Suman Bhattacharya

Sitarist from Imdadkhani Gharana


Music - As a Medium of Communication

Posted by Ranjan on March 29, 2011 at 7:15 AM

Feelings have no meaning unless expressed”

I heard this saying some time back. It immediately caught my attention. Its true. Expressing our feelings is as important as feeling them in the first place. Expressions result in communication. Effective communication, whether its with an external entity or with one’s self, plays an important role in understanding ourselves and our surrounding. We often refer to it as growing up, or developing maturity.

Having been blessed with a baby recently I have realized this more than ever. The first thing nature teaches a baby is to communicate, understanding and expressing its feelings. It is amazing to see how fast they learn this art and with every passing moment improve on it. First, it screams when it feels any discomfort, then it slowly learns to distinguish between the various discomforts and learns to communicate them differently and then it learns who is who in its life and which feeling should be communicated to whom and how for faster and more effective resolution.

As we grow up, we slowly learn more and more ways of expressing our feelings and a blessed few learn the art of effective communication through music. In this article, I would like to express my thoughts on music as a means of communication.

First of all, why do I say Music is a means of communication? If its true that music is an expression of feelings, then its obvious that it’s a way of communication. So does that mean music follows all the basic principles of effective communication? In my understanding, it does. There are two basic aspects to an effective communication and both are equally important.

1. How well its being expressed

2. How well its being comprehended by the listener

These are the building blocks of an effective communication, but problem is, can we really have a measuring stick to judge the effectiveness? When I have a feeling, no matter what, is it possible to ensure that any entity outside me is getting exactly the same feeling? Books say that’s where the effectiveness of communication comes into picture. The onus of expressing it correctly depends on me, for the listener to comprehend it correctly. Myself and the listener both need to have a common medium. This is where language comes in with all its grammar and other rules - to build a common platform, a protocol where the two parties involved start understanding each other. The best part about music is, the language is universal. How? We have fixed number of notes, we have the differences between each note defined, we universally understand what tempo is. Of course, there can be variations, which make it even more interesting. Indian classical music (especially in Carnatic Music) there is extensive use of few extra notes (Shrutis), Experimental rock bands like Pink Floyd have used experimental, undefined chords, maestros in the field have used off tempo and fractional rhythm cycles, etc. These variations are accepted with open arms in music circles. They help in creating some expressions which are otherwise difficult or more often than not impossible to express. Apart from this common grammar there is something else which makes it universal. Every living being, hears sounds right from the time its body develops the power to hear, even before birth, inside the mother’s womb. It learns what tempo is, by hearing its mother’s heartbeat, it enjoys the sounds of the amniotic fluid around it, the gulp of food going into the stomach, the bowel movements, the tap of fingers on the womb from outside, etc, and it learns to react to them! After coming into the outside world, it hears sounds even before opening its eyes and seeing things around it! Its amazing how a colicky baby is calmed by the buzz of a running washing machine or the running engine of a car even when no medicine is able to do the trick! Music is built on sound and tempo. This is what makes music so much universal. We learn to appreciate sounds and rhythm and tempo even before we learn to understand who our mother is, let alone speaking up the first words.

This common platform, makes Music one of the most effectives means of communication. But like any other means of communication, it has its limitations and boundaries. It is said that feelings are common universally, but I have my doubts on that. On a light note, when I am happy, I know how I feel, but how can I be sure if someone else feels exactly the same way when he/she is happy? Keeping exactness of the statement aside, lets accept that yes, basic feelings are universal. When it comes to expressing the feeling, there are other complications. If I have to express my feeling, what is more important, to express exactly what I am feeling, or to express something which will make the person to whom I am expressing feel the same.

Whoa! That was a confusing statement, I admit. Idea is, for a complete communication, it is important to make the listener comprehend what I want to communicate. So is it not true that in an effective communication, understating the listener is equally important as understanding my own feelings or what I want to communicate? I believe, yes, it definitely is. As long as the communication is with self, its simple, but the moment the listener is not myself, it becomes more complicated. This is where other external factors like culture, background, upbringing, mentality, mood, and other innumerable variables will come in. According to me, this point is equally valid for Music as it is with any other means of communication. If this is not kept in mind, it may bring in communication gap, even in Music as in any other form of communication. Australians and Americans are typically known to talk more to the point and harsh, whereas Europeans and Asians are more courteous. Given this fact, I have a question, does that mean, Americans are better communicators than Europeans or vice versa? Is it fair for an European to criticize the way Americans talk? Is it fair to say that one mode of communication is better than the other? Similarly, in music, there are so many different forms. The different musical forms have their own specialties, factors which make them more suitable mode of communication, may be for a specific culture, a specific age group, a specific mood. It’s a fact that in Indian Classical Music we have so many different ragas to express different moods and feelings. Similarly there may be feelings which are expressed best with a peppy number from Justin Beiber or the rhythmic Arabic tunes, or the hard drum beats and screeching guitars of Metallica or the scratches of a DJ in a night club. Except from the person who is expressing himself and the listener who is appreciating it and getting a feeling, whatever that feeling is, from that music, is it fair for anyone outside to say anything more than “I fail to understand this form of music”? Can we really be judgmental? If this is because of ignorance, then suitable exposure may be given, but still it is very much possible that I am not interested it knowing this form of communication at all. People living in a foreign country is exposed to the foreign language, to the extent that after some time they start understanding the language to certain extent, but is it fair to force them to learn the language saying it’s the best! It may be the best for people who find it as the best way to communicate themselves, but it may not be the best for all. This holds true for music too.

We take pride in our mother tongue, we take pride in our country, we take pride in our religion - noone is stopping us from doing that. Its fair to debate or argue how my language or my country or my culture is good, out of passion, out of pride, but is it fair to be judgmental? Is it fair to believe that some other culture, some other language, some other country is inferior to mine? Is it fair to believe one form of music is inferior to some other? Is it fair to believe someone’s expressions are inferior, just because I am not able to comprehend it or the feelings expressed do not hold much value to me?

Categories: Music

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Reply Michael Ursu
4:29 PM on October 6, 2012 
Wonderful read! I may cite you in my senior thesis!
Reply Shakri
4:18 PM on June 2, 2011 
I agree with the fact you cannot be thrust upon need to accept it with willingness and eagerness....but unlike other things in life whom you have to let in to embrace, music finds a way creeps into your existance and invades it....even if you don't like a certain genre of music...say hard fine morning you might be astonished to find yourself nodding to the finds a communicate and smoothe away the frailed edges inflicted by life...
Reply Dr Mrs Sudipta Das
8:44 AM on March 29, 2011 
Beauty lies in the eyes of the Beholder! The last few lines of your blog is what I agree to , the most.The end justifies the mean!