Friday, 18 November 2011

The Face of Music

I'm someone who was introduced to the world of "Western" music quite late. For most of my childhood, I heard nothing but Indian music. Notice that I use the word "heard" rather than "listen" because I never really chose the music I heard. To be frank, I never felt much of an attachment to music during my childhood. I remember that I had grand total of three or four "favourites" but I never felt any connection with these songs and I liked them more for the fact that they had a catchy melody than anything else. I was never able to catch the words that were actually being sung. Looking back, I think it was because of a unique situation I was in. The school I went to had English as its medium of instruction and we were strongly advised to speak in English while on campus. So as my vocabulary and knowledge of English steadily improved as I progressed in school my mother tongue was left neglected. I always scored higher in English language tests (Relatively speaking as I never did that  spectacularly in English either.) I did feel however that English was slightly easier to learn and being a science freak, I tended to use English just as often or perhaps even more often than my mother tongue as I felt that learning scientific concepts were much easier in English and by the time I was in Year 6 or 7 my thought processes and all my mental conversations that happened in my brain were entirely in English.

When I moved to Malaysia in 2007 English became my dominant language, a change I was able to handle with relative ease because of my previous school. At this point music was something that was quite alien to my mind. My perception of what music is differed significantly from my current perception of music. Music was something that I thought to be in the same category as other occupations that entertain people in their leisure time like chess or other sports. It didn't touch me as deeply as it seemed to touch others.

As the months I started becoming interested in western classical music. Starting with a couple of sample tracks that were included in a fresh install of Windows XP, I ventured into the world of symphonies and concertos. I admit that when I first started I listened out purely for the novelty of the experience and not because the music produced in me any of the emotions that the music was supposed to convey. These subtle messages completely escaped me. Almost two years passed before I started to really feel the mood of the music.

The years after I moved were those of great changes for me in many areas of my life. I started taking a genuine interest in mathematics, learnt to think critically and creatively, and most importantly I learnt to think for myself. I learnt scepticism, about the fallacies of the mind, about how information should always be judged upon evidence and not the authority of the source of the information. I also became more open minded to change. I went from being moderately reluctant to change and new ideas to being fiercely supportive of new ideas. I came to realize than change was quite literally the vehicle of progress and the necessity of abandoning old ways of doing things in favour of newer, more efficient ways of doing things.

It was this change that spurred me to try contemporary western music. When I think back to those moments of discovery I loose any of the regrets I have about not discovering this genre earlier. For most people these moments are part of their early childhood when the brain is less analytical in my opinion less capable of appreciating the complexities of perception. Because I was venturing into this new genre of music at this (relatively) late age every time I listened to something new, every time I stumbled upon a gem, a new melody I was able to "observe" what goes on in my mind with the excitement of a scientist who has stumbled upon something new and revolutionary. Now when I listen to music "properly" I sit down on my bed in the dark after everyone's asleep, put on my headphones, turn the volume up to a comfortable level. I then close my eyes and concentrate on the sounds. I try to mentally decompose the music into the separate instruments and the voice. It's like trying to pick out a conversation from a buzz of noise in a huge room full of people. I then notice how each separate sound fits together with the rest how they combine to give a resultant sound which is sometimes completely unexpected. It's like mixing together ingredients with different tastes when cooking to give a new, unexpected taste. The ingredients are the notes from the different instruments and voices used. The net result is the final dish that you eat. Cooking with sound...

I noticed that rarely I stumble upon music that is so good that I take to it the very first time I  hear it. For most songs however the moment of "liking" is less well defined. It's lot like my experience with meeting people. The first time I wander into a group of strangers for example when I move to a new school everybody looks similar and my mind is a confusing mass of faces. But as I get to know the people in the crowd better their faces or at least my perception of their faces change. They get friendlier, less intimidating and more distinct. They start to stand out from the crowd. And if you have a huge mass of faces with a couple of my friends in it familiar faces are easily distinguishable from the "noise". Its the same with most of the music I listen to. When I first hear a track it's a bit intimidating. It's new and I don't know how to think about it yet. Eventually it grows on me and when I hear it again, my brain hails it like an old friend.