Music Memes: Understanding Sound

24 Jul

“Starting with cries denoting alarm, passion, pain and joy, the human vocal cord gradually learnt to imitate sounds that were mechanical in the beginning… The mute man as he gradually began to articulate vocal sounds, soon found that like drum beats or claps they could be used to… articulate rhythm” (Gosvami The Story of Indian Music). 

Nada is the Sanskrit word for sound vibration or primordial tone. The Brihaddeshi, a 6th century text on music, explains that there is no song, music, musical notes, speech or language without Nada. Nada is linked to the Hindu deities “reinforc[ing] existing concepts of sound in terms of gradations of emerging vital energy”. The study of sound vibration has continued for thousands of years with many differing interpretations, perspectives and practices. The primordial tone is studied as music, language and science.  

The Sangita Ratnakara, a 13th century musical text further explains why sound is such a crucial element of human existence. “Desirous of speech the… (individuated being) impels the mind, and the mind activates… (the battery of power) stationed in the body, which in its turn stimulates…(vital force)”. In ancient and medieval India, Nada served to inform the linkages between the physical and spiritual world.

The Vedic age was an early Indian civilization, named after the ‘Vedas’ which are some of the oldest religious scriptures that have survived to this day. The Vedas are hymns passed from person to person. The dissemination of the hymns during the Vedic period relied entirely on the oral tradition, and would not be represented in a written form for many years. 

Despite the difficulty of the hymns, monks and religious students would spend hundreds of hours perfecting them through repetition and memorization. The hymns themselves are verses organized into mantras, containing various religious myths and stories (Bloomfield A Vedic Concordance xvii). These early hymns are believed to be the precursor to what is now modern Hinduism. The composers of these hymns were considered to be inspired poets and prophets. The musical aspect of these rituals is important because of the belief in the essence of sound being “eternally existing”. It was believed that specific mantras repeated could open one’s mind, “a song performed perfectly could ensure rain, good crops, or an eternal heaven”. The success and long reach of the Vedic tradition proves how successful this cultural transference was. The process of memorising and mastering the Vedas pitch for pitch continues today. A small number of Vedic priests still spend lifetimes learning, memorizing and reciting these ancient sounds. 

The foundation of both culture and religion in ancient India, the Vedas are written in Sanskrit and serve as the basis for much of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain sacred and cultural practices. Brahmanic priest and deity Krsna Dvaipayna Vyasa Veda is credited with codifying and writing down the Vedic texts. However, since the Vedas are such a large body of cultural and religious history, they are probably the “products of many contributors over the centuries”.