Saturday, February 04, 2012

Inspiring and terrifying music

Using percussion and wind instruments to inspire awe or to frighten the enemy has been an age-old tradition. The Mahabharata describes how Lord Krishna blew his conch and caused terror in the hearts of the enemies. Cymbals are routinely used in temples to heighten and dramatise the feeling of awe and grab the undivided attention of devotees.

Military pageantry of the west, especially the musical part, seems to have drawn inspiration from Turkish practices, as explained in this post.

Beginning in 1299, the elite corps of the Ottoman armies, the janissaries, used military bands made up of wind and percussion instruments to inspire their troops and terrify their enemies. The music they played was called mehter, a stirring mixture of drums, horn and oboe with a distinctive marching rhythm based on the Turkish phrase “Gracious God is good. God is compassionate.” Often four to five hundred musicians accompanied the army. Sometimes the music alone was enough to drive enemy forces from the field.

The European troops encountered mehter music during the seventeenth century wars against the Ottomans on Europe’s eastern border. European civilians heard mehter music for the first time when Sultan Suleyman II presented Augustus the Strong of Poland (1670-1733) with a mehter band of his very own. Europe was fascinated by the new sound; by 1770 most European armies had bands featuring Turkish instruments and fanciful variations of Turkish costumes.

Subsequently, the tradition was passed on to the field of sports as well. Sports, after all, is surrogate war. The music during the IPL matches ( the louder the better) adds to the excitement level and serves to get the players and the fans charged. CSK’s choice of Sivamani is an inspired one. The Tamil fans have a natural affinity for percussion noise.

Just listen to the background music of some of the war movies ( here’s a link to a video which has compiled a few themes). The intent is clearly to heighten the emotion. The difference, of course, is that the full range of the orchestra is used, not just the wind instruments. Good directors will use discordant sounds to create a feeling of tension among the viewers, as this writer explains: 
The use of complex and unresolved harmonies is another technique used by composers to heighten tension or conflict within a scene. Humans naturally become unnerved when hearing dissonant or ‘clashing’ harmonies, whilst consonant sounds that ‘work’ together are generally much more calming. Using a progression of chords that does not resolve, or sound finished, is another way of keeping the audience on edge.

Yes, we can be manipulated in many ways by the tempo and rhythm of music.

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