When historians seek to understand a piece of music, they examine its rhythm, melody and harmony, formal structure, and timbre carefully. [Click here to return to the Unpacking Music guide for explanations of these terms.] For historians who are not trained as musicians or ethnomusicologists, these concepts may take time to sort out. They vary depending on the culture in which the music is produced. The organization of rhythm in Western music, for example, is different than the way it is understood in India. Understanding the musical system sheds light on important philosophical, religious, and artistic aspects of the culture producing the music.
Watch the following excerpt from a South Indian classical music concert performed in 1995 in Chennai, India, and try to determine the rhythmic structure of the piece. This concert features a flute, violin, drum, and clay pot, though the excerpt you will watch includes only the drum and clay pot. The players of these instruments follow ancient traditions of musical performance. They, along with their listeners, give great importance to preserving historical continuity and to expressing the cultural ideas embedded in the musical design they create. This piece’s musical design is composed of four elements:
- A continuous drone, generated by an electronic machine;
- A cyclical pattern of pulses that makes up the rhythmic structure;
- A poetic text written by a poet composer named Tyagaraja that expresses devotion to Lord Rama, the name given to God in its aspect of preserver of life and the universe in Hinduism. The music follows the pattern of the text and is divided into lines. These divisions give the piece its formal structure. South Indian classical music always has a text, even when it is being played by instruments and not sung; and
- A pattern of tones that elicits a certain mood appropriate to the text. This pattern of tones is like a scale, and is the piece’s melodic structure. Scales can be made up of different numbers and types of tones, for example, “do re mi fa sol la ti do.”
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