Pitch Perfection - a psychological perspective

Adherence to shruti is the greatest truth in music.  Every system of note in the world places extreme importance in tuneful renditions of the basic 12 tones within an octave.  In reality, the yardsticks of what is tuneful varies from system to system.  For instance, certain note values in Just-Intonation system of natural melodic systems in the world like Carnatic Music (CM)/Hindustani (HM) are different to those heard in Equal Tempered-Tuning system, embraced in the West.

Varied yardsticks

In friendly terms, Just intonation is based on laws of physics and aesthetics, but the intervals between any two notes in an octave is not constant.  While this sounds beautiful when notes are heard one after the other, it can create problems when certain note-combinations are rendered simultaneously by orchestras.  Therefore, for reasons of harmony, Western scholars 'averaged out' some note values to create equal intervals between the 12 tones.   Violin-legend Yehudi Menuhin has gone on record arguing that this artificial sharpening or flattening of notes (however minute) has corrupted Western ears (in his book, 'Unfinished Journey').  In fact, that is one of the reasons why certain notes on instruments from the West like Guitar/Piano can sound slightly off to sensitive listeners used to melodic systems like Hindustani/Carnatic. 

Contextual perfection

Nevertheless, artistes are expected to be tuneful within the context of each system.  When they are not, they are dismissed off as 'off-key' (West) or 'besur' (Hindustani).  In both these systems, pitch perfect is almost synonymous with note-perfect. The CM equivalent of this is apaswaram. However, CM also uses the term shruti-shuddham to denote melodic fidelity and refers to a lack of it as apashruti.

Swara, sthana & shruti

Carnatic uses only 7 notes (swara) and 12 tones (sthana) per octave even though it gives 16 names for these, unlike systems like Arabic, (which openly uses 31 notes per octave).  The extra twist in Carnatic is that has multiple subtle values for any given note, called shruti.   It is almost mandatory to sharpen certain notes like major 7th (kakali nishadam, N3) or the sharp 4th (prati madhyamam - M2) and render it almost on Sa and Pa respectively.   Several other notes are rendered lower or higher depending on the raga and at times, within the context of a given raga.  For instance the minor 2nd (shuddha rishabham - R1) in Revati would be rendered normally, while the same will tend to be closer to Sa in Saveri, Gowla etc.  Hindustani would generally tend to render most of these notes on their natural values (exceptions could be there). 


Musicians of even average quality are required to be clearly cognizant of the correct value of the pitch and expected to be able to render them competently.  Yet, artistes can be off key (less or more than the note-value) for a variety of reasons.  At the student level, it could be due to reasons of non-awareness, inexperience, incompetence, insufficient practice or physical factors (like voice limitations).  Over time, most of these can be overcome, with effort and direction under a good guru.  Once a basic stage of competence and comfort is reached with respect to shruti, a musician would be expected to be tuneful. 

...and deviations

Yet, we find only a small percentage of artistes who render tuneful music.  Even here, degrees vary from 'general' and 'acceptable' levels to 'laser beam' levels of intense precision.  Why would this be among musicians of otherwise same standard and substance?  One easy question with tough, multiple answers! 
  1. The reason could be professional - lack of practice, lack of effort on every note, thinking musicianship or commitment to perfection. 
  2. The reasons then get to physiological such as health, which (at least in some cases) are beyond an individual's control.  Or it could simply be aging related weaknesses.
  3. Or it could be scientifically attributable to personal habits.  It would be prudent to point out the non-judgmental view of a person closest to God that the planet has seen in sports, Don Bradman. 'Surely certain habits can impact on the reflexes and efficiency of movement,' is all he said but that is profound indeed. 
Needless to say, some of these could be  due to a combination of interconnected factors.

The elusive factor

However, another key factor, rarely brought to the table openly, is the mental make up of a person.  Probably because, it is the most elusive part to analyse and commit to.  Yet, I am placing certain important but certainly impersonal observations on record here. To summarise a few:
  • An  over-eager, over confident, aggressive, frenzied, agitated mindset with Attitude, may result in music higher than shruti (over the short or long term).
  • A person tends to be below key when tired, deflated, weak or under-motivated, again over short or long term. 
  • A person tends to be both these when sporting a frivolous, happy-go-lucky or take-it-easy style complacent mindset.
  • A person tends to waver, sway or float on plain, sustained notes when the mind is unsteady or afflicted by fear, guilt, lack of confidence or personal esteem. 
  • A person tends to slip a lot on dynamic phrases when the mind is distracted or cluttered with unwanted baggage and unclear thoughts. 
  • A person tends to produce dry music that can be all over the pitch-map while in a frustrated frame of mind. 
Fundamental correlation

Just as the 17th chapter in the Bhagawad Gita classifies various things as sattva, rajas or tamas, a fundamental correlation can be drawn between truth in life and truth in music.  Music higher than shruti is rajasic, music lower is tamasic.  Pure music is sattvic.  

In short, perfect pitch is not merely to do with talent and technique.  At the advanced level, it is more to do with the mental make up.  The tragic part in many cases is that the affected person scarcely notices the dip in musical form till too late.  Since any given artiste could sport a combination of varied mind set listed above at different times, it is tough for a normal person to pin down the exact reason for lack of shruti at any given point in time.


Scary as the above sounds, they can all be overcome by mind-action-control and a person of class can re-discover personal form.  It may take a lot of personal effort, sustained focus, will power to eliminate every unnecessary distraction and channelise thought, counselling from experts, but it can be done, if artistes are keenly aware of their own form at every step of the way.  

In some lucky cases, a visionary guru would be able to take highly dynamic steps early enough to stem the rot, with equally committed students.  However, if timely action is not taken immediately, covering every possible angle, the case could soon get beyond redemption and join a majority of 'may-have-been' successes.  

It ultimately boils down to how intensely desperate one is to pursue musical truths, get back to the top and stay there!  


Sundar said…
Hmm...interesting and so full of metaphors!

Is it, what sportspersons call being "in the zone", when the mind is still & one operates largely from subconscious muscle-memory?

And was it co-incidental, that you allude to Sir Don, in making a musical point? Or that both music & sports are often played on a "pitch"?
Vasundhara Kikkeri said…
One of the best articles ever written; this is full of insight, which clearly indicates great knowledge and experience! The psychoanalysis of pitch and the human personality is very perceptive.
Anonymous said…
Very Very inspiring..:)
It has enlightened me:P
Umesh said…
I am a great fan of Carnatic music and yourself.

Your composition Sharavana Bhava in Bilahari is one of my favourites.

I wanted to ask you whether you are patriotic. Would you compose a kriti honouring Bharat Ma?

Our Carnatic trinity lived when British rule was at its peak and freedom movement was gathering pace.

Oothukadu Venkatasubbaiyar and Purandaradasa lived during Mughal rule (although former from Tamil Nadu may not have been affected that much).

Did they have to face trouble at any time? Dikshitar especially, who travelled, met yogis must have had more insight into foreign rule than others.

Thank you for reading :)
Mr Sundar: You are very correct!

Mr Umesh: I had composed a 5-language (Hindi, Tamil, Sanskrit, Kannada and Telugu) piece on Bharat Mata a few years ago. I don't think OVK/PD and others have refererred to any problems under Islamic/British rule. But OVK has definitely drawn positively from Islamic culture as well as Bhagavata Mela tradition.
Vanitha Suresh said…
Very beautifully written article... your thoughts on music, and the human mind, are always profound! I love how you correlate truth in music with truth in life, as elucidated in the Bhagavad Gita. The elusive factor that you mention in your article is indeed ignored by most people. It is no wonder that most Gurus prefer young students who can be moulded easily, since they have lesser mental baggage.
I have a question for you - Is there something called "perfect rhythm"? I've heard about "shruti-mAtA, laya-pitA"... I would love to hear your thoughts on rhythm as well!
Matt said…
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Anonymous said…
Nice article..I need to read this multiple times..
The other day, in BBC came across this interesting interview http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCCe4fTvfwQ

Dr. Vellore A.R.Srinivasan said…
Wonderful thoughts and facts assembled to perfection and served in a tuneful manner .....the insight provided herein reflects truly the maestro's understanding of the finer aspects and his innate ability to gel with the chosen subject. Amazing personality and an equally amazing article.
Unknown said…
While I laud your commentary on the aspect of pitch perfect,I have some points to make regarding Carnatic music system.
The swarasthana of an anuswara can not be boxed into the pitch system. Some anuswaras are based on the the "Raga".The anuswaras (Not to be mistaken to Kampita swara) have a unique swarasthana which need not necessarily adhere to the usual swara shuddha concept.Many Ragas have a varied shruti pattern while exploring the Raga Alapana.
Agree with the obvious that anuswaras are distinctive from oscillations. However, swaras that are not in the “pitch” system of microtonal shruti values unique to a given raga (not to be confused with the 12 swara values) cannot be argued as anuswaras. They are apa-swaras - even in the context of the ragas. Shruti purity yardsticks do not change when exploring alapana either.

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