Carnatic music, like most other music systems of the world, has two dimensions: an emotional dimension and an intellectual dimension. The emotional dimension is supported by the melodic system, which is the foundation for both Carnatic and Hindustani music.

In the melodic system, the music progresses with a succession of individual notes. The system gives a performing artist great freedom to improvise and, consequently, in enhancing the emotional experiences or the nadha anubhava of the listeners. One of the most notable and creative outputs from this melodic system is the raga. A raga is produced when swaras are arranged in specific ascending and descending orders. A well-executed raga would give rise to emotions such as joy, anger, peace, or compassion in the minds of a listener. One may ask why should the same notes, when arranged in a different order invoke a different emotion in a listener. This question is difficult to answer because emotions are subjective and abstract and they cannot be described merely by words. Regardless of our inability to describe, we would yet agree that listening to Carnatic music energizes certain inner forces in our minds, leading to mystical experiences.

While emotional and mystical aspects dominate Carnatic music, we cannot conclude that music is a purely subjective experience. The subjective experiences do not arise in empty space. The emotions arise only because each individual correlates what he or she hears with prior experiences acquired from the real world. In this sense, listening to music is also an intellectual exercise.

The intellectual process is induced by aesthetic attributes of the music such as laya, thala, swara kalpana, or neravals. It is these attributes that also differentiate the music from other natural phenomena. For example, while the sounds of flowing water and the rustle of trees also give rise to subjective emotions, we do not characterize them as music because they lack the intellectual elements of music. We cannot codify the sounds of flowing water into cyclical thala or repeatable swara patterns. Therefore, what makes listening to music a mystical experience is the combination of emotional and intellectual attributes. As scholars declare, music and mathematics together lead to true mysticism.

The presence of both emotional and intellectual dimensions is the reason why Carnatic music is defined as both Gandharva Vidya (music of the Gods) and Sangeetha Kala (the science of music). Although the two definitions may appear to point us in two different directions, they indeed point to the same objective. As a Vidya, music takes us from the known to the unknown. Using known attributes such as swara, thala, and other defined aspects, music leads us to abstract inner workings of our minds.

In contrast, as a Kala or a science, music guides us from the unknown to the known. Similar to the sciences, it starts with assumptions about unknown human emotions and beliefs. Through experimentation and observation, it then constructs rules and structured processes related to aesthetic attributes of music.

The definition of Carnatic music as both a vidya and a Kala points to us that both the artistic and the scientific dimensions are integral to the music. However, the definition does not clarify whether one of these two dimensions is more important than the other. To find an answer to this question, we must examine the objectives behind the pursuit of music. The primary role of Carnatic music is stimulating human emotions. The music appeals to us because of its inspirational influence on our inner spiritual forces. Saint Tyagaraja describes this phenomenon as Nadopasana. He explains the concept of Nadopasana in several of his compositions (e.g., Nada Thanum Anisam, Sobhillu Saptha Swara, Nadopasana, and Swara Raga Sudha). He describes Nadopasana as ‘Merungutaye Mudamagu Mokshamura’ or music that leads to the realization of the existence of blissful heaven. When viewed from this focus, the subjective, inductive, and inspirational attributes of music appear more important than the scientific dimension.

Before we conclude that music is purely a fine art and the scientific aspects are less important, we must ask a few questions. Can music be pleasing if there were no grammar or rules related to swara singing, alapana, or neraval expositions? Would rasikas be satisfied if a concert performance is devoid of all aesthetics? How would music sound if laya or thala is no longer necessary? Since it is based on sound, can the rules of acoustics be ignored? The answer obviously is a resounding ‘no.’ We need kalpana swaras because they contribute to bhava. We need laya and thala because they impose order. In their absence, music will lose both harmony and melody, and it is unwise to call them music. When viewed from this focus, the objective and rational attributes of music appear more important than the artistic or emotional dimension.

Since we are unable to determine whether the artistic or the scientific domain should govern music, a safe conclusion would be that both should govern equally. If we accept such a conclusion, the next question is, what role should each play within the scheme of music? Perhaps, this is an easier question to answer. We can compare the relationship between art and science of music to movie making. In a movie, the actors and actresses are the ones appearing on the screen. They are the ones who narrate the story to us and involve us emotionally. However, these actors and actresses could involve the audiences only because the director guided them through the dramatic aspects, managed the technical team, and encouraged them to portray his vision of the story. Like the actors in a movie, in music, the emotional attributes should be the ones that lead the listeners through the emotional journey. The technical or scientific attributes, like the movie director, should be the force that molds the expressive and emotional domain. But, similar to the director, while reminding the audiences of its influence, it should also refrain from appearing in every frame. When art and science each play their respective roles judiciously, the music will be a true Nadopasana.

Dr. Ram Sriram