Expand Your World

Natalie’s note: This fascinating article by Mike Ellis will stretch your brain and push you outside the box, er, beat of traditional musical understanding. The more I teach, the more I realize the importance of teaching music as sound to be felt, interpreted and conveyed, not just as notes on a page to be intellectually translated and transmitted through the fingers via an instrument. Of course, this is much easier to discuss in theory than to implement in practice! I would love to have some input from other teachers in response to this. How do you help your students feel the music and connect with the sound, not just mechanically read the notes and rhythms off of the page? Any practical tips?

Expand Your World
© Mike Ellis Music Instruction 2006

Sometimes I like to think back on my studies in ethnomusicology, if for no other reason than to refresh myself, musically. We studied the music of different ethnic origins. One often thinks music is music and that it’s the same around the world. Some think that do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do is a universal truth and that other cultures just rearrange the notes to fit their particular cultural style. Many think that all cultures teach music like we do in America and that the complex rules of Western music are the law and must be studied at the university level to be truly understood and appreciated.

Certain scales from India have twenty-two notes as opposed to our seven. And although music notation is not a new concept in Indian music, Carnatic music was transmitted orally for centuries without being written down. This is what I like to call “true” music training, wherein the student has to hear the music to learn it. In this way, there was no mistaking the accents, emotional inflections in volume, tone, etc., that conveyed the true emotional meaning of the music.

The Western use of staff line notation is far from the only conveyance of music in the world. Past attempts to use Western staff notation to describe Indian music have mostly failed. Indian music makes use of hundreds of ragas, many more than the church modes in western music. It becomes difficult to write Carnatic music using the staff notation without the use of too many accidentals. Furthermore, the staff notation requires that the song be played in a certain key. The notions of key and absolute pitch are deeply rooted in western music, whereas the carnatic notation does not specify the key and prefers to use scale degrees (relative pitch) to denote notes.

We usually tend to think of music in terms of 3 / 4 and 4 / 4 time, the top number (left when typed) being the number of beats per measure and the number on the bottom (right when typed) indicating which type of note (quarter note, eighth note, half note) getting one beat. Dave Brubeck made famous a piece in 5 / 4 time called “Take Five,” appropriately. Pink Floyd’s hit “Money” was mainly in 7 / 4 time. The guitar solos were in 4 / 4 time. Of course there are other exceptions, such as 12 / 8 and others, but primarily in western music, the rythmic patterns are in three or four beat constructs. Even the 12 / 8 rhythm can be expressed as four groups of three beats, with an eighth note getting one beat.

But take a look at an excerpt from www.wikipedia.org on rhythms of Carnatic music.

There are thirty five primary rhythm cycles: seven rhythm cycle types with five flavors (jaathi) in each type. Part 2 describes this in more detail. Amongst the thirty five, only some are commenly used in practice. Here they are, with their names in parentheses in italics:

4 – as in 1234 (eka)

2+3 – as in 12123 (khanda chaapu), sometimes played as 4+6 (1122112233).

2+4 – as in 121234 (roopaka).

3+2+2 – as in 1231212 (thriputa).

3+2+2 – as in 1231212 (misra chaapu), sometimes played as 6+4+4 (11223311221122).

4+2+2 – as in 12341212 (aadhi); this is the most common rhythm cycle.

7+2+1 – as in 1234567121 (jhampa).

5+5+2+2 – as in 12345123451212 (ata).

(Listening note: the non 8-count rhythm cycles may feel a bit abstract at first, but pretty soon one gets the hang of any rhythm cycle.)

That last sentence in the parentheses means that after you hear it enough times, you get to where you can feel the rhythmic structure enough to replicate and enjoy it. The key word here is feel.

So, our Western music is not the only music, our musical rules are not the only rules, our method of teaching these rules is not the only method, and studying music in a university does not necessarily make one a musician. Music is a heartfelt “confession” of emotions and takes many forms around the world. If you are fluent with our Western reading of dots on a page, be sure you listen to what is being produced from those dots. Try to go to the source and listen to the author’s version. It will make a far better musician out of you.

Share and enjoy!

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