It is said of A.R.Rahman’s music that one must listen to his songs several times before they can be really appreciated. I remember the difficulty I had in making sense of his song, “Fanaa” in the film “Yuva’. The first time I heard it, I thought it was a cacophony of wild sounds more suited for a tribal ritual. After listening to it a few more times, I liked the song. . His song, “Jana Gana Mana” from “Aayudha Ezhutha’ is another example of a song that drove me mad initially and then gained acceptance by my brain. These songs don’t stand out for their melody ( the opposite is actually true) but the rhythm is catchy.
Why this delayed appreciation?
In a chapter dedicated to the musician, “Igor Stravinsk “ in his book, “ Proust was a neuroscientist”, Jonah Lehrer provides this explanation of how our brain responds to music:
A work of music is not simply a set of individual notes arranged in time. Music really begins when the separate pitches are melted into a pattern. This is a consequence of the brain’s own limitations. Music is the pleasurable overflow of information. Whenever a noise exceeds our processing abilities- we can’t decipher all the different sound waves hitting our hair cells- the mind surrenders. It stops trying to understand the individual notes and seeks to understand the relationship between the notes. The human auditory cortex pulls off this feat by using its short-term memory for sound (in the left posterior hemisphere) to uncover patterns at the larger level of the phrase, motif and movement. This new approximation lets us extract order from these notes haphazardly flying through space, and the brain is obsessed wih order. We need our sensations to make sense.It is this psychological instinct- this desperate neuronal search for a pattern, any pattern, that is the source of music. When we listen to a symphony, we hear a noise in motion each note blurring into the next. The sound seems continuous. Of course, the physical reality is that each sound wave is really a separate thing, as discrete as the notes written in the score. But this isn’t the only way we experience the music. We continually abstract on our own inputs, inventing patterns in order to keep pace with the onrush of noise. And once the brain finds the pattern, it immediately starts to make predictions, imagining what notes will come next. It projects imaginary order into the future, transposing the melody we have heard into the melody we expect.By listening for patterns, by interpreting every note in terms of expectations, we turn the scraps of sounds into the ebb and flow of symphony.
So, with Rahman’s music, our brain has to ‘unlearn’ some set ideas and structures and discern new patterns. He frequently dispenses with the conventional structure of songs and weaves together different threads into a composition, yet manages to infuse harmony. For our brain to understand what's going on and settle down, we need to give it some time.