presence in our lives—emotionally, intellectually, culturally—it inevitably impinges upon our thoughts as educators.
While brainstorming and thinking about this essay, however, I was forcibly struck by the many assumptions that lie behind what music ‘actually is’. Even disregarding the vast body of theory that attempts to analyse the aesthetics and philosophies and cultural practices that constitute the field, I was forced to weave my way through several more commonsensical notions regarding the subject which are implicit in everyday thought. These assumptions, often conflicting, in turn threw up difficult questions. For example: Is music purely an introspective, meditative activity, as some theories of Indian classical music have it? Or can it merely be defined as a social and cultural product? Does either definition capture its essence, if any? What might be the difference between a public and a private engagement with music? In what ways is ‘popular’ music different from ‘serious classical’ music? Am I just biased if I even make a distinction between the two? Can I treat all musical expression equally? Why or why not? And so on. This long list is not just a rhetorical indulgence; I feel it vividly demonstrates some of the binds and misunderstandings we get into, both amongst ourselves as educators and with children, about culture and cultural activities. To avoid polarisation, the very meanings of the term we are discussing must be seen in all their shades and nuances, in exactly the same way that we might engage with young people and each other about the question of what constitutes ‘literature’ or ‘art’. In other words, all these terms and assumptions must be clearly laid on the table. Only then is a meaningful exploration of music (with young people) and its impact on our educational processes possible.
To my mind, there are two important sets of questions we can ask in this field. The first has to do with music and identity. In the broad ‘global’ cultural matrix that so many children (and adults) seem to participate in, what role does music play in forming young people’s sense of who they are? The second set of questions is I think more subtle and difficult to articulate and answer, primarily because its terms seem much more subjective. It has to do with the creative power of music as art and its ability to foster a spirit of patience and self-awareness in young people and, by extension, adults as well. It covers the possibility of exploring depth and meaning in many musical fields.
To begin with the first question: what is the relationship between music and the process of identity formation? Obviously, this is part of a wider complex question of the relationship between identity and culture, the framework from which we draw our sense of self, of who we are. Equally obviously, we cannot rest content with cultural definitions. If, as Krishnamurti pointed out, learning about ourselves, our conditioning and our identity can take place, we must be sceptical about the messages we receive from society and culture about ‘who we are’. This seems particularly true in the context of adolescence and its quest for a stable permanent identity. Music, in the widest sense, because it draws together so many emotions and is tied in with deep feelings, provides an intense and concentrated space within which to explore this basic question.
Where do young people from a middle class milieu (and increasingly from other milieus as well) encounter music? Primarily through advertisements, Bollywood, records by pop, rock, hip-hop and rap artists (increasingly downloaded from the net) and FM radio channels. Some perhaps make a conscious effort to listen to classical or religious music, or encounter it through social interactions, but these are probably the exception rather than the rule.
It is obvious that the flourishing music industry provides adolescents with explicit and implicit messages, both at the melodic level—the substratum—and at the level of lyrics, which might range from the affectionately tender and humorous to the sexually explicit or violent. These messages attempt to define vital areas: sexuality, desire, power, relationship and emotional states of mind. The exact ‘message’, of course, varies from song to song and artist to artist. Typical messages might stress the emptiness of a life without love and desire; might equate success with wealth and power; or might be humorous about loss and longing. Lyrics often reinforce and emphasize an already existing mood such as loneliness or being on a ‘high’. They also seem to, in one student’s phrase, ‘make you feel rebellious against someone else’. At the melodic level, too, there is an experience of a rush of either positive energy or a sense of melancholy and loss; melodies function at a very physical visceral level (they are ‘happy happy’ or ‘sad sad’ songs). Of course some songs and messages do ironically undercut stereotypes and are themselves critical of the processes they seem to participate in.
To reflect on these messages, it is crucial to break them down into their component parts and dialogue about them. This is not to say that meanings are simple or unambiguous; the music might be interpreted in a variety of ways. But rather than focussing exclusively on the meanings of the songs, students might be encouraged to observe the impact music has on the mind and body. Some other broad questions might emerge in this reflection: is the music telling us how to feel, or is it a reflection of our feelings? What does music tell us about the ‘good life’ and how to enjoy it? About emotion? Sex? Regret? Heartbreak? To what extent do we identify, emotionally and culturally, with the music we listen to? Why is music so intoxicating?
Particularly in the context of a residential campus, the question of a musical culture is important and raises interesting possibilities. One important question has to do with conformity. How do musical tastes and cultures get passed around? Is there a uniform culture that students feel obliged to fit into? What are the pressures created by such a situation, both on those who conform and on those who do not? Who are we, ultimately, in relation to our music?
The second important set of questions in this context has to do, I think, with subtlety, depth and meaning in music and how these are to be ‘transmitted’ to young people. These are necessarily subjective terms, to be discussed tentatively. At the same time, however subjective they are, we have all experienced the feeling of direct immersion and involvement that comes with being attentive to what we do, however simple or routine the task. Perhaps the basic creative ground of music is really that simple—paying deep attention to the fundamentals of sound, scale, rhythm, harmony, raga.
Obviously this kind of attention cannot be tied to any particular musical tradition. Meditative traditions might facilitate this process; they cannot guarantee them. One of the polarisations I feel we get forced into, particularly with teenagers and adolescents, is between ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ music, and each side of the divide comes with powerful opinions and judgements of the other. It might be more useful, and perhaps more accurate, to recognize together a broadly unified field of musical capacity in human consciousness, which then becomes fragmented into particular traditions depending on local environments and cultures. It is also vital to recognize that music does not exist in watertight compartments; traditions have informed each other, and influenced each other a great deal in the past, and will doubtless continue to do so. In dialoguing about music with young people, it is important to stress on the fluidity and transparency of music, rather than on a monolithic, static cultural form. Such an approach could potentially create a greater space and openness among adults and children for the kind of listening I am talking about.
Alongside a sense of attention, I might emphasize the importance of actively creating music rather than passively consuming it. It is here that a practical engagement with the depth of music might be achieved with students. Playing with simple beats and scales; composing simple melodies
and improvisations; even setting poetry to music—these are potentially achievable goals as long as we do not impose stringent adult criteria of perfection on them. Such an attentive creative space is perhaps an essential component of education. It encourages self-awareness and a sense of presence in our daily activities. It also militates against a mechanical consumption of culture, and forces us to be critical of our cultural environment.
I began this reflection with a private anecdote about a student. I would like to end with another anecdote, a public one, which emphasizes some of the contradictions and puzzles I have been trying to sort out. Our campus is in a rural setting, about 40 kilometres from Bangalore. Early each morning, around sunrise, the local temple springs to life and broadcasts music, mainly religious, to the village households. A perennial favourite, to my astonishment, is the Gayatri Mantra, formerly a symbol of male power and exclusivity, now flung to the winds by a woman’s voice accompanied by an orchestra, while startled birds listen in the light of dawn.
In the face of a musical flux, a kind of reordering of creative musical forms, meanings and messages, it is important, I feel, to sustain a deep awareness of the primal energy of music and the manner in which it nourishes our emotional lives. If we can communicate some of this energy and passion to students, as well as maintain a sceptical attitude towards cultural forms and identities, we would be going a long way towards nurturing a creative space within which music assumes a vital life and energy of its own.