Evolution of Music

Dr. Shrikaanth K. Murthy

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Kutcheri, Raga, Tala, Sahitya
Artistes, Composers, Lyrics
Tributes, Tidbits, Quizzes
Dance, Harikatha, Folk Music


[Editor's Notes: 1) The following article was among several entries we received for the Carnatica Global Essay Contest. As promised, we will be featuring a few of the articles on our website 2) Views and opinions expressed in these articles are entirely those of the respective authors]

Countless are the denizens of Earth – feathered, scaled and furred, and man. Man is just one among the many forms of life. Yet, what sets him apart and puts him on top of the evolutionary ladder is his power to think, analyze, understand and assimilate for his own benefit and pleasure. From a marine creature hesitantly stepping onto land to a creature living on trees and walking on all fours to man as he is now – mankind has come a long way. A necessary and logical offshoot of the above mentioned power of thought is the development of fine arts. As man rose in stature in evolution, he needed to think less of survival and more of pleasures and pastimes. In this leisure did the seed of arts find fertile soil to grow into a large banyan tree with many branches and offshoots. The Indian literature celebrates the 64 arts. Amongst these, music is considered the crowning glory across many cultures and civilizations. Man was created by Him and to Him he shall return ultimately. Likewise, the ultimate goal of music is a reunion with the Higher Self.

Like most things that are beautiful and ancient, the origins of music too are shrouded in a thick fog, which even the most powerful searchlight of intuition, and thought may never be able to penetrate and permeate.  It is this very intuition that sets music apart. Modern philosophers opine that as man was toddling towards becoming a human being, his wonder of the universe and his own capabilities gave birth to four things – sacrament, mime, magic and music. When one speaks of music, it is but natural to be prejudiced towards considering the evolution of music with respect to development of civilization. But music had its origin even before life originated. It sprung from the big bang that gave rise to this universe – the nada bindu, which gave rise to music with variegated forms and colours. As Byron said,  

There’s music in the sighing of the reed;

There’s music in the gushing of the rill;

There’s music in all things, if men had ears:

The earth is but an echo of spheres.

These words precisely sum up all that has been said heretofore. 

Music and language are two facets of the same coin. In the beginning was the word and so was music. Man could not have evolved into what he is without the instrument of language and language reaches its pinnacle in music. Even a casual glance at history will reveal that all great civilizations considered music sacrosanct and held it in reverence. Even the most primitive tribes have music.

The Vedas are considered the progenitor of all music on earth; the music that sprung from Pranava Nada or Omkara. How so? There are two justifications in this regard. One is that Vedas, said to be revealed by God himself, are various expressions of the Pranava and are the earliest recorded documentation of music among other things. This apart, all music that sprung up from the inexhaustible ocean were patterned on the style of the Vedas. This refers to music as a whole as there is no dearth of parallels in other civilizations. But more of this later.

How did Nada give rise to all music?

            “yO NAdah SarvabhUtAnAm

            sarva varNasya cAnkurAt

            yO bIjam mantrakOTInAm

            tam nityam praNamAmyaham”

As to how the anAhata nAda ot heard by ordinary mortals gave rise to Ahata nAda and thence forth to swaras and music, the ancient texts have this to say: “Following an urge from the intellect, the prANAgni or fire in the mUlAdhAra hits the vAyu or air causing it to rise through the heart and the throat and to manifest itself as all music and language, the Vykhari or diverse form. Putting it in terms of physical laws, fire heats up air that naturally ascends through the vocal apparatus, giving rise to music. But the urge or inspiration is the most important. This is what gives music a divine and ethereal quality.

In the Vedas, one can observe that Rks are sung using just 3 notes – udAtta, anudAtta and svarita. The singing of sAmas makes use of 5 to 7 notes, thus giving rise to the saptaswaras. This is the basis of all music. Even though it was considered sacrilegious to distort chanting of Vedas, the fact that sAma rendering today is not the same as the notation found in cadjan leaves and palm manuscripts testifies to the fact that music is a dynamic and vibrant medium that has undergone changes with time. “The old order changeth giving place to the new”.

The embryo of improvisation or manOdharma SamgIta is evident in the singing of sAma wherein words are split and vowels such as ‘O’, ‘E’ and ‘A’ are sung betwixt, along with certain unintelligible syllables called “stObhas”. These however followed certain set rules. Ragas or various melodies that we sing today were not born as such. So then how did they evolve? In the Vedas and in Bharata’s nATyaSastra, we have references to the grAma system. Even prior to this, the laws of consonance – cycle of fifths and fourths were applied to arrive at various swaras. Hence ragas such as mOhana, a pentatonic scale, are considered as one of the oldest ragas. The grAma system referred to 3 grAmas. The grAmas are groups seven swaras in the descending order or avarOha pattern. Initially music was sung and played, not to AdhAra Sruti or fundamental tone but by a method of modal shift. By this process of modal shift and by suitable adjustments in the frequency values, new melodies were arrived at. The development of the concept of AdhAra Sruti, considered the equivalent of the invention of the wheel in the realm of music led to a merger of the three grAmas into the SaDja grAma or precisely into the decline of grAmas and to the ascent of jAtis and rAgas. Various experiments determining the values of Srutis and of each note etc have been discussed with uncanny detail in all ancient texts. However, the credit for putting the stamp of approval on the raga system goes to matanga who gave due consideration to regional differences in his ‘brhaddESi’. Traditionalists till then considered music immutable and all changes and improvisations met with censure and disapproval. It is but natural that music changes with time and place. This fact is borne out by the countless ragas bearing the names of various regions accepted into the Karnatic fold – kAmbOdhi. saurAStra, surati, bangAla et al apart from innumerable ones bearing the name of the kannaDa country/language. Matanga thus paved the way for an organized system of dESi music from the earlier mArga saMgIta. As the grAma system fell into disrepute, older instruments too fell into disuse paving way for newer improved versions. In fact in Tamil music, the modern AThANa (nIlAmbari?) raga is called “YAzh Murip paNN” or a melody that caused the fall of the yAzh as suitable gamakas or intonations could not be played on it. The rule of the survival of the fittest applies to music too. The acme of raga system was reached with Venkatamakhi putting forth his theory of the mElakarta scheme with 72 heptatonic scales. It is of note here that Venkatamakhi propounded this system to accommodate all ragas that have been in use till date within its ambit. Also remarkable is that he just called them 72 scales, not rAgas . Newer theoreticians have tried to propagate the system of 5184 mELas but have met with little success. Time alone can weigh the worth of these hypotheses.

As regards the various forms of composition in vogue, they too have undergone profound changes through the ages. As mentioned earlier, initially these compositions were patterned on the lines of Vedas, a remnant of the sacred character of music. hinkAra, prastAva, udgIta and nidhAna of sAma gAna, which refer to AdhAra Sruti, the commencement of the sAma, the body and the conclusion have respective parallels in musical compositions – the Adhara Shadja, Udgraha, the Dhruva and Abhoga. Even the compositions were based on various vedic meters. Prabandhas such as gAtha, Arya and kanda provide ample examples to this. Among the multitude, a few survived and gave rise to the modern forms. Newer rules were formed with time and certain folk forms were assimilated and given the stamp of classicism. To date, all compositions are based on the set of rules, governing form, metre etc.

The above fact itself will explain the development of tALas. Though there is rhythm in everything, a pattern of rhythm is what the tALa is all about. Various metres were rendered to various talas. The five margi talas were supplanted by the aSTOttara (108) and 120 tALas. Even the 72 tala system was used in limited circles. This was however superseded by the sulAdi tALa system brought into practice by Sri PurandaradAsaru, father of modern Karnatic music. This system enjoys unquestioned acceptance to this day. Ancient tALas are seen in various texts (e.g Tiruppugazh, a Tamil poetry by Arunagirinathar) and occasionally in the rendering of Pallavis

Improvisation too, as said earlier, has its origins in sAma gAna. The introduction of certain syllables, the stretching of words with melody and the introduction of long vowels in between have obvious parallels in jatis, AlApane, tAna and the singing of neraval and pallavi. sAma rendering was accompanied by the playing of the veena. Even when the singer or the sAmaga took a respite, the veena had to be played to fill the gap. In can arguably be inferred that this led to improvisation by the player, and was given priority in the field of Loukika samgIta or secular music. The use of notation too is to be credited to the Indian genius, which first employed it to preserve the method of singing the sAma vEda. Needless to say that there have been changes in this too presently. The Indian system employs the solfa notation while the western music employs the staff notation.

Comparative View of Indian Music and Other Systems

There are certain remarkable similarities in the legends of various civilizations with respect to music and religion, which have always gone hand in hand. Egyptians revered Gods who played the flute and the lute (veena). They had apsarAs too. The words employed by them refer to musical ideas and some of the legends are nearly identical to own including the stories as to how various instruments were discovered. So is the case with Greek, Chinese and Japanese civilizations. All of them have considered music sacred. The concept of the AdhAra SaDja and the methods used to derive ragas are the same in few systems of music. Many melodies have parallels in all systems. For e.g., SankarAbharaNa corresponds to C. Major of Western music. The Hungarian folk music used simhEndramadhyama as a major scale. The Gregorian chants sound similar to Karnatic music. The paNN system of Tamils has many parallels in out ragas. Infact, the earliest inscription on music (the grAmas) comes from KudimiyAnmalai in Tamilnadu. So much for the fundamental uniformity.

Presently, the Indian system is based on melody or a system of just intonation. This is marked by embellishing with gamakas for enhancing aesthetic appeal. This allows for much improvisation and development. The western system is based on Harmony or equal temperament with less scope for improvisation. The Karnatic and Hindustani systems are by and large the same with differences in the use of various methods available to the artiste or PrayOktru. These differences are due to influence from Persian and Arabic systems in the north.

It would not be out of place to recall with respect a few names. Bharata gave the first detailed description of musical form of his times and conducted scientific experiments to determine values and to prove his theories. Matanga in his brhaddESi ushered in the raga system. Venkatamakhi propounded an all-encompassing Melakarta system in his “caturdanDi prakASika”. SrI PurandaradAsaru organized the springboard for the musical trinity and later composers and singers. The HaridAsas and tALLapAkam composers gave the earliest form of present day compositions such as krtis and kIrtanes. GOvinda DIkSita in his samgIta sudhA has explained how to elaborate 50 rAgas in vogue during his time. Pandarika ViTTala did the first comparative study of the Karnatic, Hindustani and Persian systems of music. Royal patrons and grammarians are not to be forgotten in his context. Credit also goes to unrecognized folk musicians and tribes that have provided us with many a beautiful raga and composition.

Goal of Music

Music is considered divine because it is not only a science but also a means for attaining salvation. Infact, it is considered the easiest way to mukti. Enjoyment or singing of music involves forgetting other things and becoming one with music. This transcent is reminiscent of our union with God. Music without devotion is empty. It is always a means for higher attainment; not just pleasure.

It would be apt to recollect the following words,

            “Man is a rope connecting animal and superman – a rope over a precipice – What is great in man is that he is bridge and not a goal”


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