How I learned to speak with notes: Connection

A personal recounting of relative pitch: Part 3

What makes music feel dynamic? What makes it an experience so close to living?

It is time.

Music, or even other forms of art like dance or theatre, are heavily dependent on time for their execution. We lead our lives with the same experience of riding the train of time, through each present moment, while always tied to all past and future instants. A melody is a melody because it empowers us to experience time musically. If we were sitting alone and isolated in a silent room, our perception of time would be very different. Music colours time as we go through it. It paints each second, each moment, with a hue that is uniquely tied to that infinitesimal unit of time.

Even with a painting, it could be argued that time is necessary for its appreciation. Your eyes need to move all over the painting, focusing where the painter’s brush draws you, like a story in one page. The difference is that you control your experience of time when looking at a painting. Music, on the other hand, forces you to sit back and be taken for the ride while the musician retains control over your experience of time.

If I played a single, unchanging note constantly, even though you’re listening to it, the static nature of the note makes it seem like a canvas bathed in a single colour. You can come back to it anytime and it’ll still be the very same note. You can observe different aspects of it, think about it and turn your attention back to listening it, and the note is still there. The same is true for multiple notes playing simultaneously. If they don’t change through time, they turn into an aural painting. It can still be a beautiful experience but not the one with which most of us are familiar.

All these notes playing together are a single harmonic painting, seemingly unaffected by time. The reason we have control over our experience of such a harmonic painting or, for that matter, a visual painting is not because time isn’t moving along. Rather it is our confidence in the unchanging nature of the art that gives us the power to sever the link between time and our experience of the work of art.

If we’re looking at a painting of a seaside sunset, and contrary to our expectations, the sun in the painting actually starts moving below the horizon, the children on the beach start to walk away from the oncoming tide and a lighthouse comes to life, apart from being immensely bewildered, we’d be uncontrollably drawn into the moving painting. There’s no more certainty that it’ll stay the same; and what is now a full moon night on a seaside might turn into a beautiful sunrise. If we took our eyes away even for a moment we’re almost certain to miss something. To put it rather crudely, it’s our fear of missing out that keeps us glued to the painting.

Let me put it in a better way though, for my own satisfaction, if nothing else. If living is an experience through time, and not being aware of any one of our senses might result in our not fully experiencing something we might have learned, or happiness we might have felt in that instant, then experiencing music is a part of the encounter with time. If we want to listen to music, we have to invest in time while doing it, and if we don’t spend time with music, then we’re not listening to it.

A harmonic painting gives us confidence in the unchanging nature of reality but harmonic painting that morphs and glides through different harmonic contexts reminds us of how fickle time and life can be. We have to pay attention to notice the changes. And paying attention requires a certain way of living through time — every moment is tied to the experience of art. As far as I know, there is no other way to fully experience art.

Instead of the harmonic painting, let’s take a look at the note painting we started out with, one that has a single note. A single note is static. If the note begins to morph into other notes through time, our experience of the aural painting is reshaped. Rather than the note painting conforming to our notion of time, we must now conform to its changes. It’s the difference between having multiple paths to choose from, to actually treading one of them.

These two pictures I’ve just painted (pun intended) of the note painting and harmonic painting, roughly describe my experience of melodies and harmonic progressions. I haven’t always thought of them in this way, but time and practice have allowed me to experience them in a synonymous form.

Anyone familiar with melody (How I learned to speak with notes: Melody) and harmony (How I learned to speak with notes: Harmony) would know that they can be interwoven and a lot of music uses melodies in specific harmonic contexts. Going back to the analogy of the 2 paintings, think of a third painting that combines both. Single notes move along, but on the larger-scale harmonic currents, like a fisherman’s boat on the waves. The result is as exhilarating as flying your kite in a dance with the wind.

This is something related to music. And as much as we try, there are really no rules, only ways of organising sound. This view of harmony is similarly, only one view. There are many other. You could even think of the melody as the pilot and harmony as the plane. That’s practically the opposite view. Anything is possible.

Earlier, I used to compose harmonic progressions first and then create melodies from the harmonic inspiration. Then I moved to first coming up with the melody and arranging the harmonic parts to suit it. Now, the melody comes riding with the harmony into my mind and I make changes to the original form to express myself better. My approach might change with time; I can’t really say. Either way, the lesson I learned is that the connection between melody and harmony needs to be rock-solid so that you can communicate with the listener exactly as you intend to, through the resulting music.

One way I used to improve my command over both aspects was to see everything as harmony. I saw melody as a harmonic painting stretched across time. Think about it. A chord consists of notes that remain functionally unchanged through time. The notes form a static image of tonal colours. Now if we were to take the same chord and play its notes not simultaneously, but one after the other, we have with us a melody.

It might not be the most interesting way to create melodies after a while — take a chord, split it, play the notes, repeat with other chords. We’d wave what musicians call broken chords. Even if we made things rhythmically interesting, just the fact that it’s serial playing would tune us out. What makes a melody engaging is that notes can repeat, they can linger into other chords and even create downright dissonance with chords if the composer so chooses.

A melody is a harmonic space that plays with time. It can be used to bring forth the past with repetition, change the expectations of the future by modifying a pattern and force us to live in the present moment all at once. Each note in a melody can be seen as interacting with past notes and future expected notes, like the notes in a chord do when played together.

The play on the music already heard and the music yet to be heard is the domain of the music of the present moment. We all have expectations of what might come next in a song. We also keep in memory at least some of the song that has already been played. Also, the music we’ve listened to in our lives so far can bias our expectations of what is to come next. Each moment in a song plays with these expectations using change and time.

Think of your expectations as a harmonic painting unique to your self that only you hold in your mind. It has notes interacting with each other in a static, timeless way. The music you listen to is judged by you based on this harmonic painting inside you. Music forces you to reevaluate your own harmonic painting and in this way, your changing harmonic self-painting is music in itself.

This gives me two kinds of harmony to work with, one that has notes interacting with each other at the same time, and one whose notes interact with each other but are separated by time. The commonality is the interaction between the notes.

Even when we listen to purely melodic music, like Indian classical, the notes depend on each other through time and harmonise beautifully. Each raga is a harmonic painting woven with the fabric of time. The subset of notes that each raga uses is the more static painting while the “rules” govern how the painting will flow with the ebb and rise of time. The fact that all notes are related to a common root note Sa is itself a powerful indicator of the harmonic nature of sound. The notes are the colours of the painting while the rhythms are the colours of time. Interestingly, the order of notes used in tonal music also colours time independently.

We’ve already taken a look at melody and harmony in the preceding parts of this series. If we now look at both as two types of harmony, our task of understanding the connection becomes somewhat simpler.

Imagine you’re listening to a single line of melody. Underneath this line of melody harmonic parts appear that intensify or modify the feeling of the melody by changing the harmonic context of the various notes of the melody. Every few notes of the melody are in a different harmonic context as a result. If you remember from the previous parts, I first learned to recognise individual pitches in the context of Sa, after which I learned to identify multiple pitches (or chords) playing simultaneously in the context of Sa.

The next thing I tried to do was just an extension of what I had learned so far. I began to look at chords, even all the strange-sounding ones, and thought of one of the notes as a static melody playing in the rest of the static harmony: a note painting seen against the background of a harmonic painting. After doing this for a few weeks, I began to understand the resonance that each type of interaction created. There are many of them, and I still continue to practice finding new interactions. From where I’m standing, it doesn’t look like I might ever be done exploring all of them.

This process gave me my tools to begin exploring the depths of harmony. If I want to make music, I think of either a melody or a harmonic context to begin with, and then I get more and more specific by using note interactions I’m familiar with or experimenting with new ones, so that I can paint the picture that’s in my mind.

I don’t have another way to go about this right now, and this is my go-to way when I can’t think of anything else: experiment. We might all associate differently to the resonances created by sets of notes and experimenting will give us our unique vocabularies to express ourselves. No matter what dialect you speak in the world of sound, it is always music to your ears.

Once you start to develop your own set of resonances, or you listen to other musicians and use their vocabulary in your music, you can start to experiment with time. Of course, there’s the rhythmical aspect to time, but the order in which you use notes can also affect the listener. The simplest example I can think of is playing Sa, Ni or Ni, Sa. They are worlds apart in my perception. One moves towards uncertainty while the other lands on firm ground. The same applies to groups of notes. The chords {Sa, Ga, Pa} and {Pa, Ni, Re} combine to give different results depending on which one is first.

This brings up an interesting point. You can view melody and harmonic progressions as two types of melody. One has a single line of notes while the other contains multiple notes that interact with each other and through time. A harmonic progression is like a counterpointed set of melodies in this view (How I learned to speak with notes: Harmony). All this goes to show the same point I’ve been making in this series: the sounds stay the same; only our way of seeing the sound changes.

You can think of a song as a musical story (even if you don’t include the lyrics) that moves towards some end, or sometimes meanders towards no end in sight. There is always movement, though. While you may not know about cadences and ragas, that shouldn’t matter much. When written, they’re just jargon, and when learned, they’re just additional ways to perceive sound.

You can make your music move now matter how little experience you feel you may have. Find patterns of notes that create a specific feeling through time. Maybe they change one emotion to another, maybe they intensify or lighten a mood or maybe they somehow keep up one constant feeling. Like understanding how notes interact with each other in one instant, you are developing the skill of understanding of how notes interact with time.

So while a melody is a moving harmony through time, there’s two additional elements to it that differentiate it: the order and frequency of notes used. Sa, Re, Ga, Ma can create a very different feeling than Ma, Ga, Re, Sa. So can Sa, Re, Ga, Re, Re, Ga, Sa, Ga, Re, Ga, Sa compared to Ga, Re, Sa; and these aren’t even extreme examples! So while it can be useful to begin learning about melody in a harmonic context by thinking of it as another type of harmony, sooner or later, you might find it useful to acknowledge its unique traits so that you can take advantage of these wonderful facets of melody.

A melody is the musical equivalent of sensory experience. The past might be gone, but you can constantly relive it in your memory. The future isn’t here yet but we can imagine any and every fantasy. Melodies and harmonic progressions can manipulate our experience of sound in a similar way. Combine the idea of melody with harmony and you have so many opportunities and possibilities for musical change that you’re unlikely to ever run out of ideas. For that matter, melody alone is more than enough to explore for many lifetimes.

I’ve intentionally taken a bird’s eye view with this third part because the specifics can easily fill volumes. That being the case, it’s probably a better idea for you to go and experience all this for yourself instead of me droning on and on in metaphor and analogy. Please use the road-map I’m laying out here, one article at a time, to explore sound and let me know where it takes you. Hopefully it’s not a hole.

Wherever it takes you, please let me know. I’m all ears!


Around Sound turns my personal experiences with music, both as a musician and as a listener, into stories.

Improve your sense of rhythm (How I improved my sense of rhythm: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4) as you read about my journey through the world of rhythm. How’s that for combining a lesson and a story into one? :D

Read the other two parts of the current series here:
How I learned to speak with notes: Melody and How I learned to speak with notes: Harmony

You might even find these interesting:
How I use music to remember phone numbers or A Recipe for Music

You can have a look at all my articles here: Anirudh Venkatesh