Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Why I find it difficult to learn Carnatic Music

After several failed attempts at learning Carnatic Music, I became exasperated at my inability to continue after a few months. Carnatic Music is my life and blood, and is an integral part of my life. While I get interested in different activities from time to time, CM has been the single aspect that has remained unchanged for the past 10 years and my interest in it has continued to grow. So, it's not a question of inspiration.

Discipline is definitely an issue. I have been a little indisciplined about practising during all my stints. But given that I listen to at least 3 or 4 hours of music a day on the average, I certainly could have motivated myself to practise daily. Yes, it takes effort but I've been disciplined about other things in the past that I was not half-interested in, compared to CM. Why was I not able to motivate myself to practise daily?

Kids are taught music from an early age because they don't question as to why they must sing in a particular shruthi or why they must learn Sarali varisai first. As much as I try to act like a kid, I still could not stop asking questions similar to those mentioned above. This lead to self-doubt and brought down my motivation.

The teachers I've had have also contributed in certain respects to my failure but it's not fair to blame them. I've previously written about my expectations from a teacher. The ability of a teacher to understand my perspective and approach to learning music is crucial for me. I had realized this previously and had decided that it was going to be difficult to find such a teacher in the short-term. During my latest stint, I tried my best to ignore this issue and was fairly successful.

After weeks of contemplation, I've come to the conclusion that the problem lies in the way I perceive music. I see music as an abstract concept. My brain is not able to break down a piece of music into individual frequencies. When I hear the note Ga, it sees Ga but it does not register the frequency corresponding to Ga. In other words, I'm or I've become tone-deaf. I only see music as being composed of phrases. These phrases evoke a certain emotion in me depending on the raga or cause intellectual excitement.

This is not as serious a problem as I'm making it sound but I'm glad that I finally nailed the reason. This could be the reason why people who listen to a lot of music but haven't learnt music formally, find it difficult to reproduce a piece of music verbatim. I feel uncomfortable generalizing this without enough data. The solution obviously lies in observing closely and determining the actual notes corresponding to a certain phrase. I've been trying this out with instrumentalists as a first step. Let's see if I make any progress. Otherwise, my tone-deafness will leave people wishing for stone-deafness!


  1. you are not alone on the ga thing unless you happen to have perfect pitch like lalgudi sir. For mere mortals relative pitch is sufficient. The caveat would be find sa. CM is based on relative intervals and also gamakams plays a havoc. We tuned/auto pilot our brain to appreciate music before learning it by rote not the other way two cents

  2. It's odd, how opposite it is for me. I have no problems repeating peices of music exactly as they are. This might just be because of how many years I have been learning, and how wonderful my teacher is. I can listen to ANY peice of music and break it up into swara's. However, I never see the big picture. I simply cannot listen to carnatic music and it's something I force myself to do. I don't enjoy it as much as you do, and it has been a source of frustration for my teachers my parents and myself. My creativity is being supressed because of this and my raagam & swarams haven't improved in two years.

    I think if you stick with singing for a while you should be able to pick up on it, considering how much you listen to it!

  3. Hi,

    I am stumbled upon this site, this post as I was trying to word a similar feeling in me and the human instinct and need to know I am not alone found you.

    But unlike, I dont listen to music very often neither carnatic music was teh one that had my love all the time. But after 30 yrs, now I have that rush and longingness to get it all right.. atleast to a level where I can appreciate music, identify raagas and tap my hand to a rhythm.
    Alrite, I need that secrte solution on how you overcame this tone - deafness.. Will look for your reply.

  4. I simply listened closely to the violin replies. It helped me get a good understanding of sruthi. I've been learning from Delhi Muthukumar for the past 4 months and he has been excellent. Above all this, my wife has been keeping me on my toes with regard to sruthi and doesn't allow me to sing without sruthi.