“If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you’ll enjoy the music more.”

detail of A Lady Playing the Tanpura, ca. 1735 India (Rajasthan, Kishangarh) Ink, opaque and transparent watercolor, and gold on paper
detail of A Lady Playing the Tanpura, ca. 1735 India (Rajasthan, Kishangarh) Ink, opaque and transparent watercolor, and gold on paper

The quote that inspired the title of this post is by the late Ravi Shankar during a concert (Concert for Bangladesh) in 1971. The actual quote “Thank you. If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you’ll enjoy the playing more” was said in response to the American audience applause after he finished tuning. You can actually hear the whole exchange at the beginning of this NPR special memorial to Shankar. It reminded me of a story I read many years ago in a book or article about ethnomusicology. I don’t even remember where it’s from so will paraphrase here:

A renown Indian master musician upon visiting England was invited to a concert of classical music. The concert was to feature Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, one of the great masterpieces. After the concert the Indian guru was asked what he thought to which he replied, “I enjoyed the first part”

“The first movement of the Beethoven symphony?” he was asked. “No,” he responded, “before that.”

What we were supposed to take away from this story is that the actual tuning of the orchestra before the start of the concert was the most aesthetically pleasing to the Indian musician. Whether the story was intended to simply show the difference in taste between Western ears and Indian ears or if it was a subtle dig at how the alaap of Indian Classical Raga music sounds like so much tuning I have no idea. While doing a search in the hopes of finding where this might have been first published I came across this slightly different version:

My freshman Music History prof, a distinguished musicologist, recounted to us the story of when an Indian musician of the highest renown was to hear for the first time Beethoven’s 5th symphony, back in the day. Everyone was excited, it was a unique opportunity to test western music through virgin ears! After it was over, the verdict: “it was wonderful, until the sound started” or something to that effect. (the reason for the anecdote, the lesson we were supposed to take away, besides the caution against taking one’s cultural biases too much for granted, was the value of silence in music).

If I find the original source, I’ll post the citation.

Another related (and no, I don’t remember if this was from the same source or a different one) story goes like this (again paraphrased):

A master African drummer is brought to a concert of classical music upon his visit to Europe. This was a concert featuring a wide variety of Classical Music styles from the baroque, to classical, to romantic and modern. When asked what he thought about the concert the African musician said, “Why does everything sound the same?”

What we’re supposed to take away from this is that given that the African drummer comes from a tradition of complex polyrhythmic drumming, all the various classical music styles were relatively monorhythmic to him (it might be interesting to see what he thinks about Conlon Nancarrow, eh?).

If these anecdotes seem too fanciful (and unbelievable), here is one about an Armenian musician’s description of [both] Classical Music and Western Pop Music. It’s taken from the SEM (Society for Ethnomusicology) listserv in 1998:

Consider this post from an Armenian musician who grew up with only Armenian music in his family and community the SEM listserver (1998) in reference to Classical music:

“I found that most European music sounds either like “mush” or “foamy,” without a solid base. The classical music seemed to make the least sense, with a kind of schizophrenic melody—one moment it’s calm, the next it’s crazy. Of course there always seemed to be “mush” (harmony) which made all the songs seem kind of similar.”
or this observation of rock and pop:
“The rock and pop styles then and now sound like music produced by machinery, and rarely have I heard a melody worth repeating. The same with “country” and “folk” and other more traditional styles. These musics, while making more sense with their melody (of the most undeveloped type), have killed off any sense of gracefulness with their monotonous droning and machine-like sense of rhythm.”
Obviously, Western styles are not pleasing to his ear.
I had actually was told the above by a cello student some years ago when she describe having read it in one of her music textbooks while studying at University of Miami of Ohio. She told me this after I’d related the first two stories. The version I quoted is from Dr. Randal Allison‘s lecture notes for his Anthropology course, “Music in World Cultures” (ANTH 2389), at Blinn College.
What inspired me to post the above is this debate on Peter Sachon’s facebook page that occurred after he posted a piece by Minnesota Orchestra cellist, Marcia Peck, “Why I love classical music.” You can see my comments on the thread there but what spurred me on were these sections from Peck’s piece:

We don’t “save” classical music by offering a completely re-engineered concert format meant for a completely different type of listener. We save it by honoring it for what it is – one of humanity’s highest achievements.

It’s true that classical music asks more of its listeners than pops, just as it asks more of the musicians. It has more complex things to say. It illuminates human emotions for which words don’t suffice. A symphony communicates aspects of the human experience that can’t be conveyed in a three-minute “song.”

My colleagues and I are committed to the limitless capacity of classical music to nourish the inner lives of everyone it reaches. We are committed to performing the very best that humanity has to offer at the highest level. And, I would argue, highest level is the key. For who hasn’t sat through a mediocre rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth and wondered as a result, “What’s so great about that?”

As I’m also in the middle of reading Bruno Nettl’s, “Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music,” and have just recently played shows with my Klezmer band, Rock band, World Music ensemble, and Experimental video and noise projects (in the last week or so) I probably wasn’t in much of a mood for the implicit elitist attitude that comes with referring to one genre of music being the “best that humanity has to offer” and “humanity’s highest achievements.”

As Nettl says in the section, A Taxonomy of Concerts, regarding The Untouchables (i.e. Rock and Pop concerts):

More typically, music school teachers prefer that their students avoid contact with these musics lest they become irrevocably polluted. The similarity of the concentric circle structure (in which musics in the Music Building relate to each other) to a colonial system is suggestive. Musics outside the central repertory may enter the hallowed space by way of a servants’ entrance: classes in musicology. They may be accepted (performed) as long as they behave like the central repertory (performed in concerts with traditional structure) but remain separate (no sitar or electronic music in an orchestral and quartet concert). It is difficult to avoid a comparison with the colonialist who expects the colonized native to behave like himself (take up Christianity and give up having two wives) but at the same time to keep his distance (avoid intermarrying with the colonialist population). (pg. 96)

While Nettl’s book is about Music Schools rather than the professional music world, it’s not difficult to see where the latter’s sentiment has its roots. Not to say that there is anything wrong with Classical Music–far from it. As I mentioned in Peter’s thread I don’t really prefer that orchestras do the pops concerts. I’ve played hundreds of shows over the past decade doing pop and rock covers and I rarely enjoy performing them myself–even the ones I’ve written myself.

Then again, going back to the Armenian musician’s comments about Rock, Pop, and Folk music — as well as Classical Music — and I can sympathize. When you actively perform or listen to a truly wide variety of music, then the “limitless capacity of classical music to nourish the inner lives of everyone it reaches” rings a little hollow.

As Nettl relates:

Musicians in Madras used to say to me, an American, “We have our trinity of great composers, Tyagaraja, Syama Sastri, and Dikshitar, just as you have your trinity,” meaning Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. (pg. 28)

And musicians in Aleppo or Cairo have their trinity of great composers, Mohammed Abdel Wahhab, Riyad al-Sunbati, and Baligh Hamdi; and musicians in Turkey have their Tanburi Cemil Bey, Neyzen Dede, and Misirli Udi Ibrahim Efendi; and China has their Wei Liangfu, Xian Xinghai, and Zhu Zaiyu. All composers from their respective countries that wrote music in their native art music styles and not European art music (e.g. Classical Music) style. I could go on to list Persian Classical Music composers, or Azerbaijani Mugham composer, or Japanese Gagaku court composers, or Thai Piphat Orchestra composers, etc., etc., ad nauseum.

The point is, European Classical Music is simply one art music style amongst many and in this digital information age there is really no excuse for having a parochial view that it is the “best that humanity has to offer” or that it is “humanity’s highest achievements.” The same could be said about the pop music side, for that matter–this is just the Classical vs. Pop [vs. the Rest] issue after all.

The main issue is humility (or lack thereof). Doug Borwick, in his recent post, Discovering Humility, says:

Expertise and passion are essential for the creation and presentation of art.

At the same time, expertise and passion can be roadblocks to reaching communities. They separate us from those without them and make communicating difficult. It is a challenge for the passionate expert to understand those who do not share his or her knowledge and point of view, and it requires almost superhuman effort for the expert not to be seen as condescending. This leaves us with a dilemma, especially when it comes to the task of engaging with our communities.

and gives a hypothetical example in the realm of sports:

Think of it like this. The championship professional sports franchise is very, very, very good at what they do. Some teams and individual athletes may think that their abilities make them superior to the minions that surround them and, in a society that values athletics as much as ours does, they can get away with it to a degree. But most (though granted not all) of the ones we admire we appreciate for their well-grounded awareness that athletic prowess is only one relatively small element of what it means to be human; some even have a sense of humor about it.

Borwick continues with, “Our society is not, today, predisposed to give the aloof artist or arts organization the benefit of the doubt. In a time when expanding reach is critical, the first tool that needs to be mastered is the skill of relationship building. The foundation of that is humility.” In the end, I think that was the real purpose of the three stories I gave at the beginning of the post–to give us a little bit of humility.


  1. You were up early this morning!
    I used both the tuning and the “all the same” stories (although the circumstances are a bit different) in my book, Building Communities, Not Audiences. My source was Titon, Jeff Todd. Worlds of Music. Third Edition. NY: Schirmer Books. 1996


  2. I remember going to what was called a kaleidoscope festival when I was in grad school, a multicultural festival. It was southern CA, so there was lots of east and south Asian stuff. One of the things that I never forgot was a performance by a dude who was introduced by name, a drummer who had own prizes and gone to conservatories and stuff, a big deal guy. He had an array of drums around him, and was accompanied by a woman (not named) playing a sort of reed organ with a bellows in the back.

    The thing was, she played the same five notes over and over. And I sat there thinking, “This is boring.” I listened for a little longer, then wandered off.

    But it bugged me, and I kept chewing on it for the next couple days. Logically, it was not possible that the music actually WAS boring. India has a billion people in it, and this guy had won prizes and things … The only conclusion I could reach was that I was listening to it incorrectly. The DRUMMER was the big name guy — I should have been paying more attention to the drums. Instead, with ears honed by decades of listening to music where the melody is ALWAYS at the forefront and drums are accompaniment, I was sort of listening upside down. I still wish I could go back and relisten to that much and find out what was in it. We LEARN to listen to music, and internalize general guidelines without even realizing it. None of it is self-evident. There is nothing “universal” about any of it. It’s like saying there is one spoken language that is understandable by all. There isn’t.


    • Yeah, the harmonium is primarily used as a drone instrument in India. It functions similar to how the tampura–that normal ‘twangy’ drone most Westerners associate with Indian music–does and a complement to the sympathetic drone strings of most stringed Indian instruments. It’s more like a backdrop in theatre, whereas the drummer (tabla) player was the actual actor. We are so used to pitch driving music in the West that we’re not as used to hearing subtle timbre or rhythmic changes.

      One of the most interesting pieces I’d read in some time was a study on how North Americans have a much more difficult time perceiving irregular rhythms than Eastern Europeans who grow up with folk music in odd meters (e.g. 11/16, 13/16, 9/8) and often can’t tell when the rhythm switches back and forth between odd metered and even metered rhythms. Apparently infants can perceive the difference which suggests that we lose the ability due to the effects of culture.


      • I know that when I hear rhythmic changes, I generally just have to let go of the music at that point, even if I’m enjoying it. I’ve loved listening to joropo, for example, and that’s got some polyrhythmic stuff in it. My ear usually just hears it as extra beats or internal pickup measures, which is probably NOT how a Venezuelan would hear it. Maybe they could also be perceived as simply errors. There’s so many aspects to music of all cultures, and ALL of it can vary and carry complexity.


      • You know what it is — when I listen to joropo and the rhythm jumps around, my ears hears it as this sort of catch or hiccough; my ear can tell that something’s happening. But it can’t quantify it. In contrast, when there’s a key change in Western music, I’ll know exactly what is it and can make a decent guess at what key things have changed into. My ear can detect both, but it can’t grammaticize the rhythmic hops. It just hears them as catches or little hiccoughs in the music — which are still neat, and joropo is still melodically driven enough to be fun and engaging for me to keep listening.


      • Yeah, the problem is that we’re so used to organizing rhythms in a particular way (usually by subdividing meters and assigning strong beats in certain spots) that it’s difficult for us conceive of different ways of organizing–even the examples I gave above–Eastern Europeans wouldn’t traditionally even call those meters or name them as such. They tend to think in terms of longs and shorts–so the 11/16, a rhythm often used in kopanitsa dances, would be short-short-long-short-short (2+2+3+2+2).

        And depending on region, the meters could easily have been recorded differently. Rather than an 11.16, it might be closer to a 5/8 with a slightly longer 3rd beat, just not long enough to constitute adding another 16th length in. So many of those rhythms aren’t quite divisible into rational numbers as we’d like.

        And sometimes it’s simply a matter of idiosyncratic choice differences depending on when we’re listening like what Jaap Kunst says:

        ‘No doubt one will frequently feel, when tackling the same phonogram some days later, an inclination to distribute the bar-lines differently. The reason for this is the fact that accentuation in the music of many exotic peoples is much weaker than that in Western music; in some cases this accentuation is put into it by the investigator, because we Westerners seem to feel the need of making what is heard more comprehensible by “phrasing” it in some way or other.’

        I’ve yet to find an acceptable reason why flamenco musicians/dancers insist on counting starting on 12 (e.g. bulerias = 12-1-2, 3-4-5, 6-7, 8-9, 10-11), and dancers seem to have their own idiosyncratic ways of “counting” depending on traditions unless the particular dancer has a background in some Western (either pop or classical) instrument.


  3. So it’s just off the binary system of subdivision we use. Knowing that could make it easier to listen to, and I know I’ve been more that occasionally frustrated by things I’ve heard that I can’t write down because I can’t figure the meter in a western sense!


    • Well, essentially. But in many cultures there is also a highly developed “percussion language” that is used to teach the rhythms. In India this is highly developed as this video shows:

      The middle east, central asia, persia and africa also have highly developed percussion languages used to transmit rhythms orally. As you can see from the video, it’s not about counting or subdivisions but patterns of sounds which can be “spoken.”


      • So instead of a chord sheet sort of approach, where the progression may be mostly fixed and people dance and improv around that, they would use these long rhythmic soliloquys as a kind of framework on which a piece would be constructed?


      • This is more of a training exercise–like an etude. It can sometimes be used in performance (as we sometimes use etudes as pieces to be performed) but this vocalization is used to train the patterns, vocabulary, and “grammar” of rhythms. I think that’s one of the reasons I think a distinction needs to be made between musical literacy and musical fluency. Being able to convey music through a written score isn’t the same thing as being able to convey music in real time and spontaneously–it’s the difference between written language and spoken language.


  4. You know hat his reminds e of too, is something I learned about when arching a BBC documentary on the harp. The whole thing is on YouTube, and it’s worthy watching. In the documentary, they discuss a Welsh and Irish harping congress from something like the 1100s where the best bards from both lands got together to codify harp music. The way they did it was really nest — they didn’t care about rhythms, and they didn’t care about keys or melody. They codified music by the patter of alternation between chords. Like 1/1/0/0 would be two chords, playing the first one twice, and the second one twice, all binary. It didn’t even matter which two chords you used — it was just the alternating pattern that governed what “type” of song it was. And of case on top of this sort of framework, you can improvise like mad.

    So there’s yet another way to characterize music — rhythmically, melodically, by chord progression, and by the pattern of alternation between chords. It’s really amazing to learn that there are so many ways to view and listen to music! The Western way will always be home for me, but I just love learning about the variety of ways that humans have come up with, and how natural and self-evident they each are to the people who do them.


    • That sounds fabulous–I’m going to have to watch that documentary!

      There are so many different ways to characterize music. One of my favorite lectures is Cinuçen Tanrıkorur’s New England Concervatory lectures on Turkish Makam. This section of the lecture talks about the Seyir (literally “path” in Turkish) of Makams (modes). He shows how different makams can have the same pitches but be completely different “scales” depending on their seyir. Given that there are some 100 different makams in Turkish classical music and that they Turks make fine distinctions between 9 subdivisions of a whole tone in theory there is a completely different level of melodic development than what we’d find in Western music.

      We could even say that for a time both Western and Near Eastern music started out much more similarly but diverged as the result of the split in the Roman church with the accompanying different music notation traditions used to preserve early chants. In the West we got polyphony which evolved into complex harmony, while in the Near East we got melodic and rhythmic complexity.


      • The whole discussion of how the harp evolved from a mostly diatonic instrument to a chromatic one at the same time as European music became consumed with harmony and modulation just runs right parallel with other things you’ve said. It’s also filled with great music, and where I first encountered joropo and fell in love with it. I love creole music like that, where you get multiple continents’ musics and just slap them together and see what comes out. Rock and roll is exactly the same thing, without the indigenous influence.


      • That’s the interesting thing–apparently the Middle Eastern Oud used to be fretted and more diatonic–both the Oud and Western Lute have a common ancestor from that region–the words “lute” and “oud” actually comes from the Arabic al’ud.

        Eventually middle eastern music, during the rise of the Arabic Empire, started emphasizing microtonal differences and inflections in tuning and the frets on the Oud were eliminated. All of this happened during the time that the Eastern Orthodox churches started created notation for their chants after the 9th century.

        I’ve found that music in Northern Europe and the isles diverged from mainland continental European “functional harmony” much as Eastern Europe did. I don’t think we realize how provincial that functional harmony really is until we get outside of the canonical classical music tradition!


    • I would imagine that’s a fine intro to South Indian drumming. I don’t have a copy of it myself, but if you know nothing about the techniques, this looks like a good start–I may have to get a copy of it myself now! 😀


      • I’ve not used any Indian instructional–most of my experience with Indian music is in workshops/clinics. I’ve used Abbos Kosimov’s Doira instructional video and have used some middle-eastern drumming videos. I think I should probably make a bibliography of all these resources–hadn’t thought of it until you brought this up–thanks!


  5. Still thinking about this — in a way, the attitude that says that Western orchestras should just stick to what they do best is not a bad one. The idea that a Western orchestra could have a hope in hell of presenting such diverse types of music with any real fluency — or worse, that they “should” — is an ego trip. If the African drum virtuosi can crank out polyrhythms with one hand behind their backs … then in a way why do the Western orchestras need to? I could see how the musicians would find it fascinating (especially the timpanists) but isn’t it an ego trip to treat these incredibly complex traditions like some sort of political bingo chips, or to imagine that most of the (culturally Western) members of a Western orchestra could have a prayer in hell of playing that sort of stuff with the mastery of someone who has been doing it since they were in diapers? Classical musicians are quick to say that you need to start in the womb to be able to play their stuff — well, that African drum master did just that. You can play with those tools but unless they are a part of your culture, you probably can’t touch the master’s virtuosity.

    Just thinking about this — that it can either be a hallmark of ego of of humility to say that Western orchestras have a “home court” of music and will probably always be best at that kind of stuff — either because one feels that Beethoven is the ultimate expression of passion, or because the other varied traditions are simply too complex, great, and involved to master them on the side after a lifetime of training in Western music. Individual musicians in a Western orchestra may have a grounded feel for it if they come from that background, but the orchestra as a whole may not.


    • That’s a good point. I think one of the reasons I posted this blog and occasionally about the ethnic orchestras is simply to dispel the “myth” that Western Classical is universal in any sense. Especially the way it has been practiced in the past century by focusing on the canonical warhorses.

      I remember when the early music/historically informed practice movement started to get a lot of negative attention from mainstream classical music institutions–it all seemed to be a way for one population to disparage another by highlighting the legitimacy of a “correct” (and universal) way to perform classical music. I think the underlying fear is that this “correct” way is simply one of many and has now become another form of “historically informed practice” since most new music that is performed is rarely done by the SOBs–Symphony, Opera, and Ballet organizations are just another historical way of approaching a relatively narrow range of music from a particular period of time and region (primarily 19th century Europe).

      To admit that there is other “great music” out there–other “great performing traditions” with ensembles and practices–would lessen the legitimacy of the one touted as featuring the “greatest” musical works of mankind–and we can’t have that, right?

      So maybe it is best to let SOBs do what they do best: Specialists in one art form of many. This begs the question of what then do we mean by music education since it become untenable that by bringing back music education in the schools at the pre-college level we should be focusing on the traditional string orchestras, full orchestras, and concert bands. Then it becomes a question of Whose Art are we supporting–and once you ask that question, then you realize that there’s no reason why Western Instrumental Instruction should be the norm and we should actually be bringing relevant music instruction to communities rather than subsidizing one cultural art form over another–letting the local cultures determine what arts they value!


  6. I did a doctoral minor in ethnomusicology, while also having taken courses in it elsewhere. The story of the non-Westerner who prefers the tuning of the orchestra to the concert is legendary, and has been told of any number of different nationalities. I think the first time I heard it, the man was supposed to have been Chinese. And Klezmer as a foreign tradition? Really? It seems to me that in many ways, Klezmer is actually the basis for the stablished violin style, except that it doesn’t include the ornament called a kretsch. Certainly, there was the joke my mother said they used to tell when she was a kid: “Question: What’s the definition of a Soviet-American cultural exchange? Answer: They send us their Jews from Odessa, and we send them ours!”


    • Thanks Beth, I imagine that is one of those stories that lends itself to being a meme for many traditions.

      I have that recording, “Fiddler in the House,” which has Perlman “going back to his roots” so to speak while playing with groups like the Klezmer Conservatory Band and the Klezmatics and it’s probably one of the best ways for folks to hear the difference between a Western Classical trained violinist and a Klezmer violinist. Sure, there is some overlap (and I can definitely hear some very German types of textures and harmonies in a lot of Klezmer music) but I think it’s a distinct enough tradition of playing that many can tell the difference when hearing them side by side as in that Perlman recording.


  7. […] And then we have tonal languages which convey semantic meaning via lexical tones. And correspondingly, there’s the view that some non-emotive meaning is embedded in musics. To illustrate the latter I’ve often used a few anecdotes taken from ethnomusicology contexts. I recently posted one on my Facebook page (and have related in a previous blog post). […]


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