Baithak : “Decoding Classical Music – Is an Introduction Necessary?”

An online baithak was organised by SPICMACAY Europe on June 9th 2024 on the topic of “Decoding Classical Music: Is an Introduction Necessary?” Over fifteen participants joined the intriguing discussion along with a couple of guests from Germany. The discussion started with a German guest highlighting the prevalent use of pauses while introducing Indian classical music and the peculiarity of pauses to him as a western audience. Some of the participants who were trained in Indian classical music shared their thought on the long pause with some finding it interesting and others agreeing that explanations help audience understanding. The next topic of discussion was about the importance of introducing pieces in Carnatic music, citing the need for clarity and understanding, to which one of the participants laid emphasis citing the need for reference points when listening to instrumental pieces, especially when performed by artists from India. It was added that, first hand or new audiences to classical music may struggle with too much technical information in music performances. This was elucidated by the fact that one of the Indian participants struggled to understand Beethoven’s Credo piece – even after researching and seeking expert opinions, he was new to it.

As a concluding note to this part of the discussion, it was highlighted that in Western classical music, pre-performance talks or events are common, but not often seen in South Asian classical music. In the next part of the discussion, some participants pointed out the lack of introductions in music, emotional associations, and confusion in understanding complex compositions. While it was asserted that sometimes it might be important to balance knowledge and subjectivity when interpreting art, it was also noted on the contrary sometimes it might be important to enjoy the art without overanalysing it.

Moving onto the topic of nuances of Indian classical music and dance, with a focus on the emotions conveyed through raagas and abhangs, one of the participants emphasised the universality of dance and music, highlighting their ability to convey emotions and stories through different mediums, while another drew the attention on the fact that while sometimes, lyrics in Carnatic music can be misinterpreted or overlooked, the medium of dance can convey emotions without needing to understand every detail. It was noted that sometimes, it could be difficult to find words to describe a specific emotion in classical music.

Moving on to a slightly technical note on music interpretation, one participant highlighted the need for balance between technical analysis and personal interpretation of music. At the same time, it was importantly noted that, often music appreciation depends on the individual familiarity of music of the audience depending on whether it is Indian classical or Western classical. At the same time emotions in music can be restrictive or open to interpretation (depending on performance and audience perception).


Drawing attention to the potential drawbacks of introductions to classical performances, a participant highlighted the role of intuition in classical music and dance appreciation. On this aspect, it was importantly noted that cultural conditioning could affect the emotion expression and appreciation of music.

A participant said from their experience in performance of Indian classical music that sometimes, it is important to find one’s own system and not rely solely on prescribed rule books, thus reaffirming the role of intuition on the part of performers to make improvisations to classical music.

Coming back to the starting discussion on the theme of introduction in classical music, one participant noted that sometimes, it could be a matter of  preference for artists not to introduce themselves or their music, with another participant adding that it could look like a unorganised surprise for audience when there is no introduction in the beginning.

The discussion then moved on to a point of presentation layout of musical performances. A participant said that it is more communicative when an artist talks about their piece right after that particular piece because it helps a relatively new listener to appreciate the emotions better soon as they have experienced it in the piece. This avoids dilution of the unique emotions associated with each piece if each piece of music is not juxtaposed one after the other. But, it was also added that, it depends on the piece and sometimes a desk description could be useful to enjoy the musical compositions  in a more complete manner.


The next part of the discussion was a more intimate aspect of humility practiced among performers of all classical Indian music and dance. The tradition of guru shishya parampara (master-disciple tradition) is respected to a very high degree with most performers acknowledging the blessings and knowledge imparted by their gurus. A participant noted that, a particular tradition is observed in new performers that, they acknowledge both the skills and drawbacks of their performance to their guru, while traditionally , it was always as such that the performers acknowledged their calibre towards the blessings of their guru and sought humble apology on their own part for any shortcoming whatsoever occurs in their performance. It was noted as a general agreement between participants coming from diverse cultural backgrounds, that while this could be of considerable cultural courtesy and respect for audience acquainted to Indian culture and the traditions of deep respect for music/dance maestros, it could be a matter of unimportant gesture for many audience who are not familiar with such Indian traditions.


The participants next moved to a on online poll on the questions:

Would you like introduction to classical concerts? Yes/ No.
Would you like a formal introduction? to classical music? at concerts?

As the participants voted on the above poll questions, the discussion moved on to the aspect of the social reception among audiences of different genres of music, namely pop and classical. A participant jibed that for most modern music enthusiasts, appreciating pop music is like asking for a popcorn, without the need of knowing the details of the music or any subject of introduction. Another participant noted through his experience that there is a considerable difference between music reception of pop and classical music, while pop and metal never need an introduction, a music enthusiast also doesn’t get chastised for not knowing the singer in classical.  While in classical, it is a belief that even if you don’t know the singer, subject or music intricacies, it will teach you over the course of time. The participant noted from his experience that in social situations, how it was a matter of surprise for his friends who were pop enthusiasts, that he/she did not know about a popular pop singer. It was added that, classical music enthusiasts don’t generally chastise audiences of other genres, at the same time, some classical music enthusiasts may come across as elitists. To illustrate the social and cultural dynamics of music circle in Germany, a participant said how it was a surprise for his friends for not knowing a particular movie song, it was noted that sometimes, audiences of particular genre of music might paint that genre as universal, while most of the time, classical music enthusiasts might feel left out.

The results of the online poll were discussed with few participants saying that there was a need of a formal introduction in classical music, at least to give a context of the music. This introduction may not be detailed and technical, but a basic overview. One participant noted that he was unable to understand the introduction through emotion. The online stage was open to any response but there was a gradual silence prevailing .Thus, the baithak ended on a open ended note, traversing various important sub-topics on the theme of  introduction like familiarity, cultural biases, personal tastes, intuition, respect for maestros, social reception and behaviour etc.

Dipon Bose
based in Politecnico di Milano, Italy


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