Ashok R. Kelkar



Understanding Music and the Scope for Psychological Probes




Thinking about music in India inevitably tends to center on the šāstra of it.  By the šāstra of sagīta (here understood as referring to gayana singing and vandana playing instruments rather than the third component nartana dancing), we mean here the clear enunciation and formalization of the traditional forms of musical technique.  We might almost have spoken of the grammar of the specific tradition in music-in the present case, the Indian classical tradition with its two modern sub-traditions.  Hindustanī and Karnāak.  We might but perhaps we shouldn’t because the analogy with language implied in the word grammar can be as misleading as it can be helpful.  Let us take note of the helpful as well as the misleading aspects of the analogy between music an language before we proceed.      


      The musical culture of a society is part of its aesthetic culture and thus ultimately of its culture.  Culture is simply the totality of customs and all those less well-defined norms with reference to which members of that society (be it savage, barbaric, or civilized) live from day to day, adjust to the environment, maintain their dialogue with reality, and pass on the insights from one generation to the next (thus ensuring the continuance of that society).  When the body of musical customs and norms in a given society happens to be at all elaborated and complex, we need to distinguish between more than one segment-the boundaries of course are not expected to be sharp.  Beginning with the two essential rôles-the listener of music and the maker of music-we have to recognize at least two such segments-the norms of musical taste and the norms of making music that will satisfy the musical taste.  To these essentials we need to add two more.  The first of these is musical ideology-the norms governing the cognitive activity of musical judgement as exercised as exercised by the artist and the music lover.  Finally, we have to look for an answer to a very simple question-who makes what kind of music for whom on what occasions.  In other words, we identify the norms that govern the incidence of musical activity and its fit (or the lack of it) with the rest of culture.  To illustrate, the norms of musical activity of India élite society clearly separate the rôles-the artist and the listener and further separate accomplished, trained, and untrained artists and listeners.  The very paradigm of musical activity is the musical session (mehfil, jalsa, kacheri) at which a small number of accomplished artists sing and/or play (singing has priority) for a fairly large number of trained listeners-especially for the accomplished among them.  One of the artists (rarely two or three) is usually singled out as the lead.  The separation between the composing artist and the performing artist is there but not so clear as in the Western classical musical tradition.  In Hindustani music, for example, the performing artist may perform a pre-composed piece (the bandīš  of a ciz or a gat, for example) or compose as he performs.  In either case he elaborates and interprets rather than merely present and execute.  The fit with the rest of culture is an uneasy one-for example, Hindus exalt music but until recently looked down upon musicians unless the latter had a feudal or saintly status.  Islam has little or no use for music (with the possible exception of the qavvāte and the Sufī tradition).  To recapitulate, musical culture consists of norms of:


Musical taste (receptivity),                         }     also structure and

Musical-making (creation and rendering), }             pattern

Musical ideology,                                       }     also sensibility and

Musical activity.                                            }             tradition


      Not all musical cultures in different societies are equally formalized.  Even within the same musical culture not all its segments are equally formalized.  For example, the verbal activity of passing critical judgements about specific compositions and performances and discussing the grounds for such judgements-that is musical criticism.  Again, we find the same the sort of variability if we compare musical culture with other segments of aesthetic culture.  Thus, music-making tends to be far more formalized than film-making, picture-making, or even poem-making.  It is this insistent formalization of musical technique to which we here give the name the šāstra of sagīta -as distinct from musical criticism and musical aesthetics.  (Important as šāstra is, it cannot take the place of the latter two).  The nearest analogue that one can think of is metrics of prosody-the body of norms that define what an acceptable piece of verse is like.  Typically, the norms do not prescribe what word goes after what, but rather prescribe general constraints in conformity to which the poet makes acceptable verse and achieves something like verse style.


      If grammar is conceived as a set of combinatory constraints that govern the construction of acceptable sequences (read: linguistic texts, verse pieces, musical texts) out of a relatively much more restricted stock of recurring constituents (read: linguistic forms, syllable types, musical beats or notes and phrases) then it is a helpful analogy.  But then if this leads us to expect a dictionary counterpart-the set of recurring constituents along with the paired interpretations, then, while this works with linguistic forms, it doesn’t really help with metrical phrases and musical phrases.  (Say, drum phrases or sequences of notes) an interpretations (say, mood types such as elation or sound-pictures such as a storm or a gallop).  Even when some such interpretations can be assigned to the whole musical piece, it can hardly be figured out as the sum or product of the respective interpretations of the musical phrases.


      Before we take leave of the analogy between music and language, we have to note that an aesthetically valid musical piece may include some ‘ungrammatical’ or deviant sequences as well as the more common grammatical ones.  Indeed the šāstra itself up to a point leaves room for deviations.  A deviation, in other words, is some-times a conventional deviation.  But there may be unconventional or innovative deviations too when the artist gets away with them, he has probably modified the sensibility and possibly, the subsequent course of the šāstra as well.







 Indian thinking about music does go beyond a consideration of (1) the problem of formulating the šāstra and the related problem of reformulating it in the light of changing practice.  The two additional problems it has gone into are the following: (2) Whether a ‘modern’ restatement of rāsa in music is possible; (3) How one can rationalize the relationship between ‘classical’ music, ‘folk’ music, and ‘popular’ music.


      To take up problem (1) first, though a simple one-to-one correspondence between musical phrases and pieces on the one hand and musical moods and representations cannot be established, obviously there is some relationship.  Which are the two things, in the first place, between which any such relationship has to be discovered?  On the musical side, is it a note, a sequence of notes, a whole musical piece, or (as is commonly thought) a rāga?  And what about a tala?  Can we can associate moods (say, a martial mood) or representations (say, heartbeat) with a tāla?  Does the musical term (whichever of these it is) express the mood or induce it in the listener?  What is the relationship between the dominant rasa of piece and he passing moods in the course of its performance?  Is it relevant to ask-whose mood?  If the rasa theory is to be extended from poetry to music-as the ancients obviously intended to but probably never quite got around to doing it can we do so whole cloth or with drastic modifications?  What are the sangita analogues to the dramatis personae?  The nāyaka and nāyika, for example, in relation to the šingāra rasa?  The answer is obvious enough in representational dance (or, more precisely, in the abhinaya component of nartana, the sex of dancer being irrelevant), but not at all obvious either with non-representational dance (or, more precisely, the nitya component of nartana, which may combine with abhinaya in a given piece).*      Or with vādana (playing instrument), and non-verbal gāyana (like tarānā or


* Cf. B. C. Deva, Raga and Rasa, in Psychoacoustics of Music and Speech, 1967.


the sargam).  Even  with verbal gayana (like humri, khayāl, dhrupad) the answer is not all that obvious.  Then there is the traditional association between ragas that emphasize the upper half of the octave with certain hours of the day and between rāgas that emphasize the lower half of the octave with certain other hours of the day.*    Finally, what is the rôle of the sāmājika (member of the audience) in the rasa process.  A related problem is the relation between rāgas and sound-pictures (the rāga Malhar and rain, for instance).


Turning now to problem (2), namely, the relationship between classical, folk and popular, Indian thinking is not altogether obvious to the social and cultural setting of the musical activity.  The traditional classification of rāgas into desī (folk, literally, regional) and mārgī (great tradition, literally, from the highway) indicates awareness that not all rāgas got described in the classical treaties.  But this awareness was heightened, once the educated élite brought itself to take serious note, sub-specie romantic and patriotic, of the ‘folk’ heritage in the arts and also faced uneasily the yawing gap between ‘mass’ aesthetic culture emanating from the modern urban setting and its own aesthetics preferences-indeed the gap in also to be seen between its own aesthetic and special aesthetics.  How to find a place in the musical sun for lāvaī music, Balgandharva, and Lata Mangeshkar?  How to make sense of the span of classical music itself form the more accessible (sugama) to the less accessible.  Consider the relative accessibility of pairs such as the following-dhruped/khayāl, khayāl/thumari, difficult rāgas/common rāgas, anvatam, vilambit/drut pieces, vocal/instrumental, ālāp/čiz (or ālāp/gat), manipulating sitār frets/plucking the strings jhālā fashion, tablā as lead/tablā as accompaniment, total percussions/atonal percussions, and so on.  (The first member in each pair is usually deemed to be relatively more of an acquired taste.  Empirical testing is called for).  


      In grappling with all these sets of problems—šāstra, rasa, and musical culture—the Indian thinker naturally sought the help of modern science-not only physics but also psychology.  The possibility of showing that modern experimental evidence bears out what our ancient wisdom intuitively grasped was certainly an attractive one.  Unfortunately it wasn’t realized (and even now is realized imperfectly), that a sound conceptual analysis has to precede, accompany, and follow a sound experiment study.  (A sound body needs a sound mind!) and a sound conceptual analysis will naturally flourish only if there is a body of sustained musical criticism to analyze, if this lack of musical criticism is to be made good and if the ground for a sophisticated psychological study of music is to be prepared, we must leave  behind our naïve folk-musicology our horizon has to be widened beyond the three problems we have attended to so far.  Indeed we should stop being students of Indian music and become Indian students of music.  Our musical appreciation must graduate into musical criticism; our musical chronicles must graduate into critical history.


In this wider canvas, four areas can be distinguished for convenience sake (obviously they are closed to each other) X--                                                                                 


(1) Understanding the musical artist and his activity-whether composing or performing, whether untrained, trained or accomplished, whether facing an audience or with the faceless audience in a recording or broadcasting studio or making music for his own benefit, whether acting in a formal setting (mehfil or riyāz for example) or informally.


(2) Understanding the listener and his activity-whether untrained, trained or     accomplished, whether facing the artist or overhearing him or listening to recorded or broadcast music and his contribution.  (The rasa problem   or the sound-picture problem are only two of the problems falling here.  The listener’s response may be concurrent with the performance or Re-collective; the concurrent response may be a passing phase or stable  Effect).


(3)    Understanding the formation and re-formation of musical sensibility a and a musical tradition which together make the artist’s and the listener’s activity possible.  (The classical/popular/folk problem is only one of the problems falling here).


(4)   Last and also first, understanding the musical work in all its aspects.  (The šāstra is concerned with only of the dimensions of a musical work. The relation of music to its para-musical accompaniments, such as the performer’s posture, gesture, and facial expression especially in adākārī  is a case in point.  Another is the use of music in the theatre, dance, film and song).


      An attack on all these fronts is called for if e are to be saved from merely tinkering with problems or selecting some problems just because they happen to be the familiar ones.




Now in what way can the psychologist contribute to an understanding of music under each of these four headings?  Not all these problems will equally lend themselves to experimental analysis at least not in the initial stages of investigation.  The Psychologist will probably have to begin with limited, rather elementary problems subject to direct confirmation and not to take up the larger issues till such time when musical criticism and aesthetics develop and succeed in posing the problems in rigorous and specific terms.  Broadly speaking, problems connected with musical technique and the šāstra categories of technique will be the most amenable to experimental probing, while problems connected with the social psychology of musical taste, ideology, and activity will yield to questionnaire and interview methods.  Problems connected with musical creativity and with the changes in musical taste are likely to prove the most recalcitrant.  While work done in the West of Western music will certainly be of here, we must be wary of forcing the phenomena into categories established in a different tradition.  After these preliminary observations, we can take up musical creativity, musical receptivity, musical sensibility and tradition, and musical structure and pattern in order and suggest problems for psychologist to take up.


      Musical Creativity:  We have already alluded to the complex relationship between composing and performing in Hindustani music.  This can be composed with the corresponding relationship in Karnataka music, Western classical music, and Jazz music.  The resemblance and the profound differences-especially between Hindustani and Jazz music-will bear investigation.


Musical receptivity:  Apart from the rasa problem and the related time of the day problem, one can look at the judgements of aesthetic quality such as sublime, somber, rugged, vivacious, soothing, pretty, beautiful, and the like.  These can be correlated with observable qualities of the music and a factor analysis attempted on the lines of psychology Charles E. Osgood and his associates.  The aesthetic judgements, of course, will be couched in the Indian idiom (humrī humaktī hai; mulāyam āvāzī).  (Cf. Kelkar 1969:219-20 which proposes a general hypothesis that the ‘factors’ underlying aesthetic qualities are perceptions of unity/disunity, infinitude/finitude, plentitude/sparseness, and perfection/imperfection).



      As this point, one may refer to two problems that relate equally well to creativity and receptivity namely, those of musical capacity and of stylistic preference.  Let us take up musical capacity first.  Is ‘having an ear for music’ quite different from ‘having an ear for Hindustani/Karnatak music’?  Listeners from the border areas (like Karnatak) exposed to both, those from focal areas (Varnasi, Tanjavur for example) exposed to one alone, and those from other areas (like the Eastern border) exposed to neither could be differently tested.  What is the role of the genetic and cultural inheritance and of physical and human environment?  Can musical capacity fluctuate depending on maturation and old age, physical and mental health, motivation (what is loss and regain of ‘form’ in an artist,?  It is significant that while one speaking of musical families, one does not speak of poetic families.  Is there a specific inherited capacity or incapacity (hostility or unresponsiveness)?  Or are there a group of related capacities or incapacities and how are these related to general capacities such as intelligence?  Is there a ‘need’ for music?  What about the sensitivity to man-made music and animal song on the part of animals, plants, and inanimate?


      How does correlate stylistic preferences on the part of artists and listeners with their personalities?  Unfortunately, where is the critical analysis and comparison of musical styles that could serve as a point of departure for such an analysis?  To be sure, each localized gharana, baz, or vani has been duly chronicled.  But there is no aesthetic theory proposing a set of musical parameters for characterizing these styles.  Still less do we possess a critical account of personal styles that distinguish a Kumar Gandharva from a Bhimsen Joshi.  Do woman vocalists shares something more than female voices?  And is there any musical substance in the popular observation that there is something that is common and peculiar to Muslim vocalists of either sex?


Musical sensibility and tradition:  What is involved in ‘learning’ to listen to and make music?  How is musical education related to general education in the case of the artist and of the listener?  What factors control musical loyalty?  Social provenance?  State of mental and physical health?  Cultural exposure?  Prestige?  The social psychology of leadership, stereotyping, prejudice, and the like as these relate to music needs to be looked into.


Musical structure and pattern:  What are the localized properties (say, high pitch) and contextual properties (say, dip in the pitch) of the musical sequence that correlate with the perception of a šruti, a raga, the khālī, the same, and the like?  Which of these are distinctive properties and which are dependent on the distinctive properties?  Thus, practical experience in making music and listening to it tells us that practitioners persistently associate certain differences in the ‘same’ note in the aroha and avaroha scales of various rāgas, text books not withstanding.  Again, text books not withstanding, a raga is identified by a singer and the listener not so much by identifying the vadi and other recognized diacritics (lakaas) as by identifying the musical phrase or phrases (paka) characteristic of a raga.  How so? Just what are the distinctive feature of khaṇḍas or khānas opening with an āghāta or tala as against a kāla or khālī?  And those of khaṇḍas that open with the sam in a tāla cycle as against those that don’t?  The whole nation of jagah (felicitions locus) and that of ornamentation (gamaka) need to be looked into since they remain un-formalized in the šāstra.  Indeed, in the long run, the psychologist will have to understand the rôle of conscious artistry in musical form and the mutual influence of šāstra and musical practice.  The simpler scales, melodies, and rhythms of folk and popular music should certainly be studied as well-apart from their intrinsic interest they may provide valuable clues to their more elaborated counterparts in classical music.


      In the above discussion, we have mentioned observable properties of musical sequences.  These refer to the production (whether vocal or instrumental), the transmission, and the auditory judgment as made available through a verbal response.  Thus, one can offer and test psychological and acoustic definitions of voice qualities such as hālā, buland, lacī.  (Cf. Kelkar 1974: 224, 225 which among other things proposes a hypothesis that voice quality proper can be identified with two parameters—acute/grave (energy concentration in higher/lower overtones, and lightly/highly damped).  One can also compare the perception of ‘syllables’ in vocal music and wind instruments and ‘strokes’ in strings and percussions; and then go on to assess their contribution to the total aesthetic effect.  The aesthetic effect of a well-executed parhant oftabla or pakhavaj bols or dance steps (natavari bols) is comparable to that of playing the drum itself and of the auditory effect of the Kathak dancer’s footwork.  This comparison should provide us with a good point of entry into the complex and rich system of rhythm in Indian classical music.  (Cf. Kelkar 1974: 225),   

One may begin by testing the following analysis of some tabla bols and the corresponding strokes:    


     dhik with check, without check ās

     dhin with check, with ā s

     dhā without check, with ās


A similar analysis can be made of the tarānā and nomto syllables.


Finally, the following scheme should be helpful in comparing the resources at the disposal of different systems of music:


1.   tone and quality

     1.1       tone and a scale

        1.1.1    successivity relations

        1.1.2    simultaneity relations


     1.2       quality  

        1.2.1    source quality (vocal/instrumental)

        1.2.2    manipulatory quality (articulatory/fingering) 


2.   catenation

     2.1      volume control

     2.2      rhythm

         2.2.1    free    

        2.2.2    defined by bars (khaṇḍas)

        2.2.3    defined by bars and cycles (khaṇḍas and āvatanas)


     2.3     segmentation 

        2.3.1    texture as defined by bols (syllables/strokes)

        2.3.2    structure
     pauses and breaks
     structure of a piece as governed by a genre

structure of a musical session


Some of these are obviously exploited more fully in Hindustani music (for example 1.1.1) while others hardly at all (for example 2.1).  







            It is high time that the study of  Indian music  is rescued form renecdotage and antiquarianism, amateurship and impressionism, so that it can match up to its worthy subject.




Kelkar, Ashok R. 1969.  On aesthesis,  Humanist review. no. 2 (April-June).  211-28


…………………………1974.  Sound quality in human speech; A Conceptual framework.  Indian Linguistics, 35-222-6.




            This is a thoroughly revised version of a paper read at the Seminar on the Psychology of  Indian  Music at Pune on 12-15 January under the auspices of the Sangit Natak Akademi, New Delhi and the Department of Psychology, University of  Poona.


            The paper was published earlier in the Journal of the Indian Musicological Society 8:4 December 1977.  In the present version the author has taken the opportunity of correcting misprints and imprints and improving the wording in a few places.  This revised version also appeared in Journal of the Indian Musicological Society 11:12: 9-17, June 1980 (published November 1980).  A Marathi version /’Sanītātī bhāā āi manovyāpār’, Anuṣṭubh 3:3: 27-28, Nov-Dec 1979.