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Article: How Do We Identify A Raag When We Hear It

By Tarun Talwar
  First the disclaimer - functioning of the human mind is an extremely complex and vast field of study. Generations of scientists have researched on the subject and unearthed several concepts and theories, some evolutionary and others revolutionary. I don't claim to have even an iota of that enormous pool of knowledge. As fascinating as the subject is to me, I am a beginner in it. Therefore, the most I can attempt is a common sense and somewhat rational analysis of this interesting point that has been raised by many.

Let me start by introducing a basic concept called bi-directional associative memory (BAM). Our brain has the capacity of forming and storing associations between two pieces of information. For instance, my brain associates the word "Haresh" with a face (that of my music guruji). When I hear or read the word “Haresh“, the image of his face comes to mind. Conversely, when I see his benign face or its picture, the word “Haresh“ comes to mind (hence bi-directional). Another example of BAM is associating the word red with a color, or for that matter associating any object with its name. The concept of BAM is not applicable merely to visual images, but all sensory perceptions. Hence we associate smells and tastes with their names.

Now let's take it a step further. Instead of images or objects, let's apply it to melodic patterns. When I hear the tune of a particular movie song, its lyrics come to mind. And when I hear the lyrics of a movie song, its tune comes to mind. Similarly, in Western classical music, my mind associates a certain set of movements with a label or title. So when I hear it, I say - this is Mozart's symphony # 25.

Now let's consider the raags. We are now faced with an additional factor, a big one. While a movie song is always a fixed and defined melody, a raag is not. So it is not a simple case of the mind associating a label with a tune. There is more happening here. What's that more ? To understand that, I think it'll help us to first give some kind of form and definition to the concept of raag. It is a very difficult concept to define. But for the sake of this discussion, let's say a raag is a melodic framework constituted by a set of rules of movement and emphasis. Within that framework any number of melodic patterns and movements can be constructed. A rudimentary example of that framework could be as follows:

1. Available notes are - S, R, G, M, P, D, N. 
2. S-R-G is prohibited. Instead 'N-R-G is prescribed. 
3. P is not allowed in aaroh. It is only avarohi. 
4. Emphasis must be given on G, P and N. 
5. Ending the movements with D-N-S should be avoided. Instead 'N-R-S is prescribed. 
And we give this set of rules, this framework, a name - Yaman. (Most likely that's not how the raags got or get created. I am pretty sure that the raags evolved through a natural creative process, and were formalized into rules later. But that's a different issue and not relevant to our discussion. What's relevant here is the fact that there is a framework of these five rules/guidelines, and it is called Yaman).

Now, an artist performing Yaman can weave any number of melodic phrases and movements within this framework. That last part is the key - "within this framework". Correct rendition of Yaman has to follow these rules. And I think therein lies, at least partially, the answer to our question. When I hear a raag a few times, my mind perceives and registers that framework. Even though the exact tunes I hear in four different Yaman compositions are different, the rules being followed are the same. Those rules may not be stated to the listener, but are implicit in what s/he is hearing. Probably a listener's mind perceives the common arrangement and movements of notes in those four compositions, translates them into unstated common rules, and stores them somewhere, with an associated label - Yaman. Of course, the label is secondary here. The main process happening here is relating melodies based on common frameworks, and storing the resultant association. If a label (Yaman) is provided, the mind will store that too along with it.

Before I started learning classical music formally, it happened so often that I would find something unmistakably common between two or more movie songs. I would be certain that they are based on the same raag, without knowing the name of that raag. (I am sure I am not the only one who has experienced this).

It seems that the mental process of figuring a raag on hearing it is a little abstract. It is not simple as in case of a song, which is primarily storing a tune in some kind of memory-store, associating a label with it, and retrieving the tune given the label or retrieving the label given the tune. In case of a raag, perhaps the process is that of perceiving common rules/guidelines/patterns among renditions of a raag, conceptualizing the observed rules/patterns into some kind of a loose framework, and storing it. And of course, retrieving it when one hears a melody that is essentially following the same framework. The process of abstraction and association may not be at conscious but subconscious level.

Naturally, this process is slightly more complex than that of identifying a song, and probably requires better ability of perception, abstraction and association. That is probably why one person can figure a raag intuitively on hearing it, and another cannot, even if both possess the same knowledge about it. But I wonder if this can be generalized. I am sure there are people whose association and conceptualization is strong and evident in other fields but not in music. So is our state of evolution of these mental faculties relative to the subject matter ?

There. I have begun to ask questions after (or instead of) giving answers :-) Surely an indication that I have said what I had on the original point.



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