Kinnara with kachchapa veena or Panchangi veena, part of the Bodhisattva Padmapani painting, Cave 1, Ajanta, India.

What are the different categories of music?

Ashok Ranade writes about the four categories of music — tribal music, folk music, classical music, and popular music.

Musical categories are those fundamental classes in which the totality of the musical material available in society can be naturally organised. The categorisation leads to corresponding categories of kinds of experience of different musics. To gain an insight into musical categorisation is to become cautious in claiming universal validity for musical theories or judgements. In spite of inevitable and inbuilt overlaps, these categories denote distinguishable and valuable experiential contents. The categories pose differing questions and necessitate the construction of conceptual frameworks of varying philosophical import. If musical reality is to be construed in its entirety, all musical categories need to be identified and examined. The four categories sought to be identified against this background are: primitive or tribal music, folk music, art or classical music and popular music. These four categories do not and need not exist in all societies concurrently and in equal proportions. However, their presence or absence constitutes in itself a fact of cultural dynamics demanding an interpretation. In general, the more the number of existing musical categories the more the degree of sociocultural complexity in the society under consideration.

What are the criteria according to which these categories are differentiated? No identical criteria can be employed because the four terms and the corresponding concepts display inherently differing orientations. For example, the terms ‘tribal’ and ‘primitive’ are traceable to ethnological biases, while the term ‘foIk’ owes its origin directly to folklore. The two terms ‘art’ and ‘classical’ (interchangeably used in India), are clearly products of an aesthetising impulse while ‘popular’ is a term linked to cybernetic processes and operations of the mass media. However, irrespective of terminological sources, it is clear that in the present context the major thrust could only be the experiential content of associated musics.


The adjectival terms ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ are often used as near-synonyms in musical perspective studies. Though both terms represent attempts to categorise a particular kind of cultural manifestation, the term ‘primitive’ appears to be more accommodative in etymology as well as in usage. Besides, the term also carries a more qualitative (albeit a more general) connotation. On the other hand, the term ‘tribal’ suggests a narrower range as also a more direct linkage with anthropology. In its root-meaning, ‘primitive’ suggests ‘the most ancient phase’ while ‘tribal’ signifies ‘that which pertains to a group of clans under a recognised chief and usually claiming common ancestry’. Indian terms used as corresponding to ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ are adivasi, vanya, aranya, girijan and adim. While the first and the last terms draw attention to the aspect of antiquity, the rest refer to habitat (an ethnological criterion). In the present context, ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ allude to a type of musical expression genetically related to a particular body or group of people producing the music referred to. Further, the people described as ‘primitive’, etc. are generally assumed to denote those in the food-gathering, hunting, pastoral and agricultural stages of human development. The non-musical and the ethnographic orientation of the explanations offered for the terms ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ can hardly help in answering the question relevant to the present discussion: What is ‘primitive’ in music and why? As most of the data on music usually accepted as primitive has been the result of ethnographic and ethnological investigations, it is difficult to avoid equating primitivity in music with the music of the primitives.

Perhaps it might be useful to dwell a little more on dictionary sources to understand the shades of meaning that the terms have acquired. Through such scrutiny, chronological, aesthetic and sociological weightages become clearer and one can appreciate why the term ‘primitive’ is to be preferred to ‘tribal’ for the present discussion.


1 (a) not derived, primary; (b) assumed as a basis.

2 (a) of or relating to the earliest age or period; (b) closely approximating an early ancestral type; (c) belonging to or characteristic of an early stage of development; (d) relating to, or constituting the assumed parent speech of related languages.

3 (a) elemental, natural; (b) relating to, or produced by a relatively simple people or culture; (c) naive; (d) self-taught, untutored.

A further set of meanings refers to the qualitative aspect of the term with more directness:

1 (a) something primitive; (b) a root word.

2 (a)(1) an artist of an early period or a culture or artistic movement; (2) a later imitator or follower of such an artist; (b)(1) a self-taught artist: (2) an artist whose work is marked by directness and naivete: (c) a work of art produced by a primitive artist.

3 (a) a member of a primitive people; (b) an unsophisticated person. (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, G. and C. Merriam Co.. Springfield, Mass., U.S.A., 1981, p. 907.)

However, it is symptomatic that the same source does not define the term ‘tribal’ in any comparable depth. It merely notes: ‘of, relating to, or characteristic of a tribe’ (p. 1237).

It, therefore, seems safe to conclude that the term ‘primitive’ has a wider cultural connotation while the term ‘tribal’ has been chiefly employed to denote producers defined in a particular ethnographic context. At one point of time, the term ‘tribal art’ would not have been acceptable and it would not have appeared tautologous to use the phrase ‘primitive tribe’. It is obvious that during its semantic development, the word ‘tribe’ suggested a context and projected a content with the minimum value-overtones. This has also happened in India. In addition, the term ‘tribe’ has acquired a specifically Indian connotation. This is the reason why Nadeem Hasnain’s recent work refers to more than a dozen definitions of the word ‘tribe’ but finally lists the four major characteristics stated by D.N. Mazumdar as more relevant to Indian conditions. (Nadeem Hasnain, Tribal India Today, Harnam Pub., New Delhi, 1983, p. 17). The main features of Indian tribes, according to Mazumdar, are stated below in a slightly abridged form:

  • In tribal India a tribe is definitely a territorial group.
  • All the members of an Indian tribe are not linked by ties of kinship, but, within every Indian tribe, kinship appears as a strong, associative and integrating principle.
  • Members of an Indian tribe speak one common language, their own or/and that of their neighbours.
  • There are other distinguishing features of Indian tribes such as dormitory institutions, absence of institutional schooling, a moral code different from that of Hindus and Muslims, etc.

Even after obtaining an idea of the Indian definitional deviations the question remains: Is it inevitable that a category of music carry a definition which is producer-oriented and not product-oriented? Are there no qualities in the product which need to be described as ‘primitive’? Without facing the question squarely it will be impossible to identify the presence or absence of primitive qualities in the music produced by non-tribal societies. It is necessary to define musical categories with a focus on the experiential content of music. To follow the submerged Darwinian trail instead and to regard primitive music as the original music of less ‘cultured’ man is to deny that the primitive in music is a legitimate channelising of an authentic musical impulse of human sensibility. In other words, what is primitive in music is to be determined by using musical criteria. Further, it is not to be assumed that primitive music is music produced by people categorised as ‘primitive’. Being directly related to human experience, and not social hierarchy or allied factors, the primitive in music is found to produce recurrent pervasive and legitimate moulds relevant to a particular human musical experience and expression. If music is not to be equated with a body of sweet sounds acceptable to an anaemic aestheticism, it is imperative that all musical categories be treated with adequate seriousness. This does not lessen the importance of the ethnographic evidence and data on tribal music. However, it means that the data is to be treated as providing a basis for conceptual discussion of the categories of music and the experience associated with it. To put it differently, features of ‘tribal’ music are to be noted so as to facilitate the detection of their existence in urban literature and sophisticated societies. Their appearance in such a setting justifies their being described as ‘primitive’.


Primitive music and dance are so closely connected with the day-night and seasonal cycles of the concerned people that they can hardly be separated as music and dance respectively. Music is for everyone, everything and for almost every occasion. All critical phases in the human life cycle find their expression in music. Almost everything causesmusic. To that extent, music enjoys a high degree of cohesive relationship with the process of living.

As a formulation, a song is more important than music in the primitive way of life. It is symptomatic that a majority of primitive societies have a word to denote a ‘song’ but many lack a word to indicate music. However, ‘song’ as understood in primitive parlance is a very different entity. Every manifestation of an undifferentiated performing impulse becomes a primitive song. On the other hand, non-primitive usage allows music a wider application than song.

Primitive music is highly ritualistic. It is ritualistic even when it is not a part of any ritual. In other words, one senses a pervasive ritualistic charge in every performance. The type of rituality suggested is detected through an atmosphere of intense preoccupation of the participants with every detail, a certain elevated psychological stance among the performers and an air of inner compulsion communicated by them. Alert attention is paid to psycho-physical aspects seemingly unconnected with the act of performance. It is, therefore, next to impossible to arrange for the performance of primitive music without or outside the framework defined by the general rituality described earlier.

‘Audience’, as is normally understood, has a very unusual role to play in performances of primitive music. Almost everybody participates though to varying degrees. At the same time, it is also true that performers seem to direct the music to some entity external to them. Music does not take place for its own sake or for viewers or listeners and yet it has to reach out in order to complete itself.

On the whole, the ‘primitive’ in music relies more on rhythm than on melody. Primitive rhythms become manifest through instruments, movements, percussive speech or a similar mode of vocalising. Rhythm (as contrasted with melody) controls primitive music to such an extent that instruments conventionally employed for melodic purposes are also pressed into rhythmic service. In addition to its overall preponderance, rhythm in primitive music also possesses definite structured and substantive qualities that need to be discussed separately.

Melody in primitive music is primarily characterised by a marked indifference to the quality commonly described as sweetness. So much of the non-primitive and the non-folk music is avowedly made sweet or melodious that the resulting qualities are (mistakenly) considered to be musically obligatory. It is symptomatic that the performers themselves, while rating performances, seldom apply the criterion of sweetness.

The role of language and literary expression in primitive music needs separate consideration. Here, language is not regarded as indispensable. Meaningless syllables and sounds appear in abundance. In other words, phonetic patterns rather than linguistic patterns receive more scope. Half-formed sentences, proverbs, slogans or similar formulations and other literary nonentities earn legitimacy in primitive musical compositions. Lack of ‘literary’ quality is thus closely linked with the general anonymity prevailing in primitive music.

As a matter of routine, the ‘composer’ remains unnamed in primitive music. More importantly, collective composing is allowed definite scope. Alternatively, it has often been pointed out that even though a particular tune is crystallised or consolidated into actual use by a single person, the tune partakes of many existing ones and, to that extent, it could be said to have been hovering in the air. That the same available corpus of tonal and rhythmic moulds is often linked with new phrases and occasions suffices to create a ‘new’ song. This interpretation of the concept of creation or originality is unlikely to gain acceptance in other categories of music.

Music, so closely linked with the human life-cycle, can hardly be expected to have direct relationships with all its referrents. As a result, symbolism becomes an important characteristic of primitive music. In fact, the act of performance as well as its peripherals embody symbolism. Symbolic processes and objects are numerous  and both are employed at various levels of prominence and intensity.

Primitive music makes a generous use of non-musical resources and this is often achieved through symbolistic operations. Special reference needs to be made to the varied use of musical instruments. They are often regarded as non-musical objects and their simultaneous existence on two planes adds to their evocative power. Their unusual shapes and sizes as also the techniques of sound-production can be traced to the non-musical content of the musical instruments. In spite of the overall multipurpose character of musical instruments, their musical roles are precise to the degree of being firmly associated with affective states of mind and definite music-making events. Their being equated with emotional states increases their general potency as agents in communication processes considered in a larger context.


A striking feature of folk musical expression is the relative paucity of instrumental music in it. One reason is, of course, the dominant position that ‘song’ occupies in folk music as a whole. Furthermore, it is important to note that instruments are chiefly employed to accompany the sung expression, and instruments, by themselves, tend to be content imitating and reflecting the vocal expression. By and large, folk instruments lack the capacity for prolonged solo performance. On account of their innate and limited elaborational potential they remain best suited for accompanying roles entailing spurts of separate but short solo-playing. Besides, instrumental music as such makes a heavy demand on acquisition of technical skills—largely a specialist phenomenon. This degree of professionalism can hardly be imagined in folk music. Finally, the limited scope afforded to instrumental music can be traced back to the accent on collectivity in folk music. The element of community expression and the individualism involved in instrumental music run in contrary directions. It is also possible that entertainment, a prominent drive behind instrumental music, constitutes a weaker component of folk musical structures and hence the paucity of instrumental music.

Collectivity is one of the most important of the characteristics of folk music. It is symptomatic that only two of the four major musical categories, namely popular and folk, bear names that reflect the aspect of collectivity.

The collectivity of folk music is of a far-reaching nature. Collectivity as a controlling agent marks the conception, performance, propagation and the emotional content of folk music.

Creation of folk songs is seldom attributed to single individuals. For some time, it was averred that songs are created collectively. A more accepted position is that they are communally recreated. A particular cultural group is motivated at a particular period in a particular manner towards the creation of certain musical material as a cumulative result of the prevailing socio-cultural environment. As a consequence, a folk song or its parts begin to acquire a shape. It is as if the entire atmosphere is charged with the song even though it assumes the final form—a crystallisation—through the agency of an individual. This is the reason why the general anonymity of a folk song seems meaningful since it is a recognition of the collective contribution to the emergence of a song. At the same time, describing the emergence as recreation allows the individual his due share.

Apart from the slightly speculative explanation offered for the collective recreation theory there is yet another discernible and more direct factor. On a majority of occasions a new song merely presents an edited, modified or altered version of those already in existence. Songs that had come into existence continue to be in the social repertoire only after society has processed them according to its requirements. This is the background against which stanzas are dropped or newly introduced in prevalent songs. To that extent, a folk song is a continuously created entity.

Propagation of folk songs exemplifies collectivity because they are sung or heard by and/or for groups. All song types are, not collective in equal proportion in an actual performance but the exceptions do not render the general observation invalid. Further, the collectiveness is frequently related to the effectiveness of the songs rather than their actual propagation. In other words, they may need a group to achieve an impact though their non-collective existence or performance may not be an impossibility.


The most important aspect of the collectivity of folk songs is their emotional content. Folk songs hardly ever embody the ordeals, crises or likes-dislikes of an individual. Their content is generalised to ensure a universal appeal. The same concern for reaching the maximum number of people is reflected in their tunes. This becomes clear when folk songs are structurally analysed. The thematic recurrence of events particular to the human life-cycle (e.g. birth. initiation, marriage, death, etc.) or seasonal cycles is thus traceable to the collectivity of folk songs.

It should be clear that the remarkable durability of folk songs is largely due to the comprehensive role collectivity plays in them. They outlive generations because they address the societal mind rather than the individual spirit. They also express eternal human problems rather than topical issues. A folk song is aptly described as the voice of the collective mind.

Very often, folk music has been defined as the expression of an illiterate who perforce resorts to the oral tradition in order to perform, propagate and preserve it. However, the observation seems to have special validity in relation to cultures where art music is reduced to writing in a major way. The phenomenon of the oral tradition needs to be understood differently in Indian and similar other contexts.

Durga Bhagwat, the eminent folklorist from Maharashtra, quotes Rajasekhara (12thcentury) as stating that the poetry of children, women and the low castes travels from mouth to mouth. Obviously, this merely confirms the prominence of the oral tradition both in folk and sophisticated expressions. It is relevant to discuss the functions directly connected with the features of folk music.

Firstly, it is due to the oral tradition that all kinds of changes can changes can be brought about in the folk song compositions which (as mentioned earlier) are continuously created. Changes are facilitated because of these compositions.

Secondly, every culture generates and carries forward a corpus of folk songs. The very formation of such a corpus becomes possible because individual songs and song-sets are passed on from person to person and from generation to generation. Song-corpora are created by a process of slow accretion, and the existence of a flexible core is an essential pre-condition for the formulation of a corpus.

Thirdly, it is due to the oral tradition that techniques of composition and preservation are evolved. In this way, agents of consolidation as well as tendencies towards change are supported in their respective tasks.


Folk music enjoys a mixed motivation. Individual, societal and artistic motives bring it into being. However, folk music is specifically characterised by societal motives which have a close logical connection with the collectivity discussed earlier. An important point to be noted is the unambiguously non-musical thrust of the societal motivation. Folk music is expected to respond to social needs of a didactic nature as opposed to the aesthetic demands related to art music. Admittedly, there are folk manifestations which entertain but even these are found to have a social and predominantly non-art function.

The societal motivation of folk music becomes obvious through its connection with religion, language, rituals, sacraments and such other cultural manifestations. Folk music assumes its prevailing character due to its non-musical contexts, which act as live forces responsible for the conception, performance, propagation and reception of folk musical expression. It is logical for folk music to be defined as an expression of a particular culture. Such a description emphasises its regional, linguistic, as well as religious orientations. The functional element in folk music also offers proof of its societal motivation. This is not to suggest that folk music does not possess art content. What is stressed is that the societal thrust is always to be detected in combination with a variety of other motives.

The functionality of folk music can also be appreciated at a more psychological level. The frequent thematic insistence of folk songs on cultural myths makes repeated allusions to societal dreams or the past heritage signifies a subtler functionality. Folk music performs the function of representing non-musical, cultural realities on account of its social motivation. This explains why the corpus of a society increases during those periods when the societal mind undergoes stresses and strains or is at least unusually stimulated.

Another characteristic of folk music hinted at earlier is that (for all practical purposes) it has no beginning and no end. Theoretically speaking, every composition or a song type can be said to have crystallised into a stable shape at some particular point of time. However, when one says that folk music defies chronological placement, the aim is to stress its all-time appeal. In fact, the anonymity of folk music is, to some extent, a result of the non-importance of the time-dimension. When there is a very close and definite connection between music and a particular event, personage or period, the relevant music may make an exit from the permanent musical corpus. Folk music is undateable like culture and cannot be described as old or new and, in that sense, it is always contemporary.

Folk music is both changeable and unchangeable. The particular kind of flexibility folk music enjoys is causally connected with its nature. The proneness as well as the reluctance to change needs to be explained. It embodies conservatism and adaptability.


Folk music is conservative because it is an expression of the collective mind. Society is less eager than an individual either to accept the new or to reject the old. A societal mind is more than the sum total of individual minds. It is motivated differently at various levels and hence a change in any of its expressions is a complex and slow process.

Folk music is informed by diverse motivations and it is obvious that the satisfaction of all or most of the motives is a rare phenomenon. Change is accepted only when diverse motives have successfully completed a series of mutual influences.

Folk music mainly deals with themes that possess a universal appeal. Prior to finding a place in folk music, themes seem to be subjected to numerous eliminations. To introduce changes in such a time-tested entity is, therefore, the culmination of a lengthy process completed with considerable difficulty. Changes in folk music are results of a real cultural inevitability.

The functionality of folk music also acts as an impediment to change since it does not enjoy an independent existence. If its functional partners do not undergo changes, musical change alone is inconceivable.

However, the reluctance to change is not equally intense in case of all types of folk music. In this respect, the following observations are germane.

– Music associated with religious ceremonies, marriage and other rituals displays extreme conservatism.

– Comparatively speaking, music related to love, separation and other such common human experiences is more likely to change.

– Folk expressions, bound with entertainment items such as games, dances, etc., are prone to change.

– The easiest to change are those musical features which a performer or a particular group among them seems to prefer.


– If those who perform are themselves motivated to change the performance of the music concerned, then alterations can be easily introduced. A related feature is the role of the spirit of competition, in case a large number of performers are involved.

– Folk music changes on account of its largely unwritten tradition. Language, articulation, composition and such other aspects undergo unintentional changes when the corpus of music is transmitted from person to person and from generation to generation. A near-total reliance on memory is causally related to the changes detectable in a majority of cases. Too often, the debates about the  ‘original, traditional or the authentic’ in folk music are a consequence of the unintentional changes finding their way into the existing corpus.

– Folk music migrates when the people to whom it belongs shift their base. This is the case when people (individually or collectively) leave the place of their origin for a different domicile. On account of the change in environment, their folk music (which they otherwise cling to) undergoes changes. Somewhat disconcertingly, melodies might migrate independently. Thus one may come across near-identical melodies irrespective of distances, dissimilar texts and performing traditions. These are aptly described as ‘wandering melodies’.

– Another factor that may introduce qualitative changes in folk expression assumes special significance today. When a body of songs, etc., is taken up by castes or groups of people who are professional performers, changes are introduced because they are inclined to improve the performances. Usually, the interest is in creating a better impact on the audiences by injecting better techniques or superior skills in the performances. Very frequently, the performing models thus created tend to affect the originals! However, such a pattern of mutability takes the music to art music.

– Exposure to educational influences makes for changes in folk expression. Even if the entire corpus is not changed, significant changes in style are introduced. In a way, these particular changes may be described as indirect changes because they are the result of cultural developments brought about by education.

Perhaps, the most important factor responsible for changing folk music is the proximity of art music. The consequences of this musical and cultural neighbourhood need separate consideration.


Art music and folk music: Primitive and folk music can be meaningfully distinguished by the fact that the latter enjoys the proximity of another musical stream, which the former does not. To that extent, primitive music operates in musical isolation. On the other hand, in the case of folk music, there is the constant possibility of a continuous exchange of influences with both primitive as well as art music. In fact, the existence of more than one stream of music in itself indicates cultural complexity. The use of multiple language layers, recourse to the written form, the nature of the prevailing economy, the rate of industrialisation as well as mechanisation are some of the factors conducive to a more complex cultural milieu. To a certain extent, cultural complexity suggests a corresponding multi-stream musicality. Folk music is, therefore, prone to a variety of controls symptomatically indicated by the operations of art music. A detailed enumeration of how art music affects folk music is better revealed in the musical analysis of the latter.

National expression: Owing to its close relationship with a particular people and their culture, folk music can be regarded as a form of national expression. Diverse culture groups can hardly be expected to have similar folk music. In this context, countries such as India pose a special problem. Despite the cultural oneness of the country, almost every region has folk music particular to it. Hence these folk musics, being confined to particular people, can be described as national expressions, though such a characterisation overlooks the political orientation of the term ‘nation’. An interesting factor to note here is that the vocal music of a ‘nation’ is more homogeneous than its instrumental music.

An additional nuance in the situation is that more than one nation can have the same art music as a common tradition and hence art music cannot be strictly regarded as national expression. This is obviously not so in the case of folk music. Once again, the Indian situation needs special consideration with its single culture, two developed systems of art music and several regional expressions of folk music. However, the point to be stressed is that folk music (more than any other musical category) is closely and innately connected with a particular culture.

Geographical ties: In a manner of speaking, folk music being national expression automatically proclaims its ties with a specific geographical area. It is, therefore, logical that folk expression reflects the surroundings, the natural phenomena in its content. However, the close ties with a particular locale are a consequence of the relationship folk music has with a particular culture. Apart from the broader cultural causation, folk music keeps close to the geographical locale because of its characteristic responsiveness to nature as a force. The seasonal cycle, agricultural, pastoral and oceanic operations, all find a place in folk music. However, this is not to suggest that nature reflected in folk music corresponds to the actuality. It is possible to detect the depiction of nature in a manner that a particular community would wish to be surrounded by it. This may be interpreted as a direct response to the encompassing natural phenomena—though in a dialectical manner. (Perhaps the one exceptional case of Israel might suggest that geographical ties constitute a dispensable feature of folk music. The nation was preceded by its folk music!).

Migratory potentialities: Considering the stress on the element ‘one culture, one group and one region’, it may appear that folk music as an entity cannot migrate. However, this is not the case. On account of migrations, and also due to its largely unwritten tradition, folk music is characterised by a noticeable mobility. That which sounds good is accepted, modified, and assimilated to be pressed into service. Instrumental expression migrates in greater measure and more easily. Comparatively speaking, vocal music is closer to a culture and brooks dissociation from the people only under exceptional circumstances.


Popular music is one feature of a subculture known as popular culture. It is, therefore, helpful to define popular culture and prepare the conceptual background for a discussion of this musical category. ‘Popular culture is a surficial manifestation of cultural forces operating in a society partially responsive to aesthetic motives. The partial aesthetic responses are chiefly results of three factors: impact of the mass media, repercussions of the changes in patronage, and intermittent as well as interrupted functioning of commercial and religious pressures.’

One more factor needs to be noted before the characteristics of popular music are discussed. It must be remembered that ‘popular’ is not an aesthetic concept. Along with some other terms such as ‘amateur’, ‘professional’ and ‘modern’, the term ‘popular’ has socio-economic, cultural and chronological aspects. 


As a consequence, to discuss popular music is to bring in extra musical values and criteria. Considering the fact that a large segment of the total musical reality of any modern society is represented by popular music, it deserves special attention.

– Universality: Universality has two aspects—chronological and territorial. Popular music is universal for all practical purposes.

It would be incorrect to assume that it is a special creation of the 20th century. The intensive American study of the category and the phenomenal growth of the mass media—a prominent shaping influence in the category during the century—have resulted in a tendency to confine the emergence and operation of popular music to present times. However, this is not strictly valid.

The primary cause for the genesis of the category is the simultaneous existence and independent operations of various subcultures in a society. It is obvious that a homogeneous society is purely a theoretical concept. All societies have subcultures operating at various levels and at varying intensities. In other words, social homogeneity and the equality of subcultures are ideals or possibilities only in a Ramrajya. In reality, all the subcultures in a society do not take to art music but are more attracted towards folk and popular musical expressions. To conclude, society is characterised by inevitable socio-cultural distinctions leading to musical differentials. The situation in turn causes a circulation of musical forces, in the process creating the ever-changing category of popular music.

– Popular music is subject both to ‘middle-class’ influences and to the effects of urbanisation. The fact of being a multi-layered society and the processes of urbanisation are causally related. If ‘industrialisation’ is not interpreted too technically, it implies recourse to new modes of production and the employment of new means for the purpose. The migration from rural areas to cities for earning one’s livelihood and the emergence of a new technology recur so frequently that they can be described as regular historical features of all growing cultures.

– Various factors contribute to a situation where more and more people enjoy leisure hours. They tend to be engaged in hobbies and seem keen to spend time on personality development or enrichment. As a consequence, various disciplines like arts, crafts, etc., are often pursued with motives that are semi-aesthetic and semi-commercial. Popular music is one of the products of such a situation. Entertainment, education, the desire for commercial gain and other diverse drives are simultaneously operative in popular art.

– The mass media have a special role to play in relation to popular music and deeply influence its conception, propagation and reception.

– It has often been suggested that when popular music finds roots in any culture, there is a perceptible rise in population. Large-scale redistribution of population on account of migrations is also detected. It has already been pointed out that the lack of homogeneity in a society is a precondition for the emergence of popular music. Population growth becomes a significant factor because a smaller population is likely to be more homogeneous than a sizeable populace. The latter tends to inevitable stratification, which in turn gives rise to popular music.

– Various socio-economic and cultural developments contribute to a change in the patronage offered to artists, craftsmen and cultural communicators in general. For example, the source of patronage passes from princes, zamindars and religious sects, etc., to music conferences and music clubs or circles, broadcasting and television stations, gramophone companies, etc. This is a qualitative shift. There is a noticeable difference in the discerning powers of the audiences created by the new patrons. One of the consequences is that performers feel a need to find the lowest common denominator in music receptivity. On a majority of occasions, this is the reference point around which popular expression tends to range.

– The change in patronage affects popular music almost immediately (which is not the case in folk and art music). The responses of audiences to producers and propagators of popular music allow for a very short time lag. In other words, popular music is a category that perhaps exhibits the greatest synchronisation between supply and demand.

– This remarkable near-correspondence of stimulus and response is because popular music is a product of the entertainment industry. Supply and demand, production costs, distribution and sale, market survey and research, etc., build up an entire mechanism related to production rather than creation. In popular musical operations, art and aesthetics are, if needed, nonchalantly relegated to the background. That is why popular music can hardly be understood if its business compulsions are not taken into account.

– In a manner of speaking, the most important motivation for popular music is the satisfaction of the more obvious musical needs of the masses. Art music tries to manipulate the time dimension and thereby win ascendancy over it, and folk music goes around it. Popular music, on the other hand, deliberately attempts to keep pace with the times. Import, expression, titles, blurbs and write-ups on disc/cassette recordings, therefore, attain their final shape only after the ruling fashion of the day has been ascertained. This is the reason why popular music may be described as ‘journalistic’ treatment of musical material.

– Popular music is functional in the sense that it is tied up with a specific mode or fashion which society prefers at a point in time. Fashions have a task to perform: the creation of easily manipulated devices of image-building or image-reinforcement. By their very nature, fashions have to change frequently. To create popular music is to create musical fashions.

– It may appear that popular music is more likely to be musically inferior because a majority of its shaping forces are non-musical. However, this is not so. A heartening feature is that popular music demonstrates a spiral rise in quality. Examination of the musical material reveals that it gives credence to the concept of progress in music. On account of its alertness and proneness to changes, it proceeds from music of lesser quality to one of better quality. Popular music which appears later in time may be superior because itsassimilative genius ensures more of acceptable musicality after a reasonable lapse of time.


(i) The most significant feature of art (or classical) music is the aesthetic intention of the performers. Here performers are set apart from musicians in the other categories because of their basic ‘art’ intent. The product, however, does not necessarily enjoy aesthetic validity because of the motivation. What is certain is that one cannot overlook the qualitative difference between the respective motivations of a primitive, folk, popular and art musician. In the field of primitive music, the performer is engaged in playing a role; the folk musician entertains or participates in a collective duty-filled task; the performer in popular music caters to a mass need; and the art musician seeks to establish himself as an artiste according to his own understanding of aesthetic norms or criteria. These may or may not be explicitly verbalised but their existence is beyond doubt.

– Art music is distinguished by the simultaneous operation of two traditions: scholastic and performing. Of necessity, the former relies on writing and the written text. More importantly, it follows the procedures inherent in every form of codification. Rules, methods and techniques pertaining to music are systematised in accordance with established practices. It is obvious that the scholastic tradition depends on the existing performing tradition for its raw material, but inevitably, the former lags behind the latter. This is because scholastic traditions are equipped to take cognisance only of those items that have consolidated or crystallised in the life pattern of a society. A helpful conceptual parallel for the phenomenon exists in the mutual relationship between grammar and literature in any linguistic tradition.

– Art music necessarily concentrates on select performing aspects such as vocalisation, instrumentation, movement or abhinaya. In other words, it displays less of a package character in comparison with musics that belong to other categories. Art music channelises or deliberately isolates modes of expression and cultivates them intensively in order to achieve greater and perceivable effects. This is why art music performances can be easily described as concerts of vocal or instrumental music.

– It is art music which offers scope for ‘solo’ performances. In no other musical category are the roles of the main and the accompanying performers so clearly defined and differently developed. To isolate the solo element and allow it to shape the entire performance requires a highly differentiated sensibility. To this end, art music formulates aims, methods and techniques specifically leading to the emergence of family traditions, schools, etc., with their own marked personalities.

– In art music, one is confronted with a whole array of musical forms, chiefly based on patterning the general musical elements in specific structures of notes, rhythms, tempi, etc. On the other hand, non-art musical categories abound in forms which owe their existence to non-musical factors such as events in human life cycles, seasonal changes and associated rites and rituals. Forms in art music also evince the existence of a hierarchy based on the degree of technical In other words, certain forms are regarded as more prestigious because of the demands they make on the skill of the performers. On examination, highly musicological criteria are found to have been employed to erect the hierarchy.

– Art music features a highly structured teaching-learning process. As a consequence, gharanas come into existence, gurus enjoy an exclusive following, reputations as effective teachers are built up, disciples are initiated with due ceremony and musical pedigrees are traced and treated with respect as well as pride. Methodical curricula come into existence even if they are not necessarily written down; material complementary to teaching-learning, such as anthologies of compositions, notations, codifications are prepared, preserved and often guarded with utmost secrecy.

– Audiences of art music are a class apart on account of their non-participatory contribution. Compared to other musical categories, art music depends for its efficacy on the presence of more organised audiences who are expected to have developed a taste, preparing them to receive the sophisticated impact of art music. Perhaps no other musical category finds it so essential to educate its audiences. Further, the audience is also expected to contribute to the making of a performance by expressing appreciation or disapproval in accordance with established norms forming part of a total cultural pattern. Acquisition of a taste for art music or its appreciation includes learned behaviour, and it is symptomatic that attempts at conducting appreciation courses in this category are well received.

– Art music is also characterised by its all-round efforts to combine with other forms to create composite art and art forms. The process appears a little paradoxical in view of the purposeful delinking with other arts in the first place. However, the paradox disappears once the differing motivation is appreciated. The delinking of art music from other manifestations initially takes place so as to enable it to demarcate its area of operation and effectively develop its own special identity. On the other hand, the later efforts to effect a reunion with dance, drama, painting, etc., are designed to enrich the total aesthetic experience. The emergence of ballet, opera, ragamala paintings can be traced to this enrichment motive.

– At every level, art music employs abstraction. For example, it diminishes the scope afforded to language and literary manifestations, reduces the importance of topical and functional relationships with rituals and routine life patterns. As a cumulative effect of these measures, it creates its own universe of reference and tries to adhere to a contextual framework of musical elements alone. Therefore, the non-representational, patently arabesque quality of art music is often commented upon, and the qualitative similarity of art music to the world of mathematics is repeatedly averred. Abstraction necessarily means a total dependence on musical parameters for perception of music, and this explains the comparatively confined appeal of art music as music.

This article first appeared in the NCPA Quarterly Journal in January 1985 (Vol XIV, No. 4)

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