Discourses in Music: Volume 3 Number 1 (Fall 2001)

A response to Lowell Lybarger's On Musicians' Speech About Music

By Margaret Walker

"The best way to talk about music is to be quiet about it!"1

As my colleague Lowell Lybarger began his article "On Musicians' Speech About Music: Musico-Linguistic Discourse of Tabla Players" with the words of Dimitri Shostakovich cited in Taruskin, I thought it apt to begin my response with the words of Robert Schumann, cited in Treitler. Treitler, in his article "Language and the Interpretation of Music" goes on to say that the Romantics "liked talking about the difficulty or impossibility of talking about music, as much as they liked talking about music."2 Lowell is certainly in good company in pondering this question. His intellectual companions range from musical thinkers such as Schumann to present day scholars of music hermeneutics, cognition, culture and semiotics - some of whom are musicologists and many of whom may even be musicians.3

This paper contains a rich multiplicity of ideas and concepts that is at times difficult to sort through. Musicians and musicologists, musical and verbal modes of discourse, musicians' speech to other musicians, non-musicians, unknowledgeable audiences and non-South Asian audiences, musical change, mode-switching and semiotics all compete for the reader's attention. One finally tracks down the thesis in the final sentence, that through tabla players' efforts to communicate with unknowledgeable audiences, a new hermeneutical system of music making is arising. The idea that the ways in which musicians speak about music, as well as how and where they perform music, can play a central role in shaping musical meaning is intriguing and probably true. Examining this idea using the language and concepts of semiotics, as Lowell does, is certainly commendable and worthy of closer examination.

Besides this central idea, the other great strength of the paper lies in its format. Ethnographic evidence is tricky to document clearly; one is so often presented with "personal communication 2001" as the only reference for crucial data supporting the central argument. Lowell's canny use of MP3 technology in this on-line journal format not only solves this problem, but also provides an aural equivalent of an incipit for a music system which does not use Western notation. The inclusion of the transcriptions is not quite as convincing. It seems to me that a certain level of familiarity with Hindustani drumming is needed to read them, yet the omission of details such as the khuli/band structures audible on the MP3 files is confusing. Perhaps this is clarified by Lowell's explanation that his notation is "prescriptive" rather than "descriptive" but it is unclear for whom the notation is really intended. This certainly in no way compromises Lowell's presentation of his argument, but perhaps the audio clips alone would have served his purpose just as well.

The MP3 files offer a number of examples of musical and verbal modes of discourse connecting a tabla theme and variations genre known as a rela with the sounds made by a speeding train. The term means "a torrent or a rushing stream" and the central theme or phrase of a rela is a stream of primarily non-resonating drum strokes executed at rapid speeds.4 The association of rela-s with rail travel is recent but certainly documented in publications other than this one.5 The argument, however, that this homonymic, but not etymologic, association denotes a new semiotic system is not really presented convincingly.

Although Lowell states clearly that he is not addressing cognitive questions concerning music and speech, it is curious that he does not deal at all with the idea, discussed by the late John Blacking among others, that music is in essence non-verbal. To describe music as "polysemic chaos" would seem to result only through the attempt to apply a conceptual framework to music that does not take musical logic and modes of thought into consideration. To verbalize the non-verbal, one is almost immediately driven to metaphor. Both European and Indian classical musics have long histories of intentional extra-musical associations. But when speaking about music, we most often use metaphor to serve as a "way in," a symbolic path leading to non-verbal understanding. Recently, while teaching a piano student the subtle changes of tone colour needed to contrast the material in the first few measures of Debussy's Première Arabesque, I, after demonstrating the timbral and technical differences aurally and visually, finally said: "The first two bars are star points; the next two are a river." She made a vague sound of enlightenment and played the passage correctly. Musicians speak to students and to each other about music through the extra-musical tool of metaphor because of the symbolic associations that communicate what is otherwise impossible to express verbally. Rivers flow; this phrase should flow. One does not visualize a river literally; rather it is a non-verbal, semiotic process of reference that connects the two gestures.

The question that arises, therefore, regarding Lowell's claim that the musicians' linkage of the tabla genre of rela to trains is leading to "a new musical semiotic system," is whether this reference has meaning on a symbolic as well as a literal level.6 Does the sound of the train evoke feelings of freedom, national pride or nostalgia? Does it lead to memories of colonialism or emotional reactions to industrialization? Is there a ras (aesthetic emotional experience) that is experienced through this association with rail travel? Admittedly the article's examples do not associate the rela with the train as a metaphor, but with the sound of a train as a simile. Indeed Lowell identifies this as "a shift from...symbolic iconic and indexical meanings." But this does not stop the stream of questions. Do audience members, after hearing performances such as those on the MP3 files, listen to tabla recordings at home and think about trains? Do tabla players ever use such associations when they teach? Do they think about trains, literally, metaphorically, iconically or symbolically, when they perform? If a new semiotic system is arising, surely it must not only find its way into the cognitive processes of the audience members but also affect the ways in which the musicians themselves conceptualize their art.

One answer is that, although this association of rela with trains is prevalent, communicative and entertaining, it does not provide convincing evidence for a new semiotic system. Perhaps hearing trains and helicopters in drum music is like seeing faces and animals in clouds. One could argue that the musicians in these examples are not really talking about music, but rather talking about train sounds, and that Tari Khan's direct imitation of a train and Zakir Hussain's little flood are not musical performances at all, but simply patterns of sound mimicking other patterns of sound. This of course raises the enormous question of what is and is not music, but this may be a good situation in which to ask it.

On the other hand, perhaps Lowell simply does not go far enough. He never asks why, beyond the surface explanation of tabla players having to pay rent, this association has arisen. Why rela and not q'aida, gat, tukra, chakkradar or uthan? Why a train and not a helicopter? Why not a river or a flood? Why not an earthquake? From an infinite number of opportunities for sonic mimicry, these musicians have chosen to talk about trains. Maybe there really is a culturally symbolic value, a metaphor that reaches beyond the immediate gratification and entertainment value of the iconic train noises. To uncover it, however, one must look beyond mere sound and words.

Margaret Walker is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, studying the history of North Indian Kathak dance under the supervision of Dr.James Kippen. She also holds Associate and Licentiate Diplomas in piano performance and pedagogy from the Royal Conservatory of Music and is an active member of the RCM College of Examiners.


Cummings, Naomi. 2000 The Sonic Self: Musical Subjectivity and Signification. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Guck, Marion A. 1997 "Two Types of Metaphoric Transference." In Jenefer Robinson (ed.), Music and Meaning. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 201-212.

Kippen, James. 1988 The Tabla Of Lucknow: A Cultural Analysis of a Musical Tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Martinez, José Luiz. 1997 Semiosis in Hindustani Music. Imatra: International Semiotics Institute.

Treitler, Leo. 1997 "Language and the Interpretation of Music." In Jenefer Robinson (ed.), Music and Meaning. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 32-56.


1. Schumann, Robert, 1836, quoted in Treitler 1997:26.

2. Treitler 1997: 26.

3. See among others Treitler 1997, Guck 1997, Martinez 1997 and Cummings 2000.

4. Kippen 1988: 178-179.

5. E.g. Martinez 1997: 117.

6. One need only reflect for an instant about the deep symbolism attached to trains in Canadian and American musical culture.