Posted by: Prashanth Rajan | February 1, 2013

Music : A complex canvas

[This is more of a conversation put down on paper]

I had an intellectually stimulating discussion with one of my friends Karthik Rao the other day, and we were discussing about how much one can interpret from music.

Let’s just give it a little go. I am sure interpretations of music are rather subjective, but I believe that I am more inclined to grasp what the artist is trying to portray when I listen intently to a song containing lyrics. Somehow, the same doesn’t apply when I am just listening to pure instrumental versions. Maybe I am not acquainted with the intricacies and the nuances of music, and the various genres of music, but you give me an instrumental song and 9 out of 10 times I would completely miss what the artist is trying to paint on the canvas. Surely the people who listen intently to carnatic and classical music are well familiarized and can appreciate the work only because they have a clear understanding of the subject. I for one can only hear finely structured musical patterns, but I do not understand the underlying emotion. I enjoy the beauty of a finely written song, and the meaning of the song is what intrigues me rather than the parts which aid it like the background music for example. And I happen to hate heavily computerized aid in songs when precedence is given to commercializing recurring motifs and not lyrics. But am I not missing out on a great deal by just limiting myself to this confined space which I am comfortable with? By conveniently limiting myself to understanding emotions from finely written lyrical songs and not instrumental versions? I would surely love to know what Beethoven is trying to convey without having to read about it or someone giving me a summary about it.

I am a big fan of Coldplay, and am a huge fan of all their albums save the last one (I somehow didn’t like their new direction to infuse pop in their music (Mylo Xyloto), doesn’t suit them I feel). The beauty of Coldplay’s songs are that they are very deep in substance and most of the times they reflect our lives. But I am not a fan of Beethoven or Mozart only because of my own doing. Because I do not understand the emotions that are being reflected in the song and not because I don’t like their compositions.

Karthik and myself also discussed why people listen to music at all. Some do it just for the sake of listening – exploring different themes. Some do it so that they can identify the phase of the life that they are going through with the song. Very subjective again but I would surely like to know what goes on in the head of the listener as well, just as what goes on in the head of the composer intrigues me. I listen to a particular song when I am in a particular kind of mood. There are songs I listen to when I am in a low mood in the hope that I cheer up and listening to songs have helped a lot. For each, his own purpose.

I also happen to have a question which has been bothering me to no end. Do musicians perform a better job of portraying emotions through music ONLY if they have experienced it in their life ? No doubt, a person’s life almost always influences their work, and a musician’s is no different, but is it absolutely necessary for a musician to have experienced it to convincingly portray in their work ? Have there been any instances where a artist with no connect to the emotion in real life has produced a stunning work of art? I would surely like to know my musician-friends’ thoughts on this.

Aren’t just the complexities of music god-awesome ? I just love to explore chaos and complexities in every theme. Well, what can I say, C’est la vie.



  1. I like the title of this post. Music is complex, amen to that. Like you’ve mentioned, there are intricate details in music that go unnoticed 95% of the time. If one is into music in a big way and one is hungry is find out more, then one has to explore the realms of the unknown in music.
    And portraying an emotion/experience that one has not felt or understood before is, in a sense, slightly phony. I guess you can tell if the musician is genuine about it or faking it. (Although I cannot confirm this; this is just what I feel)

    Cheers on writing a post on music mate! Here’s to more musical awesomeness in your life!

    Karthik Rao

    • Thanks a lot man ! Sure hope to have a lot more discussions like this.

  2. Liked the post !! Forget the nuances of the music, you’ve certainly gone deep into the nuances of discussing 🙂

  3. This is a very interesting discussion. Reminds me of college. A friend and I used to love the same bands and songs but while I listened mainly for the lyrics, he wouldn’t even remember the names of the songs, and considered the voice ‘just another instrument’.

    Music is extremely subjective and there have been numerous scientific studies that show how close the link between memories and music are. I read somewhere that most people think that the songs they heard during their late teens and early twenties to be the ‘best music’, indicating clearly that it has little to do with the music itself and more to do with a certain time in their life.

    With classical music of any kind, including carnatic, an education is necessary to appreciate it at all.

    Popular music can be broken down into
    1. melody (or tune, as it’s generally called)
    2. tone (the sounds of the instruments themselves – lush violins or noisy guitars)
    3. lyrics.

    So different people are turned on by different things, I guess. Personally the first thing that captures me is tone (I like soft music and intensely dislike metal and the like). Second is melody – I like catchy music and then come lyrics.

    I also listen to songs with good lyrics despite poor melody or unpleasant tone, but I don’t make that exception to melody or tone. I won’t listen to a good melody if it has terrible lyrics. I won’t listen just for tones alone.

  4. Hey Thanks for the really insightful comment Kaber. That point you mentioned about music heard during late teens and early twenties being the best – has certainly made very curious. Maybe because it is a critical juncture in our lives ?(Just wild guessing) And I totally subscribe to the point you made about memories and music. I distinctly recall a specific song in my head for every different mood.

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